Critique of forest collaboratives in Oregon

The latest informal assessment gives them mixed reviews.

It lead me to take a quick look at the CEQ guidance for collaboration during NEPA (2007).  I don’t find that it makes a great case for collaboration between federal agencies and the public.  It is more directly aimed at interagency collaboration, where the authorities are more clear and positions more equal than those for the general public.

While the guidance suggests that the same principles could apply to the general public, its warnings for when to not collaborate seem likely to apply in the cases where we want to think of it as an alternative to litigation:

Parties have little motivation to collaborate if they believe they have better ways to achieve their interests. If a party believes it can achieve its goals through unilateral action, the courts, or the legislature, it might not be motivated to collaborate with others.

The specific situation the CEQ guidance applies to is “where an agency engages other governmental entities and/or a balanced set of affected and interested parties…”  Who gets to determine “balance” and based on what criteria?

I’d like to make a distinction (that CEQ didn’t make) between ‘collaborative groups’ and collaboration with such groups by the government.  The former would always be a good thing, and it would be reasonable for an agency to pay more attention in the NEPA process to (what it perceives as) a balanced collaborative group’s recommendations (for purpose and need, proposed action, alternatives that respond to environmental impacts, and even the preferred alternative) than for single-interest groups.  But for agency to give them preferential treatment, by collaborating with them, and not others, is asking for trouble (from NEPA and FACA at least). Some of the forest plan collaboration going on seems more like that.


12 thoughts on “Critique of forest collaboratives in Oregon”

  1. Thanks for the post John-
    I think the CEQ guidance for collaboration “during” NEPA (2007) says it all in regard to the CEQs intent in that document. I will, but haven’t yet, read the Oregon study you posted. Just thought I’d highlight the differing objectives from the outset. Collaboration between private/federal “during” NEPA would rather defeat the purpose, and would certainly run into FACA issues as the decision is reserved to the federal agency. As to avoiding litigation, I really don’t think that anyone who truly understands the strengths of collaboration sees it as a useful tool to head off litigation on a per project basis. Anyone that does is either full of BS, or trying to abuse the process. It’s greatest strength is just that … It’s a process. And as such, over time, can be a very useful tool to confront what the literature calls “wicked” problems by allowing people to honestly communicate face to face rather than continuing to hurl insults at one another. It’s easier to call someone names and cast specious assertions when you don’t have to look at them across the table and risk being called out by others.

  2. Humility and respect are perhaps two of the most important ingredients to any government-public engagement. The most “wicked” problems are value-based, especially when they are paradoxical (more than one “right” answer). My experience has been that collaboration and dialog among interested parties in an inclusive environment are the only meaningful tools to address these wicked problems, seeking a durable (and perhaps desirable) outcome.

  3. After reading the article, it seems business is unfortunately proceeding as usual. The article primarily focuses on two groups. League of Wilderness Defenders, Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project (LOWD-BMBP) and Oregon Wild. For my M.S. — I did a content analysis of comments submitted to the FS in regard to projects sponsored by four regional CFLR Programs. The Deschutes was one of the four. From this, I got a pretty good feel for who was participating in good faith, and who was participating as a form of what I called “institutional protest.” IMHO, Ms. Coulter is wields the environmental laws as a labor protester wields a picket sign. Further, I found no evidence in my analysis that Ms. Coulter has “mainly been a part of collaboratives in the Ochoco and other national forests east of Bend” as is stated in the article. Conversely, I found abundant evidence that Doug Heikken of Oregon Wild had been participating in good faith. To get a feel for what I mean, what follows are direct quotes I pulled from the administrative comments from Ms. Coulter and Mr. Heikken. The reader should be able to readily discern that the two different approaches model what I was saying in my comment above. Ms. Coulter’s comments to the FS are often nasty (Dick Artley style), and seldom evidence based. Mr. Heineken, on the other hand, sticks to the scientific evidence, even though often he disagrees with the agency on certain actions. A sample of both beginning with Karen Coulter:
    ***”The Ursus project is nothing more than a thinly veiled timber grab– Probably having more to do with the forest service allowing an outdated timber rotation cycle and searching for a public relations rationale to justify heavy logging and clearcutting than any real need to log.”
    ***”The forest service has apparently lost its moral and ecological compass and is no longer concerned about maintaining a functioning, biodiverse ecosystem. We care about protecting ecological integrity in biodiversity and will oppose this timber sale accordingly as it fails to do this.”
    ***The forest service apparently wants to heavily log every last inch of available forest land no matter what the consequences too rare, listed, and management indicator species; recreational values; drinking water; carbon storage, or any other ecological or public value beyond short-term economic gain for local mills and theoretical contrived fire protection services for inholding often wealthy residential development.”
    ***”The West Bend timber sale is a public relations-orchestrated travesty that also gives us no hope for a good outcome.”
    ***”Maybe forest service staff need to get out more themselves and really get to know these “public” lands that should be managed for public enjoyment not private economic gain. There will be no real “after photos” –this is all public relations ploys to systematically destroy our public forests. It’s not that we don’t “understand” what the forest services doing; it’s that before service doesn’t really care what we think or feel about it but has to go through the motions as if they do.” (Internal quotes in the original)

    Contrast Doug Heikken:
    ***”We respectfully request a further analysis of roads and units to see if a significant portion of the new road construction can be avoided.”
    ***”Please consider applying the dry forest restoration concepts cooperatively developed by Tim Lillebo and the Sisters District of the Deschutes National Forest and described in the attached “Tim’s RX 2″ document.”
    ***”Don’t waste too much effort restoring forest structure when doing so will require continuous expenditure of money and effort tomaintain. Use scarce resources efficiently by striving to restore ecological processes that can be self-sustaining. Recognize that insectsand disease are natural ecological processes that actually help improve landscape diversity.”
    ***”Use the historic range of variability as a guide, but don’t just focus on seral stage. Consider also the historic abundance of ecological attributes like large trees, large snags, the scale and distribution of patches of dense forest, roadless areas, etc. all of which have been severely reduced from historic norms.”

    Now, am I saying “all” of Karen Coulter’s comments fit the foregoing mold? No. Have I cherry picked some of them? Yes. But the difference being, one never ever sees those types of comments coming from environmental groups that are engaged in collaboration. It seems both sides have learned that they can agree to disagree, and do so respectfully by using evidence based arguments.”

    Thus, what is new when K. Coulter states in the article “… the undersigned organizations and individuals have found that most collaborative groups stopped working toward common ground with biocentric, more ecologically protective groups, and no longer operate by full consensus.” Is not the converse of this statement also true? Maybe more true, because the biocentric groups didn’t have to move toward common ground because they can much more effectively use the courts as a form of institutional protest.
    It’s a PR game, which I fear, if continued too long, Congress will put a stop to by revoking the causes of action. Classic “cutting the the nose off to spite the face.”

    • Hi Eric, Interesting stuff.

      It’s curious to me that you seem to focus a lot on a person’s particular communication style. Well, really, that’s not true, because the style-critque only seems to apply to a certain group of enviros.

      Have you ever uncovered “Karen Colter/Dick Artley-style” comments coming from the timber industry? Local/county politicians? How about Congress people and Senators? What about the local ‘wise-use’ community? If so, why don’t you highlight the style of their comments as well?

      For whatever it’s worth, I personally will say whatever I mean right to anyone’s face, or in an on-line comment. Makes no difference to me. Also, when it comes to the management of America’s federal public lands, how do you propose to effectively and efficiently get the owners of these national forests around the table? And who pays for that to happen? Doesn’t such a system (no matter how well-intentioned) just ensure that America’s public lands decisions are made by people/groups/industries that can afford to send people to thousands and thousands of meetings annually?

      Seems to me the NEPA system works pretty well…especially given some significant problems with some of the ‘solutions’ being offered up.

      Also, if anyone is interested in truly learning more about Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project, they should check out:

      Maybe better yet, check out this short video featuring Karen Colter, where she just spews totally crazy, radical concepts that BMBP adheres to…such as trying to ground truth and field check every single timber sale unit of every single USFS timber sale they submit comments on.

      Finally, thanks for writing this Eric:

      “As to avoiding litigation, I really don’t think that anyone who truly understands the strengths of collaboration sees it as a useful tool to head off litigation on a per project basis. Anyone that does is either full of BS, or trying to abuse the process.”

      It pretty much sums up a huge problem with most all of the so-called ‘collaborations’ in Montana.

      I hear a lot of talk about the ‘abuse’ of the NEPA process. It’s nice to know that some people are waking up to the tremendous (and potentially very egregious) abuses of the ‘collaborative’ process.

      • Hi Matthew-
        My short answer for not addressing many of our questions is two fold. First, my study only provided evidence of what I studied — which was evidence from administrative comments on FS projects indicating why environmental interest groups in the northwest choose whether or not to collaborate. Second, I’m sitting for the Idaho bar exam in a little over two weeks and only have little slivers of time to devote to much of anything else. I thought John’s post was thought provoking, so I contributed my opinion and some evidence reinforcing my opinion that I have within my grasp. Because the article posted dealt directly with Karen Coulter and Doug Heikken, and I had evidence of their views, I posted on it so that others may consider it in their evaluations of the article.

        This is not to say that your questions are not relevant. They certainly are. But personally, I have no direct evidence to address them. My ‘feeling’ on the matter — which I think you correctly observed — is that I tire of people trying to use a legitimately useful process to score political points. Those of us who do truly care about both the health of our natural environment, and of the communities that rely on the health of that same environment, are truly confronted by a “wicked problem.” There are no easy solutions, and the solutions only get harder the longer both sides try to win. There is no winning. The only result so far is long years of stalemate and ever increasing resentment. I admire those who realize this and are willing to drop the gloves in a good faith effort at collaboration. Again, my ‘feeling’ is that Karen Coulter is not to be counted among them, whereas, Doug Heikken is. I could be wrong, and am open to being proven so.

        • Thanks for sharing some additional thoughts and perspectives. So, when the timber industry, local/county/federal politicians or ‘wise-use’ types go after Oregon Wild and/or Doug Heiken with the same type of comments/critiques you direct at Karen Coulter (which they have in the past, and likely will continue to do in the future), what should we think?

          Anyway, I hope people do view that short video featuring Coulter and the tremendous effort and work BMBP puts in to actually getting on the ground and conducting fairly significant field surveys of every single logging unit of every single timber sale they comment on. Does anyone know of any group in the country that does more on-the-ground field work (with very few resources/staff, etc) than Blue Mountains Biodiversity Project? I would hope that people could commend Coulter and BMBP for taking such a tremendous on-the-ground look at proposed timber sales, rather than concerning themselves with the ‘style’ of their NEPA comments, or if Coulter managed to make it to every single ‘East Side’ ‘collaborative’ meeting.

          Honestly, I fail to see how having a bunch of well-paid, ‘Yes men & women’ from big conservation groups, the timber industry, local politicians and the USFS sitting around a table and ‘collaborating’ produces a better timber sale than what Coulter and BMBP are engaged in, but oh well.

          Good luck on your bar exam…sounds painful.

          • Thanks Matthew-
            Please don’t get me wrong. I truly value the work that you, Karen, Gary M., Mike G. and Sarah among many others do. I think the entire environmental movement in the west would have been steamrolled long ago without those efforts. I am steadfastly against losing your perspective in the debate. But it is precisely the ‘style’ of debate used on occasion that I feel jeopardizes these groups continued standing in the debate. That’s what I meant by the “cutting off the nose to spite the face” comment. I worry that over-reach — the use of the courts as a form of institutional protest — will eventually face Congressional backlash, and I do not EVER want to see our environmental laws get watered down or eliminated.

            I also understand your legitimate complaints about some aspects of the collaborative process. But because some bad actors exist, does not necessarily imply the baby has to be thrown out with the bathwater. I understand that as nonprofits these groups do a tremendous amount of good with limited resources. However, I also understand that the groups are very well networked and have a loyal and energetic constituency. I think, maybe hope, that that loyalty and energy could be brought to bear upon these collaborative meetings. They are open to the public. While you, or say Karen, might not be able to attend them all, someone — or several, very large groups of someone’s for important meetings — could attend with a little organization and outreach and impress your views upon the agency. Protest at the collaborative level … not the judicial level.

            And in regard to the corporate yes men and politicians, we know their function. One group is paid the other is rewarded by those that pay. Welcome to America. Negotiation is a cut throat business. Thus, the added importance of having a your voices in the negotiation, no matter how frustrating or difficult. Then, if everything breaks down, use the stick of litigation. Not before. This only adds credibility in the eyes of the court.

            I strive to be a voice in the middle of all this madness Matthew. I think you do too. I’ve seen it from both you and Jake. And I appreciate your willingness to politely (if not sometimes snarkily, but hey, I’m guilty too) and reasonably defend your positions. That’s where it starts. We both know we won’t get everything we want. But we have to try in good faith, even if others do not.

            Thank you for the ups on the exam. And on that note … back to the painful :-/

  4. Gosh, you guys seem so reasonable. My viewpoint from Southern Oregon is a little different, though I try to be reasonable too.
    After the Northwest Forest Plan went into effect our access to federal timber basically ended. On the Westside here almost all the federal forests are off limits to timber harvest. It’s not like the environmentalists won a little, they won it all.
    To hear them wine that the FS is rolling over for the timber industry just isn’t true. The only timber sales happening are small diameter thinnings in young stands and a very little salvage of the vast areas that have burned.
    I have seen some great efforts put out by the FS to collaborate with interested parties to be able to sell small amounts of timber without ending up in court.
    My opinion of most environmental groups is they want no timber harvest, especially on public land.
    It makes it difficult to find common ground.

  5. Sorry to be a distraction, Eric (been there).

    What could be bad about collaboration? I had two points. One is that it should not be used in a coercive manner. The other is that it should not violate laws designed to protect public participation in government. I think the Forest Service will have trouble walking both of those lines.

    I agree with Tony that, “collaboration and dialog among interested parties in an inclusive environment” can be useful. Not so useful when the parties have values that make the environment seem hostile (such as no timber harvest). I don’t think passing a law to force them to collaborate makes a lot of sense. (Participation in the NEPA process is already required for standing to sue.)

    I agree with Eric that viewing collaboration as a substitute for litigation is misguided. Rep. Zinke’s proposed legislation puts him in that camp. (Could it be that he is full of BS?)

    I don’t think the comparison of Coulter and Hiekken is as much about “communication style” (Matthew) as it is about “types of comments coming from environmental groups that are engaged in collaboration” (Eric). Long-term commitment to engage with your adversaries might affect communication styles. But I don’t think it solves the values problem.

    Which brings me back to forest planning. I think that is a better forum for discussing whether timber harvest should be allowed in specific areas or circumstances than trying to stop a specific project in an area previously deemed suitable for timber production. Even a plan with zero acres suitable for timber production may be a reasonable alternative to consider, or even adopt. The Forest Service should welcome this discussion.

    Today’s Missoulian had another view from the environmental side:

    • Thanks for the thoughts on the usefulness of collaboration at the planning level. Something I had not specifically considered in the context of your post, but have participated in during the most recent update to the ClearNez NF.

      I know during that process, what was deemed collaboration did not conform to anything resembling commonly accepted definitions of what collaboration is supposed to be. A participatory process, sure. Collaboration? Not so much. Criticisms I’ve come across generally speak to the fact that the process was too – for lack of a better word – diffuse. So much input was given, across such a wide variety of issues, that the agency’s characterization of the input was nearly unrecognizable by anyone who had participated. Watered down. This seems in line with most actions that come straight from an S.O. A better approach in my mind would be to have the actual forest plan collaboration take place at the district level over a longer period of time, weeding out issues where there is substantive agreement, and narrowing down to the real controversies taking place at the local level. Then, the districts submit their plans to the S.O. where the public would again be able to comment on the larger quilt (forest level) that is stitched together from the local (district) plans that have been collaboratively developed.

      That said, I agree with you. The planning level does seem more ideally suited to working out the issues so everyone is on the same page prior to project implementation.

  6. I’m not sure I understand the mastodon comment, but bottom-up planning makes me think of the blind men and the elephant. I think it is important to decide what you want the broader scale quilt to look like first. And based on my experience with wide-ranging species, the quilt needs to be appropriate for the room and the house. It’s important to know how particular areas contribute to the bigger picture – and that decisions about what they contribute not be made based just on local priorities.


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