The Dangers of Collaboration: Going Deeper in Understanding the Issue

The recent discussion on another thread on this blog re concerns about local collaboration reminded me of this op-ed by Erica Rosenberg on the Dangers of Collaboration in the Christian Science Monitor op-ed a while back. I remember because I wrote a letter to the editor that got published (good) but frankly, writing within the number of word limits for letters to the editor does not add much to dialogue, IMHO.

“After years of being tarred as obstructionist ideologues, some environmental groups now have a seat at the negotiating table. Enjoying their newfound popularity, these self-appointed decisionmakers become heavily invested in reaching an accord, regardless of the science, the law, or the long-term effect on the land.”

It sounds like the author is saying 1) if local environmentalists negotiate with others in local collaborative groups they can be “wrong” (which raises the question in my mind “if national groups negotiate nationally with the Executive Branch, can they be “wrong” also?”), 2) the local groups would know less or care less about the “science”, 3) local people know less or care less about the long-term effect on the land. Caring less about the land seems difficult to understand; isn’t NIMBY a real phenomenon we’ve all experienced? This seems to be a paradox; thus, perhaps, we need to dig deeper.

I would also observe that the unpleasant consequences of the uncertainty related to protracted court decision-making tend to fall entirely on the local people, so that they have a stronger interest in making a decision and moving on. These costs are not borne by national groups, who simply tend to move on to other things, and then show up in the next act of the glacially-paced courtroom drama.

In my experience, local environmental groups usually know more and care more about a particular piece of land and what is being done. Let’s go to Dan Kemmis on this as he is infinitely more articulate than I, in this article Science’s Role in Natural Resource Decisions in the journal “Issues of Science and Technology.”

To add to what Kemmis says, in my experience, local knowledge is valuable in resolving natural resource disputes- because you are arguing about facts, not broad philosophies. I once spoke on a panel (a Festschrift for Gene Namkoong at UBC) with a medical ethicist. He said that while people had strongly held philosophies about what to do with patients and what was right or wrong, when it came to specific cases in the hospital, there was much more agreement. When I taught Environmental Ethics, my text was by Joseph DesJardins Environmental Ethics: an introduction to environmental philosophy.

In the epilogue, (in the third edition) DesJardins talks about his real world experience in dealing with a community environmental problem.
P. 269

No one got what they wanted and neither side “won.” Yet, as one member pointed out, the real winner was democratic citizenship. People came together, argued, debated and eventually found common ground. The compromise “worked” in the sense that most everyone concluded that they could live with it. In a democracy- indeed, in any situation in which diverse perspectives conflict- it is unrealistic, unreasonable and perhaps unfair to expect or desire one side completely to triumph over others. This is, in many ways, the “pragmatic” solution.

DesJardins goes on to discuss the arguments of supporters and critics of “environmental pragmatism.”

So, we could ask, is this ultimately a deep philosophical divide between pragmatists and others?

Is there a feeling that locals (westerners, in the case above, or rural people or ?), can’t quite be trusted to arrive at the “right” conclusions?

When people negotiate to end wars, or for trade agreements, we never talk about there being a “right answer” and a “wrong answer.” We would just like to have the disputes settled and move on. Why are natural resource conflicts on the public lands different, or are they?

Lots of places to go with this one, but I think it is fundamental to our forest planning world and worth exploring.

9 thoughts on “The Dangers of Collaboration: Going Deeper in Understanding the Issue”

  1. These are just the sort of superb questions I hoped would be asked when I wrote the blog piece on collaboration. i think how each of us responds to them would tell each of us a lot about how we think about collaboration.

  2. Sharon,

    This is a worthwhile conversation, especially given the role collaboration is to have in writing the new planning regulations.

    We can debate collaboration—in theory and practice—until the cows come home. If we do so, I think we’ll find that there are multiple legitimate conceptions of democracy and political accountability.

    All too often, those asking tough questions about collaboration and where it belongs vis-à-vis representative democracy, the Rule of Law, and Federal lands are mischaracterized as obstructionists who have yet to see the light. This is irksome, especially if the saved tell over-romanticized stories with no evidence and context.

    I think collaboration lost some of its luster during the Bush II years. This is because key political appointees advocated collaborative approaches as a SUBSTITUTE for prescriptive environmental laws and regulations. So on the one hand, ill-defined collaborative frameworks were espoused while various environmental laws and regulations were simultaneously put on the chopping block.

    This was unfortunate because collaborative approaches have a vital role to play within a larger framework of federal environmental/forestry law. You need, as the saying goes, hammers and olive branches.

    Instead of getting bogged down in all this political theory, my preference (pragmatic to the core) is to focus on real cases and situations where collaboration has worked.

    I can think of several cases the agency should study. Consider, for example, the Montana Forest Restoration Committee and its process.

    It is collaborative, inclusive, pro-active, and operates within a larger legal-planning framework. My hunch is that folks like John Freemuth and Janine Blaeloch (who had an interesting exchange about collaboration, NEPA, and planning last week) would both agree that this is a positive arrangement that should be studied and possibly replicated elsewhere). Exchange at

    I think we might find some agreement on where collaboration works and doesn’t work when we focus on real cases in real places, instead of rewriting the Federalist Papers.


  3. I think that Erica Rosenberg’s plea in “The Dangers of COllaboration” was that we ought to deal with effective framing for collaboration, and beware of selling out our own values in the process or site-specific resolution processes. If folks are so damn mad at the process that they seek a resolution outside the process, in the case the Forest Planning/Management process, then that is likely good feedback that the process may need to be fixed. Whether we are talking about Tester’s bill or say, the Applegate Partnership.

    Although piecemeal resolution via site-specific collaboration efforts with the stamp of approval by law may seem OK to some, I am not one of them. The US Congress has more important work. Maybe the Congress ought to look into holding oversight hearings on the effectiveness and viability of RPA/NFMA, for example.

  4. Well shoot,nothing wrong with folks chatting about the Federalist if thats what they want, no? It might lead to some new never knows.

    As for the question of the larger framework of federal law and prescriptive law, while I am a firm believer in the rule of law, we know that law can be rather ambiguous. I’d suggest that the broohaha over the pending health care legislation may tell us in part that there are a lot of people uncomfortable with..well..prescriptive legislation..right or wrong. I think one reason that the collaborative movement came about is because people thought that the entire universe of federal land law wasnt working for them. This is why what you do suggest, Martin that we ought to consider a PLLRC, appeals to so many, though we know that it is a Sisyphean task at best!

  5. You’re right John, nothing wrong with that debate. I didn’t mean to come across in such a way. I’m just saying that we might find more common ground on collaboration and planning if we used particular cases of success and/or contention for points of reference, like you did in your HCN piece.

    The debate just gets so frustratingly big and complicated so quickly…

    might be constructive to see if we can all agree on cases where collaborative approaches share widespread support…and then figure out why.

  6. Martin-

    I agree with you on the need for dealing with specific cases. However, I think it would be more useful if we tried to look at collaboration that someone thinks DIDN’T work and see if we agree on why or why not. I see many levels of collaboration going by every day with nary a complaint, so it seems like the bad ‘uns are more worthy of dissection and study.

    I think it would be helpful if folks on this blog could come up with a “collaborative approach” that they don’t like and be specific WHAT they don’t like about the process and/or the outcome. I think clearly defining what they don’t like and separating the process and the outcome will be helpful clarifications.

    So I would like to go to the specifics of the original article:

    “Even the most inclusive collaboration can go bad: Outliers who pose a threat to consensus are either not invited or made to feel unwelcome. And, ultimately, decisions are being made behind closed doors.”

    My experience has been that most national issues are resolved behind closed doors, with one set of participants in an R administration, and another set of participants in a D administration. But that’s what we get when we elect a President- they get their way more or less for a while (Martin- hope I haven’t wandered into Federalist Paper country again ;)).

    An exception was the RACNAC for the state roadless petitions, which was a kind of collaborative group where a variety of participants were at the table.
    But it is of interest that some groups (100s- see link below) who wrote a letter to the Secretary were not for a formal collaborative group representing different interests, but rather a “Committee of Scientists”. So it is OK for many interests to not be “at the table” if there is a “committee of scientists” for a national rule, but if some groups are left out of a local discussion, that is bad?

    I am not clear on the logic of this comparison, and it appears to be holding local decisions to higher collaborative standards than national decisions. As I said once, we often do more formal collaboration on a 300 acre fuels treatment project than we have done for many national rules. The Black Hills National Forest has an advisory FACA committee.

    I must not be understanding some nuances- please enlighten me!

    Dave- I completely agree with you that people “giving up on the process” as per the Beaverhead is sending a message. If those of you who know the individuals involved could ask them to post why they did it, and why they were frustrated with the current system, on this blog or somewhere else, that could help move this discussion forward.

    However, when it comes to approaches to change human behavior (like “beware of selling out”), I tend to try to learn from theologians and other spiritual folks. They have been working this for thousands of years, some would say without much success, since people are still lying, killing, stealing etc.
    Anyway here’s what Paul Ricoeur said about preaching in general.
    ““People are changed, not by ethical urging, but by transformed imagination.”
    Just sayin’.

  7. I think we need to remember that some of what Sharon talks about here happens because, for good or ill, people act strategically…..and inconsistently. Hence, some think a committee of scientists advantages their values (what they want to happen), so they oppose more collaboration (more people brought in), whereas a local collaborative disadvantages their values so they want more people brought in (ie them).

  8. Yes, John, I just wanted to dig deeper with specific examples, and factor in such things as self-interest. I’m planning another post around this topic.


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