Barry Wynsma's essay on the failure of collaboration struck a nerve in me.
So did Rick Tholen's rebuttal endorsing collaboration's great possibilities.
Long before collaboration was "invented," thousands of people living all over the West were immersed in the public comment phase of the federal forest planning process - collaboration writ large. I was one of them.
How well I remember being filled with hope during the congressionally mandated comment periods that followed release of federal forest plans for several national forests in southern Oregon and northern California: the Siskiyou, Rogue, Umpqua, Winema, Siuslaw, Klamath, and Six Rivers. These forests were the economic backbone for every timber community within 200 miles of Grants Pass, Oregon where we were then living.
Fortunately, the plans were not released for comment all at once because each of them ran more than 2,000 pages and took a week or more to read and understand. They were the first comprehensive forest plans the U.S. Forest Service had ever assembled - comprehensive in the sense that the Forest Service had merged all of its resource planning data into a single report with a beginning and an end - the end being something called the "preferred alternative" for managing the forest for the next decade. Preferred alternatives were thus the sum total of the Forest Service's expert opinion - an opinion it based on weighing its own perceptions of what the public valued against what environmental laws allowed in national forest management.
Although the Forest Service has been engaged in planning its work since the 1920s, when its national forest role was largely custodial, the formalized planning process draws its authority from the 1976 National Forest Management Act. NFMA mandated a more integrated approach to forest management than earlier Forest Service plans that focused on one resource at a time: timber, soil, water, wildlife, grazing and recreation. The 1976 Act also required the Forest Service to involve the public in its planning process.
Public comment periods addressed this latter requirement by giving interested citizens a chance to offer their suggestions or criticisms of the half-dozen or so management alternatives the Forest Service displayed in its respective forest plans, including the agency's "preferred alternative," which was the choice most people supported because they trusted the Forest Service to make the right decision.
Reading a forest plan was a daunting task. I know. I read six of them from cover to cover. Blessedly, they were all written in the same cookie-cutter style, which made reading each succeeding plan a little easier. I had no idea the Forest Service knew so much about the forests in its care. Narratives, divided into sections, were supplemented by hundreds of pages of tables, charts, graphs and maps that illustrated and quantified each forest's ecology, early cultural influences and growing economic significance. Hundreds more pages described each proposed management alternative in great detail.
I remember thinking to myself that no rational person could argue that these plans had been assembled by people who were in the hip pocket of the timber industry. Timber was certainly central to the entire planning discussion, but these reports also held long narratives describing fish, mammal, reptile, amphibian and plant species, including many that could only be seen through a microscope. There were also maps of all kinds: soil type maps, contour maps, road maps, vegetation maps, watershed maps and habitat maps.
My job, as the editor of a small monthly forestry magazine based in Medford, Oregon, was to make sure that civic groups, elected officials, the news media, millworkers and loggers living in southwest Oregon and northern California participated in the congressionally mandated public comment periods. I spoke before countless groups - large and small - and was instrumental in the formation of several grass roots organizations whose combined membership eventually exceeded 100,000.
Mainly, what I did was encourage my audiences to pay close attention to what the Forest Service was saying. They were the experts, but we had a say in which management alternative the Forest Service chose - or so we thought. In hindsight, the West's timber towns - those most dependent on the federal timber sale program - never had a chance. They were outgunned, outspent and outsmarted by urban environmentalists hell-bent on shutting down the very timber sale program that had fueled the nation's suburban expansion after World War II.
If you lived in a western timber town - as hundreds of thousands did - your entire economy turned on the nation's cyclical homebuilding sector, which was, in turn, captive to mortgage interest rates. When homebuilders got a cold, loggers and millworkers got pneumonia. But when homebuilders did well, local sawmills and loggers did well, too, and that meant that business was also good on Main Street.
I walked a lot of miles on Main Street in the 1980s and early 1990s, encouraging businessmen and women to participate in the forest planning process. We reasoned - correctly I think - that their voices had more credibility with the Forest Service and the Congress than the self-serving voices of lumbermen, loggers and their employees. I was never very comfortable with this fact, but I knew it to be true, especially with members of Congress that represented urban voters. Voting power - and thus political power - resides in the suburbs that make up the nation's population centers. The red and blue maps we all see on election night tell this story more graphically than I could ever tell it.
What these maps tell me is that the cultural divide that separates most of America from its rural heritage is growing wider. Fewer and fewer Americans live close to the ground or have any idea where the comforts of their everyday lives come from. Groceries come from Whole Foods, clothes come from Nordstrom and shelter comes from Prudential or some other high toned real estate company that sells you a house - in the suburbs!
If you lived and worked in a rural timber community in the 1980s, you probably supported the Forest Service's preferred management alternatives, which offered sufficient timber for harvest to keep your local sawmills running. But if you lived in the suburbs, you were probably horrified by all of the "logging" you saw night after night on the CBS Evening News - all those god-awful clearcuts that would "never grow back." You wanted the Forest Service to dramatically reduce annual harvesting or perhaps even stop harvesting altogether. Never mind that most of the news reports that emanated from major media outlets were wrong - or purposefully false.
Although the Forest Service steered clear of ever calling these public comment periods a "vote," it was clear to all of us - those who favored logging and those who hated it - that this was a referendum on the Forest Service's past, present and future performance. The Forest Service could declare until the cows came home that the government wasn't "counting votes" but we knew differently. Why else would they be asking for public input?
Did we attempt to influence public opinion in Evergreen Magazine? Damn right we did. We still do. But did we ever lie - as most environmental leaders did daily in the 1980s and 1990s? Not to my knowledge. In fact, we even hired a forester to mine the Forest Service's vast data banks for information we could use. And we footnoted every fact we presented, so that anyone could verify the accuracy of our claims, which emanated from public reports, not industry dogma.
I don't know if the Forest Service counted votes or not, but I do know that the agency complained about the hundreds of thousands of signed check-off cards mailed to them by millworkers and loggers throughout the West. My recollection is that some idiot in the agency said the cards - which had the feel of ballots - did not constitute the kind of "quality input" the Forest Service sought. I also recall that the late Mark Hatfield, Oregon's senior U.S. Senator at the time, went ballistic when he heard what had been said. We were quickly reassured that opinions expressed on check-off cards would be fine.
I no longer remember how many public hearings I attended, but I do remember the night in Roseburg, Oregon when a young logger stepped to the public microphone near midnight to apologetically ask the Forest Service he could speak next because he had to get up at 3 in the morning to get to his logging job by daylight. It was a poignant moment and a never forgotten reminder that the working lives of real people with real families hung in the balance.
In the end, the entire forest planning process was destroyed, first by agenda driven federal judges who refused to recuse themselves from trumped up spotted owl cases they alone decided, and second by the federal government's controversial and ill-advised decision to add the owl to its threatened species list, a decision that to this day has no basis in independent, peer-reviewed science.
The awful truth is that the government isn't interested in having its politically inspired "science" exposed to independent scientific scrutiny. How else to explain the fact that much of the early "evidence" that logging was pushing spotted owls toward extinction was shredded - on government order.
Save for some old issues of Evergreen, maybe 60 boxes of source material and thousands of photographs, I have nothing to show for more than 27 years spent trying to bridge the cultural divide that distances rural from urban America. But I keep trying, which brings me back to theWynsma (Click here) and Tholen (Click here) essays concerning collaboration. (Barry Wynsmaresponded to Rick Tholen.)
Having watched federal judges and environmentalist lawyers twist federal forest regulations into pretzels with no beginning or ending point, I've concluded that collaboration's only chance for success rests in first restoring its public credibility, and second in the Forest Service putting on its big boy pants and telling the public that federal timber is a valuable and vitally important strategic asset that needs to be actively managed using the best tools science provides.
Consensus forestry - collaboration - will not serve this nation's long term economic and environmental interests any better than stewardship contracting. Both are tools the Forest Service can and should use appropriately, but someone needs to make the hard decisions about timber management, and that someone is Forest Service Chief, Tom Tidwell. At the very least, he ought to vigorously pursue third-party forest certification of all federal forests. Let's see if our national forests are being sustainably managed. I frankly doubt it. In some national forests, mortality from insects and diseases now exceeds annual growth - a condition that is not sustainable by any measure.
There is a very good reason why most people who live in rural timber towns no longer waste their time in "scoping" meetings or "collaborative efforts." It is because the process is rigged. If environmentalists participating in "collaboration" don't like the result, they sue with impunity because the law allows them to do it. Win or lose, they can even collect their legal fees from taxpayers. This is ridiculous, insulting and wrong.
Collaboration will only work if Congress first declares that the results of collaboration - the actual plans developed by disparate interest groups working together toward a commonly shared goal - are not subject to judicial review by any court in the land. Thus, the end result of the patience and hard work that collaboration demands is an on-the-ground management prescription the Forest Service can implement without fear of appeal or litigation.
Until Congress bulletproofs collaboration, it risks the same miserable fate as the brilliantly conceived forest planning process that now rests atop history's trash heap.