Partnerships, Roundtables And Quincy-Type Groups
Are Bad Ideas That Cannot Resolve Environmental Conflicts

by Jim Britell

SUMMARY:   Consensus processes are powerful tools, but can artificially manufacture consent and agreements that ordinary political processes are unable to do.

The administration, concerned about what is perceived to be gridlock, endless contention and litigation over the management of National Forests, has embraced a few community based efforts which seem to produce agreement at the local level between formerly contending parties. One such local partnership, the Quincy Library Group (QLG), produced a plan that is about to be made law - it passed the House 429 to one.

While local partnerships are thought by many to provide relatively conflict-free implementation of existing environmental laws, in reality they proceed from a fundamental misreading of the political history of the forest protection movement, misguided ideas about what "gridlock" is and how it arose, and misperceptions of the proper role of forest activists.

In this series I will try to establish that partner-mania is a fruit of Neo-Liberalism, a large and rapidly growing political movement that attempts to avoid inconvenient and unpopular policy responsibilities like environmental laws - it's what you get when you cross "All you need is love" with spreadsheets.

Can Consensus Processes Resolve Environmental Conflicts?

Grassroots forest activists are increasingly drawn into local consensus and partnership processes as the Administration promotes them as a way to find relatively conflict free, win-win solutions to long standing environmental problems. Consensus has clearly emerged as the solution of choice to settle the difficult questions about how and where to conduct continued logging on federal land in the Pacific Northwest. The recent Quincy Library Group (QLG) legislation, which gives the recommendations of one such local consensus group the force of law in Northern California Forests, seems assured of easy passage. Key Congressional leaders of both parties advocate formalizing these relatively experimental processes in upcoming federal forest management legislation.

We now have considerable experience with local consensus-based operations such as the 1989 Section 318 advisory boards, Adaptive Management Areas established by the Clinton Forest Plan, and Province Advisory Boards. In my immediate area approximately 20 new consensus groups have sprung up in the last three years, ranging from watershed councils to economic development boards which implement various aspects of Clinton's Northwest Forest Plan. Locally, it would probably take three people working full time just to serve on all the consensus groups anxious to have an environmental representative.

Consensus processes are extremely powerful tools. Through them one can obtain agreements that are impossible to accomplish in any other way, and create agreements where ordinary political processes are unable to do so. But they can also be used to artificially manufacture the appearance of consent and legitimatize actions which, absent such a process, would be impossible to accomplish.

I have followed the growth of consensus groups with interest for two reasons. First, I have training in the field and a professional interest in the issue. Prior to becoming a forest activist I researched and implemented formal consensus decision making processes for a federal agency and pioneered some early "peaceful uses" of consensus.

Second, due to a geographical coincidence, Federal Forest consensus groups came to Southwest Oregon early, so I have been almost continuously involved with them for 10 years. As a forest activist I served as a member of one Section 318 advisory board, sat in on another, and reviewed all of them in preparation for testimony I gave before a joint Congressional committee reviewing how they worked on the ground. I was the "lead" environmentalist on the Shasta Costa New Perspectives project, a prototype for the Federal Forest consensus process. I also published a "how-to" article about preparing for and conducting "negotiations" with public agencies.

I am not opposed to local consensus processes per se; for certain kinds of problems where public assets are not on the table and the parties do not have large financial interests, they can be extremely productive. But I am concerned that we are moving headlong into adopting unproven new processes that will make long term decisions about the future of our public assets without thinking them through and before thoroughly testing them; and I am especially concerned that forest activists are not well prepared to take on this new role of protecting the public interest by serving as the public's representative and advocate on such groups.

The existing legal and administrative processes that govern federal land management issues like logging, grazing and mining are well understood by grassroots environmental activists. Facts are applied to laws in relatively professional adjudicative settings where the public's rights of participation and appeal are clearly spelled out and are enforceable.

But the world of consensus meetings is much more complex, and once we leave the one world for the other we are on very slippery ground. Successfully appealing timber sales or serving as the President of a local volunteer environmental group is no preparation for serving on local consensus groups and conducting face to face negotiations with people who may be professionally trained negotiators. And unlike traditional activism where everyone's roles are well established, consensus groups present some difficult dilemmas unique to activists as opposed to others in these settings. For example, a timber industry representative has the power to commit his company to a course of action, but no environmentalist can commit the public or the environmental community to any course of action - an activist has a very limited grant of authority.

Additionally, grassroots activists are neither funded nor equipped with the tools to replace the monitoring, enforcement and proper sale preparation that agencies are legally tasked and funded to perform. Nor do we possess the skills and resources to resist the inevitable pressures that even land management agencies have thus far been unable to resist. Activists are generally volunteers, while other people on these groups are paid representatives of business-type organizations. Local environmentalists often do not have the time and resources and ability to advocate the public interest like school boards, timber company associations, woodworkers unions, and local businesses, which often have direct financial interests in the outcome of these decisions.

But the most important problem is that being a decision maker over local specific applications of federal land policy regulations is just not the forest activists' role. As envisioned, proposed "partnership" groups will make decisions and give permission to conduct commodity extraction on public lands. Whistle blowing and detecting improper agency acts are one thing; becoming a policeman, administrator or actual decision maker is altogether different. Right now the forest activists' role is like the citizen patrols who try to keep drug dealers out of their neighborhoods. These patrols have no authority to say, shoot drug dealers or arrest them, and neither are they authorized to permit dealers to work in one area so as to keep another area drug free.

We do not abandon local police departments and turn law enforcement responsibilities over to local Neighborhood watch programs. Forest activists have no right or authority to give anyone permission to cut trees down, or graze an allotment. Public land does not belong to local activists any more than it belongs to the timber industry. Perhaps activists are a little like the volunteer policemen often found in rural police departments: they can give you a ticket for speeding, but are not authorized to give you permission to speed. Judge Dwyer and other federal judges have repeatedly said in their opinions that the agencies have systematically refused to enforce the laws and into this gap grassroots activists have been forced to step to compel the agencies to do what they should have done by themselves. But that is really all activists are able to do.

The apparent successes of a few groups like the Applegate and Quincy Library partnerships in Southern Oregon and Northern California, which are being touted as models, are due to very unique local conditions. There you have always had unusually well qualified professional people in leadership roles in the local environmental organizations, which are also well funded with considerable technical resources. On the other hand, the past successes of most local conservation groups are due to the assistance of regional and national environmental organizations, which have supplied considerable scientific and legal help over the years. The strength of the local group is as the local member of a team that includes regional and national groups. To split off a local group and place it on its own in ambiguous administrative settings where its part time unpaid representative must deal with well paid professionals is a formula for failure.

And what are we to do on the many National forests and millions of acres of public forest and grazing land in other parts of the West that lack even a single resident activist - not to speak of the situation in New England where powerful state wide environmental organizations are completely dominated by people with strong ties to extractive industry. Irrespective of how enamored our legislators are with the Quincy and Applegate partnerships, most grassroots activists reject the legitimacy of many of the so called "grassroots environmental activists" serving on these local boards. We have also seen a pattern of arbitrarily excluding from these partnerships activists who are our most effective, in favor of more tractable and malleable ones.

The Neo-Liberal World View
In addition to these difficult practical problems with consensus groups, there are some larger but little discussed issues and trends shaping the "partnership" movement. "Talk and log" groups have not just suddenly appeared in a vacuum; America's fundamental assumptions about the political decision making process itself are being systematically reshaped by a new political theory called Neo-Liberalism, which aggressively and specifically promotes ideas like local consensus groups. (If people have encountered Neo-liberalism before, it probably was in one of its economic manifestations.)

A central tenet of Neo-Liberalism, a political theory of governmental administration for whom Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich is a leading proponent, is a tendency to view the purpose of government in strictly economic terms, and to ascribe the cause of most problems to market inefficiencies and too little competition. Under this approach all conflict is resolved by using rational, professional problem solving to find win-win, job creating solutions. A defining characteristic of this approach is a reluctance to ascribe the cause of any problem to pervasive and systematic corruption, or to the ability of the rich and the strong to take advantage of the poor and the weak.

Saul Alinsky's World View
This theory is in sharp contrast to what forest activists have learned from decades of experience, a world view best summed up by Saul Alinsky.- probably the 20th century's best grassroots community organizer - who said: "We live in a world of unbelievable deceit and corruption...Giant corporations are unbelievably oppressive and follow a win-lose philosophy.... (and) will go to any length to make more money."

In juxtaposition to the world view of Neo-Liberals where the consideration of corruption and influence peddling is banished to the memory hole, Alinsky's world view was that societal problems often have a strong component of corruption. That view was shaped by living in Chicago in the 30's where Alinsky did his doctoral dissertation on Al Capone's mob during prohibition. He gained a unique first hand glimpse of just how totally corrupt the American system can become. He said of Al Capone, "Forget all that Eliot Ness shit... the Federal Government ...couldn't touch their power...When one of his boys got knocked off there wasn't any city court in session because most of the judges were at the funeral and some of them were pallbearers".

The Clinton Forest Summit Created a Model for Consensus
The Clinton Forest summit established the model for consensus and revealed the enormous chasm between Neo-Liberalism and the activist model at the outset in an incident with historian Kimbark MacColl who had been asked to give the NW conference's opening remarks and to place the conflict over old growth forests in its historical perspective. He intended to say, "The farmer came to settle and improve the land, the timber cutter came to despoil it. ...absentee timber owners simply treated the region as a colony to be exploited. They came to cut and get out." But shortly before the session opened MacColl was asked by Clinton's press secretary to soften his remarks, which he did. MacColl said, "It was the first time I'd ever given an authorized speech." This censoring allowed the President in his introductory remarks, which opened the conference and set the tone, to speak warmly of the timber industry and make such statements as: "...as I've spoken with people in the timber industry, ...I've been impressed by their love of the land." Since MacColl's remarks were scheduled right after the President's they would have created a discordant tone had MacColl been allowed to delivered an uncensored (and honest) historical review.

Many grassroots activists had expected the summit to expose for all the world to see the two key issues underlying what had come to be called "gridlock" or "the war in the woods": the collusion of the timber industry, federal land managers and local politicians in the unraveling of forest ecosystems; and the fact that this forest devastation and unraveling is driven by large corporations externalizing their costs of doing business by. pushing them off on weaker groups like fishermen, small communities and taxpayers. Forest activists would also have liked the President to acknowledge that they had been performing the oversight, monitoring and enforcement of the environmental laws during the Reagan/Bush years - often at considerable cost, and even risk, to themselves.

Clinton's warm and pro-timber opening tone framed the entire conference, and thus the entire problem, on a historically false premise. By painting the timber industry as our friends, and the plight of its workers as the main issue, Clinton allowed the Woodworker's Unions, a longtime shill for corporate timber interests, to introduce a parade of poignant human tragedies allegedly caused by the job destroying impacts of mill closures supposedly due to harsh and insensitive environmental laws. Subsequent investigation revealed that, as usual with these kinds of anecdotal hard luck stories, they were all bogus and had nothing to do with environmental laws at all; the job losses were caused by the deliberate actions of the timber industry in search of profits - exporting mill jobs, failing to reinvest in facilities, exporting raw materials instead of processing locally, etc. - but of course, by that time issue had been positioned in the public mind,.the damage had been done and the conference was over.

If the conference had been organized as an honest search for the truth behind "gridlock", a different cast of characters would have been present. Historians could have explained how a century of timber extraction and devastation has been accompanied and facilitated by political corruption and criminal activity. A federal judge like William Dwyer could have explained what he learned from witnesses under oath, (as opposed to unsupported anecdotes). The "gridlock", as he said in his historic decision, was caused by the agencies systematic refusal to obey the laws.

The historical revisionism seen at the Summit is characteristic of the way the Clinton Administration seeks to address all major environmental policy issues. To take an example, when NAFTA was being debated, the central fact was consistently avoided; Mexican environmental laws necessary to the equitable administration of NAFTA would never be enforced because Mexico is so thoroughly corrupt that environmental laws are essentially meaningless in that country.

Not every public policy issue involves corruption, but an administration which consistently rejects systemic corruption as a policy factor severely cripples its ability to deal with the problems that do come along from time to time which require confrontational action. Unless the land management agencies undergo an epiphany like Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus, and rise up reborn, traditional Alinsky-type activism will continue to be required. We cannot accept the hazy expectation that local citizen enforcement could somehow become an effective protector of the environment.

The essence of the reason why one should not use locals as "enforcers" was summed up in a story by Saul Alinsky. His views were shaped by an incident that occurred while he was working on his doctoral dissertation on Capone's mob during prohibition, and in the process was sort of adopted by them and allowed to freely examine their books and records. One day he noticed that although Capone had 20 hit men on his local payroll, the mob paid $7500 to bring in out of town killers for local hits. He innocently asked Frank Nitti, Capone's top "enforcer" why they wasted their money like this.

Nitti was shocked at Alinsky's ignorance: "Look kid, " he said patiently, "sometimes our guys might know the guy they're hitting, they might have been to his house for dinner, taken his kids to the ball game, been the best man at his wedding, gotten drunk together. ...one of our boys goes up...he knows ...there's gonna be a widow, kids without a father, funerals, weeping - Christ, it'd be murder." Alinsky said Frank was a little disappointed by his even questioning the practice; and thought Alinsky was a bit callous and insensitive.

The common sense insight that outside people are more suitable enforcers has been forgotten as the environmental community becomes increasingly drawn into consensus and partnerships which will supposedly replace, at least partially, the existing "outside" Federal enforcement of national environmental laws with local consensus-based partnerships. Where will the path that replaces effective administration and oversight of our laws with schmoozy consensus groups and phony partnerships eventually lead us? Will we someday see the control of the Statue of Liberty given over a local Staten Island "JOBS 2000 partnership" which closes its meetings to outsiders and designates 50% of its board seats to local scrap iron dealers?

No approach can better serve the needs of trans-national corporations, waging a "take-no-prisoners/win-lose war on the world, than to have its only potential opposition, grassroots social and environmental change activists, adopt a win-win strategy. To adopt consensus based solutions is a sure fire way to eventually turn all the forest activists into what, in Yiddish, are called "nudniks" (from nudge): people who are always trying to get you to do what they want by constantly pestering and annoying you.

©1997 Jim Britell
All rights reserved.
May not be reproduced without permission.

Home | Consulting Services | Biography | Index of Writings | jim@britell.com