But some environmental watchdogs, wilderness specialists, and academics worry that the [collaborative] approach is also setting dangerous precedents. In their pursuit of land preservation and wilderness, critics charge, environmental groups frequently horse-trade inappropriately with the public’s lands—shutting out dissent, undercutting their conservation mission, and even eroding bedrock environmental laws….
And why not? “Collaboration” sounds great. It suggests consensus and compromise—the idea that everyone will be heard and their ideas made part of the finished product. But as George Nickas, executive director of Wilderness Watch, has said, compromise sometimes means “three wolves and a sheep talking about what’s for dinner.”
In short, whether collaboration is a good thing or not depends a lot on where you stand—and what you stand to gain. A 2013 study found that the groups most likely to collaborate are large, professional environmental organizations that often represent diverse agendas. According to Caitlin Burke, a forestry expert in North Carolina who has studied collaborations, if such trends continue, “we will see a marginalization of smaller, ideologically pure environmental groups [whose] values will not be included in decision making because they are unable or unwilling to collaborate.” ….
Despite appearances, collaborations are undemocratic, argue critics like Gary Macfarlane of Friends of the Clearwater, an environmental group in northern Idaho. The public already has a process for how changes can be made to our public lands, Macfarlane says: the 1969 National Environmental Policy Act. Macfarlane describes it as “a law that tells federal agencies to look before you leap” and says you have to allow all interested parties to participate. The act also mandates that the best available science be considered. Collaborations don’t have to do that, says Randi Spivak, director of the public-lands program for the Center for Biological Diversity.
Then there are the concerns about wilderness. Designation of new wilderness areas has often been a centerpiece of collaborations over the past 15 years. But in order to push wilderness through, the big environmental groups have been willing to make sometimes disturbing compromises, critics say—even to the Wilderness Act itself.
Compromise has long been a central part of wilderness politics, of course. The 1964 Wilderness Act took eight years and 65 bills to become law, and the final act grandfathered in some grazing and mining. But the old compromises were largely about boundaries—what’s in and what’s out. The new deals embrace a more insidious type of compromise, not just about where wilderness will be, but also about how it will be managed.
“Our fear is that some conservation groups look at the 1964 act as the place to begin a new round of compromises,” says Martin Nie. That shift, he adds, “could threaten the integrity of the system.”
In collaborative efforts, large conservation groups that badly want to protect wilderness must deal with groups that sometimes loathe the idea, so conservationists increasingly feel pressure to make wilderness more palatable to opponents—and that means watering it down, says critic Chris Barns, a longtime wilderness expert who recently retired from the BLM.
The number of special provisions—exceptions added to a wilderness bill, almost always leading to more human impact—has increased in the past several years, according to a 2010 study in the International Journal of Wilderness. The Lincoln County deal was saddled with a raft of such provisions. The Owyhee deal, given a thumbs-up by such groups as Pew and the Wilderness Society, lets ranchers corral cattle using motorized vehicles, which is supposed to be forbidden in wilderness. The result of such compromises, Barns and others say, are areas known as WINOs—”wilderness in name only.”
Another problem with these exceptions is that they become boilerplate for future bills, Barns says. A provision that first appeared in 1980 has since turned up in more than two dozen wilderness laws. Such changes might seem small, says Barns, but they erode, bit by bit, America’s last wild places….
This new Outside Magazine article is a must read for those who love America’s public lands and Wilderness legacy and are worried about recent ‘collaborative’ efforts that weaken, undercut and compromise that legacy. Below are some highlights: