Interview of George Wuerthner ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is George Wuerthner. He’s the former Ecological Projects Director for the Foundation for Deep Ecology. He is an ecologist and wildlands activist. He has published 38 books on environmental issues and natural history including such environmentally focused books as Welfare Ranching, Wildfire, Thrillcraft, Energy, and most recently Protecting the Wild. Today we talk about the dangers of collaboration.

So as always, George, thank you for your work, and thank you for being on the program.

GW: I’m glad to be here, Derrick. Thanks for having me.

DJ: So what do you mean by “collaboration” and what do you mean by “dangers of collaboration”?

GW: Okay. It has become a common practice throughout the West; I don’t know whether this is happening in other areas, but certainly in the West; for groups to get together to work out resource conflicts on public lands. And this includes primarily BLM and Forest Service land, not so much National Park Service or Fish and Wildlife Service. And the idea behind it is you get together with a bunch of people in a room and meet, often for years, to discuss management issues on that particular landscape. Sometimes it’ll be a singular national forest, sometimes it’s a larger area. For example in Montana there’s a collaborative called the Southwest Crown of the Continent that takes in several national forests, the Flathead National Forest and the Lolo National Forest and portions of the Helena National Forest. So it wraps around a larger area. And others that I’m familiar with, like the Deschutes collaborative, which focuses on the Deschutes National Forest alone in Oregon.

These collaboratives then get together and try to come up with agreements about management on the public lands, which they then forward or give to the managing agencies, for example the Deschutes National Forest if it was the Deschutes collaborative, and ask that they implement the recommendations. The problem with collaboratives, and there are quite a few that I’ll articulate here hopefully, but part of the problem with the collaboratives is that, for one thing, they subvert public participation in general. You have a small group of people who are self-assigned, so to speak, to speak for everyone else and come up with these recommendations. And one of the problems with the design, it’s sort of an institutional problem, is that, as I mentioned, they meet often for years, and frequently several times a month, and that becomes impossible for most citizens to participate. Generally collaboratives like to promote the idea that they’re open to participation by anybody, but realistically very few people can participate over the time period that’s required unless they are paid to be there. And the people that are paid to be there are often people who have a vested financial interest in the outcome. So for example on the Deschutes National Forest Collaborative, it’s heavily weighted towards things like representatives from timber companies; foresters who work for various county, state and national agencies; and I say they have a vested interest because they usually are discussing logging on the national forest, and if you’re a forester, your job requires that there be logging.

And then there will often be other participants who are sympathetic to logging, for example county commissioners and the like. Then what happens is the representation by what I would call conservation interests is usually limited to a few individuals, and mostly that tends to be people who I would characterize in two ways. One, they tend to work for the larger environmental groups, and I use the word “environmental” loosely – for example, the Nature Conservancy – that are sympathetic to timber interests and so forth. And the other part is that even when they do represent groups that might be less sympathetic to the timber agenda in general, still, the people who wind up participating are people who are sympathetic to the collaborative process, which means that it becomes more important to them that they reach an agreement than what the agreement actually means or does for land on the ground. And what I’ve seen happen a lot of times is that if you read or see interviews with people who are involved in collaboratives, they make a big deal about “Oh well, I can sit down with the owner of this timber company and have a beer.” As if that’s the most important thing that happens in a collaborative, rather than “I stood up for protecting wilderness” or “I stood up for protecting grizzly bears” or something like that. That is not seen as the primary goal or purpose of the participants in the collaboratives.

The other problem with the institutional process of collaboratives is that they start out with certain assumptions, which basically, in order to participate, you have to agree with. For example, the Deschutes Collaborative in Oregon has started out with the assumption that our national forests are sick and need to be fixed, and the way to fix them is to log them. Well, if you want to challenge that starting assumption; let’s step back and challenge it and say “Well, are the forests really sick? And how are you defining that?” Then you won’t get anywhere with a collaborative because they’ve already established that as their starting point. So that’s another problem with the collaboratives. And by the way, I’ve been briefly involved with collaboratives that deal with livestock grazing on public lands and it’s the same thing there, too. For example, it’s not a question of whether these lands should be grazed and what are the impacts of livestock, does it make sense to graze these lands? You’ve already started with the assumption that they will be grazed. And maybe they get around to talking about well, how are we going to graze it and maybe reduce some of the impacts? That might be the starting point. But in a lot of cases, one should be asking whether they should be grazed at all? And that’s not a question that’s permitted to be discussed, or raised.

So what happens, then, is you get groups involved in this, particularly the environmental community, and after awhile, I mean if you’ve spent two or three years of your life going to collaborative meetings, you certainly don’t want to say that what the end result is was a waste of time. So it’s what I call “the collaborative trap.” You wind up endorsing things that are probably not in the best interests of the public and not in the best interests of wildlife and wildlands that are on these public lands. So the collaboration becomes a greenwashing in a way. The average member of the public who’s reading about, say, the Deschutes Collaborative or the Gallatin Forest Partnership in the papers believes that the environmental groups are, first of all, representing their interests, and they’re grossly outnumbered even if they were representing the interests of the citizen. But beyond that, the average person figures that it must be a good thing that they came up with these decisions because they worked it out between all these different groups.

So I’ll give you an example of one. I just mentioned the Gallatin Forest Partnership is a group of individuals who got together to discuss what would happen to the Gallatin Range, which is the last unprotected roadless area in the northern Greater Yellowstone ecosystem, and, one could argue, one of the last, most important wildlands that’s left unprotected in the lower 48 states. The Gallatin Range runs from Bozeman, Montana south to Yellowstone Park and into Yellowstone Park. And this Gallatin collaborative met for a number of years and came out recently with its own recommendations for dividing up the Gallatin Range into various users. It often comes down to this “We’re going to divide up the landscape,” where places could be logged, where places might be used by ATV’s and snowmobiles, where mountain bikes might be allowed, etc. So, for example, using the Gallatin Range, the roadless area is about 230,000 acres. As I mentioned before, some of this is very important wildlife habitat. In particular, the lower elevation areas are critical for animals like grizzly bears, elk migration, potentially bison restoration, wolverine movement, etc. And yet most of the lower elevation of the Gallatin Range was recommended for some other management status other than wilderness by the Gallatin Forest collaborative. That is particularly destructive, because we’ve learned over the years that we mostly have ice and rock recommended for wilderness. And we’re doing the same thing again. And yet the most important lower elevation terrain, specifically one area called the Buffalo Horn-Porcupine drainages, is some of the best unprotected wildlife habitat in the entire northern Greater Yellowstone, and it was allotted primarily to mountain biking use. Another area called the West Pine area, West Pine drainage, also important lower elevation wildlife habitat, was also allotted to mountain biking. And that’s because the Gallatin Forest collaborative, partnership had representation by five mountain biking groups, and then the other participants included the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Wilderness Society, and the Montana Wilderness Association. And if you didn’t know better, you would presume that those groups would have been advocating for wilderness for the entire 230,000 acres. But in fact, because they’re part of this collaborative, they felt like, in fact they even say so in some of their opinion pieces, that all these different users have a right to that landscape, instead of saying “Well, what is the best use of this landscape?” And the best use of that landscape is protecting wildlands and wildlife habitat and wildlife use, not necessarily protecting recreational users. And that’s the problem that I see in these collaboratives and that’s a good example.

DJ: One minor point before I tell a story or two. The minor point is: So when you say “collaboration” you’re using a very specific definition. You’re not talking about, I dunno, Deep Green Resistance, working with Buffalo Field Campaign; or various environmental organizations working together to – like, there were a bunch of different organizations who worked together to help shut down logging on a lot of the five; North Idaho, eastern Washington, western Montana; national forests back in the 90’s. And these were environmental organizations collaborating with each other, and I want to make clear to the listeners that that’s not really what you’re talking about, a sort of cross-pollination between environmental groups, but instead this other process that ends up being greenwashing.

GW: Exactly. And as I tried to point out, a lot of these collaboratives are dominated by people who have a vested financial interest in the outcome. And I think, right away that should send out cautionary signals to people. To my mind, it’s almost unethical that a timber company can participate in any kind of decision-making regarding what happens to forests on public lands, or that ranchers should be allowed to participate in any kind of decision-making that dictates what happens to rangelands and public grazing; I hate to use the term “public grazing land” but lands that are grazed by livestock. That’s a conflict of interest and certainly seems inappropriate, yet a lot of these collaboratives actually go out of their way to recruit representation from various interest groups, ATV’s being another one.

For example, the mountain biking collaborators in this Gallatin Range Forest collaboration included a number of mountain bike shop owners. And they have an obvious interest in promoting more mountain biking in the Gallatin Range. To me, that should be a non-starter. These people should not be allowed to participate at all, because they have this financial interest in expanding whatever it is they’re an advocate for.

DJ: I’m going to say a few words that perhaps will give you some flashbacks and some nightmares, and I’m sorry for that. I believe it was called the Quincy Library Group? Part of the problem with this is just as you said a moment ago, the Wilderness Society has signed on, so it’s obviously great. The Quincy Library Group, or whatever the actual name was, was a group in California that met at the Quincy Library. And it was really pushed hard by all the corporate newspapers. “All these environmentalists are signing on to this wonderful project.” But the thing was just – it absolutely pushed logging, and it ended up being – I mean, the primary purpose of the collaborative process, and I don’t think this is an unfair generalization to make, but one of the primary purposes of these collaborative processes is to act as propaganda tools to allow the corporate newspapers or corporate news outlets or the timber industry themselves to say “Look, we dealt with the environmentalists, this all was everybody coming together, everybody had to give a little bit, and now we have this great solution.” Unfortunately, the ones who end up not represented in this, as you’ve made very clear, are the wolverines, are the fishers, are the trees themselves. It was nothing more nor less than a big propaganda effort. That one was, at least.

GW: Yes. And what happens often with this, as I alluded to earlier, is that the people who are chosen to represent the “environmental position” on these collaboratives are, I would say they often suffer from the Stockholm syndrome. In other words, after they’ve gone to meetings for two years, they’re more interested in being buddies with the other collaborators in the group than in taking a position that won’t be liked by the rest of the group. And it’s hard. That is a difficult situation to be put in, to be the odd person out who is always calling proposals out on the carpet.

The other problem you have; and I’ve participated in five or six different collaboratives to one degree or another, sometimes only attending a couple of meetings, sometimes more than that; but if I want to voice my opinion – let’s say I’m at a collaborative meeting and there are 25 people there and you’re meeting for four hours. At best, I might be able to speak up and make one or two comments, because everybody of course has to have an equal voice in the collaboration, even though maybe out of the 25 people that are there, 24 or 23 of them all agree on the basic premise that I’m trying to call into question. So you’re grossly outnumbered, and to suggest that that gives a fair representation to a diversity of interests is often misleading.

Another problem, too, is that sometimes there’s an unwillingness, because of the institutional paradigm that they operate under, to listen to other voices. For example, I participated in the Deschutes collaborative on and off here in Bend, Oregon; and a number of times I wanted to try to get some other fire ecologists – a lot of the discussion had to do with fire ecology and what to do about wildfires in the forest. Of course the “solution” was to do a lot more logging. But I tried to get some other ecologists to come, and the collaborative agreed that they would allow another fire ecologist or two to come, but they would only give them 15 minutes to give a presentation. And this is for somebody who might be coming from Colorado, or other parts of Oregon. Basically having to spend a day or two to arrive. It’s almost insulting to say “Okay, we’re only going to give you 15 minutes to give your presentation.” Meanwhile, local other scientists that support the collaborative’s premises, you know, can go on for two hours or more at a meeting and multiple times and that’s fine. And the only reason they’d agreed to even let these other people come was so they could give the appearance of being open to other ideas.

So that’s one of the other troubling things about collaboratives, that when you have this paradigm that most people support, they’re not going to be open to other ideas. I would say that’s sort of natural, human nature, fine. But you have to recognize that’s one of the problems with collaboratives, is they start out with a certain paradigm, an industrial forestry paradigm, or the industrial livestock grazing paradigm, and they’re not really open to discussing anything other than what fits within that paradigm, which usually means more logging and more grazing.

DJ: I have a friend up in Washington State who is a fierce advocate for wild rivers, for water, and a fierce opponent of the presence of dams and the construction of new dams. And because she’s an expert in the area, she was asked to participate in a collaborative process about some new dams that are proposed for the Yakima. She participated in the collaborative process for a little while and was finding exactly all the things that you’re saying; that the whole purpose of this thing was to put out a preset agenda and have people sign on to this agenda, that would be to build more dams. And she was never going to sign on to that. And the moment she quit the collaborative was not merely when she realized that she was wasting her time, but also when she was asked to sign something that said that if you’re a member of this collaborative, once we reach our decision you cannot speak out against it.

GW: I’m glad you brought that up because that is often a common denominator in a lot of these collaboratives. You’re not allowed to write a letter to the editor or be quoted in the papers or whatever, in disagreeing with the collaborative results. So that is, in fact, one of the reasons why I dropped out of one of the collaboratives that I had been participating in. The other part of it, I might add, too; and I sort of alluded to this as well; is that almost everybody who goes to collaboratives is paid to be there. So they don’t have a financial interest in challenging the dominant paradigm because their salaries depend on them participating and going to this.

I remember once we were at a Deschutes collaborative meeting where we had to go around and say why you were there. The guy next to me worked for a timber company and he said “Well, I’m here to advocate for more logging.” At least he was honest about what he was there for. The idea is that most people who are participating who are there in one way or another, are paid to participate, so over time if somebody like me who isn’t paid can’t afford to go to all these meetings over years and years, so you drop out. So over time you get a selection that only favors those who are being paid, and usually the ones who are getting paid are from industry or like I said, have a vested financial interest; they’re from the agencies or the larger environmental groups that have lots of money like the Nature Conservancy.

DJ: Which, by the way, is one of the things that’s always killed me about environmental work. Kills the planet is what it does. Which is that, when I was doing timber sale appeals, I was fully aware that all the tech writers and the foresters on the other side were making, this was in the 90’s, so they were probably making $40-50K a year back then, for this? And meanwhile, we were paying for our own damned pizzas while doing this on our own time. And so there’s this process of, really “attrition” I think is the word that both you and I are looking for. You can only give so much time because you actually have to make a living and pay your rent. And the other people are getting their rent covered. Fifty people on the other side, each one getting paid $40K a year, vs. seven of us who are, like I said, paying for our own pizza when we’re doing this. It’s just crazy.

GW: Well, you know one more way that the institutional bias affects who participates also is that these meetings are almost always happening during the work week. So if you have an alternative job you can’t participate right then and there because you’ve got your normal workday. They almost never have meetings on weekends or sometime when you might get a broader representation, even if they weren’t paid, because you wouldn’t get these people who are working for industry or working for the Forest Service or whatever, to show up, because that would be their days off. So that’s another institutional bias that selects for who can participate and who can’t.

DJ: The question of money raises an issue, too – there are a couple of directions to go here. One of them is that my experience working with grassroots organizations is that there are times and places where they can get some funding that actually allows them to do really good work, and enables them to take time off from their job pumping gas or whatever it is they’re doing. For those who don’t live in Oregon; pumping gas is actually a thing there.

But there are also times when money will come to the organization that then is used to blunt an agenda, to channel an agenda away from a more radical perspective and toward a less radical perspective. So do you want to mention that for a second? And then I’ve got something else to ask you after that.

GW: Yes. I don’t have any way to prove this but what other people tell me is that a number of larger foundations, the Pew Foundation being one, and again, I’m just telling you what other people told me. I haven’t verified this myself. But the Pew Foundation is pushing the idea of collaboratives as the way or the mechanism to further a conservation agenda. And a lot of these groups that are participating get a significant amount of their annual operating budget from grants from foundations like Pew, who have adopted the idea that collaboration is the way to go. And of course that affects the agenda of these groups, not only in the sense that they can then have the money to pay somebody to go to the collaboration, but the other effect of collaboration is that these same groups are unwilling to challenge anything that the agency might be doing that otherwise, in the past, would have been something they would have challenged. For example: timber sales. The Montana Wilderness Association is a good example. I can’t remember the last time they ever challenged a timber sale. I can’t believe that they could argue with a straight face that there haven’t been timber sales in Montana that impact roadless areas that could be wilderness. And they have not objected to that, partly because they’re part of the collaborations around the state and they would upset the other collaborators if they were to start objecting to these timber sales. So it becomes more important to maintain those relationships in the collaboration than speaking out and legally challenging things that otherwise would normally be on the radar screen of these groups, to object to.

And the further point, along those same lines, is that a lot of times they’ll; I’ll use the Montana Wilderness Association again as an example; they’ll actually support more logging, in the sense that I’ve seen editorials from staff members where they talk about how great it is that we’re doing more logging on the national forest and barely mention anything about wilderness, which is supposedly what they’re supposed to be advocating for. And one of the problems, again, because you’ve been captured by this Stockholm Syndrome in a way, is you’re either unwilling to criticize agencies and the timber industry, because they’re your collaborators, or you remain silent and therefore culpable anyway. And the issues, then, people assume, this is again the general public, that okay, if the Montana Wilderness Association (I’m using them as an example) is not objecting to this timber sale then it must not be having any negative impact, when in fact it very well may have impacts. But because they’ve been bought off, as part of the collaboration, they’re not objecting.

And the other problem, this is I think from a strategy point of view, is that the personnel, the people working at these groups like the Montana Wilderness Association and other groups that are participating in collaboration, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition is another group I might mention; because they’re spending all their time going to collaboration meetings, they’re not spending their time going out to the general public, advocating for, for example, more wilderness. Instead you’re spending all your time trying to convince people at these collaboration meetings, who generally have a financial interest in opposing wilderness, that they don’t want wilderness, or they’re agreeing, you know, they’re going to a collaboration meeting and they’re saying to the timber industry or they’re saying to the ORV crowd or they’re saying to the mountain bikers or whomever: “Tell me what area of the Gallatin Range you want to utilize for your purposes, and then whatever’s left over we’ll advocate for as wilderness.”

Instead, if they were, in my view, to spend their time going around to communities saying why the entire Gallatin Range should be protected as wilderness, and going to all the people, even in rural communities there are a lot of people who don’t have a vested financial interest in, say, logging or grazing; going to those communities and trying to advocate for and advertise for wildlands protection. If the same amount of time was spent by their personnel doing that, we would get more wilderness, I’m convinced of it. We would have more wilderness supporters.

Instead, because all their time and energy and money is poured into going to collaborations, the people out in the hinterlands may not even be aware that there are areas being affected by logging, or that could be protected as wilderness, or in some other way be a protected landscape.

DJ: Wait, are you saying – God, you’re kind of crazy. Are you saying that grassroots activism and grassroots organizing and grassroots communication with actual human beings might be a more strategic way to go than working with industries that have a vested interest in destroying the wildlands? Are you actually suggesting this?

GW: I am suggesting that. And I think it’s very important to realize that when you have an important issue where you have to get people out, if you’ve done that organizing you can get a lot of people to show up at a public hearing or to write letters to your congressman or whomever is an important person in the discussion, that needs to hear from you. But if you’re going and spending all your time at a collaboration, as I suggested, people might not even be aware of these issues. It’s sort of like a friend of mine who was a member of a gay organization. He objected to their strategy. They were spending their time trying to go to evangelical Christians to try to convince them that being gay was okay. He raised the issue “Why are we spending all our time trying to convince people who are almost unilaterally opposed to us that being gay is okay? We should be spending our time with the average public that maybe isn’t so opposed to gay rights.

And I think the same thing applies to conservation issues. I think you’re wasting your time trying to convince ranchers that they shouldn’t be ranching, or loggers that they shouldn’t be cutting down the forests. You’d be much more successful going to, you know, whether it’s the person who, the checkout person at a Safeway or a doctor in some rural town and trying to convince them why wildlands protection is a better thing, and then once you have them there, convinced, you have an army of people who can come out and work in public hearings and otherwise, to support more wildlands protection.

And that’s the problem. I might even say that if you had unlimited money, some participation in a collaborative, if you had the right people participating, might be a good thing. But the trouble is, none of these groups have unlimited money, and where their money is going is not towards grassroots organizing for the most part. That gets neglected in favor of these collaboration meetings.

DJ: This question of money really raises another important sort of anecdote I want to bring in, which is that there are some groups in the Pacific Northwest who have found their way to, who have become aligned with, or who have become friends with people with a lot of money through dotcom stuff or Silicon Valley type stuff, and they have become very adept at raising money. And one of the things that at least one of these organizations has done is basically send out people who are really good at raising money to insinuate themselves onto the boards of a lot of groups, and in so doing, these groups themselves have been colonized by this collaborative perspective. So one of the effects of this was that in Oregon, for example, you had, at one point, a fairly strong grassroots movement calling for zero cut on national forests, or on public lands, and that has devolved into this collaborative process of working with industry, and the real radical notion, or the real sensical notion, really, of zero cut on public lands has essentially disappeared through this process of organizations being colonized by people who are more interested in this collaborative process than they are interested in actually protecting wildlands.

GW: Well, yeah. And I’ll make a further point that’s along those lines. My experience with most – I’m always generalizing here, so I hope that if somebody doesn’t fit my generalization they don’t get offended by this. But most of the environmental activists that are participating in, being paid to attend these collaborative meetings, in my view have little experience in natural resource ecology and even conservation history. So when they are presented with, say, the forester at the Deschutes National Forest telling them that we have to log the forest because we’re going to reduce large wildfires, even though I myself as an ecologist would be able to challenge that, the people that are assigned by conservation groups to participate in a collaborative like that don’t have that background. Even if they sort of suspect that might not be true, they can’t effectively argue in front of the entire group and make sense because they’re overwhelmed by the “experts,” the foresters or whoever are working for the timber industry or the agencies.

And what I find, too, is that when I have participated in some of these collaboratives, particularly field trips, which are fun; I’ll articulate some idea that is not within the paradigm and often there are specialists, and this is another important point that people have to realize, that there are a lot of people within these agencies that don’t agree with that industrial forestry paradigm but they’re not able to speak up. So when I participate in, you know, an example would be on one field trip where the District Ranger was arguing that wildfires would increase sedimentation in the stream and how that was going to be bad for fish, and I pointed out to him that there have been any number of studies that show that within a very short period of time, two to four years usually, sedimentation after a wildfire goes back to pre-fire conditions. However, and the forester was arguing for logging, logging roads are a chronic source of sedimentation, and that’s why salmon and trout populations around the Pacific Northwest have declined in part, because they never get a break from the sedimentation that’s constantly happening.

Anyway, this district ranger turns to the fishery biologist who happened to be on the field trip and said “Is that true?” And the fishery biologist, who had, up to this point, not spoken up, even though he knew better, said “George is right. Logging roads are a big problem. They’re worse than fires for sedimentation in streams, usually.” So you have to realize that these people are out there, but they get overwhelmed by the starting paradigm as well, that they are not able to speak up even though they may not agree with the general collaborative position on a lot of these issues.

DJ: I’m going to try to look something up real fast here. And if I can’t find it, perhaps you know the numbers. I just read this and I’m putting it in a book I’m working in right now. Oh, here it is. “One study showed that forest roads produced between 20 and 35 tons of sediment per acre of road surface per year. One acre is about six tenths of a mile of a logging road.” So that’s about a ton per year, every 100 feet, and I want to point out that there are at least 440,000 miles of logging roads in the US on national forest land alone.

So I’m just pointing out the numbers here, to support what you just said.

GW: Right. And if you throw in log landing sites, and other things too that are also chronic sources of sedimentation, the numbers would even be bigger. The point being that this is the kind of discussion when you’re out there with the collaborative and they’re advocating for more logging and building roads and so forth, to facilitate that logging, it just never gets discussed very often because it doesn’t fit their institutional bias. So I think that’s one of the things that people have to realize. It’s sort of like a straightjacket on what you can discuss and even the experts for the agencies are often hamstrung in being able to speak out and raise issues.

I’ll give you one more example of this. I was on a field trip collaboration on a wildfire issue in Idaho, one of the larger wildfires on rangeland, and the BLM was proposing that they had to do more grazing to reduce wildfires. And one of the issues there is that the grazing tramples biocrust, which facilitates the spread of cheatgrass, which facilitates the creation of more wildfires because cheatgrass is highly flammable. And this was an issue – it’s well established that cheatgrass facilitates more fires. And the reason it’s called “cheatgrass” is because cattle generally don’t like to chew on it very much, except when it’s green for a short time in the spring.

So you had the BLM advocating doing more extensive grazing, which would, in effect, help to spread cheatgrass, justifying it on the basis that we’re going to reduce wildfires. And so that didn’t get brought up until I was on this field trip. And then of course there were some other BLM people on that field trip who then echoed and confirmed what I said. But had I not been there, it wouldn’t hav been brought up by the normal membership of this collaborative.

DJ: So we have about five or six minutes left and it seems to me that one of the most important things that someone can take from this interview, especially someone who doesn’t live in the West, or somebody who does live in the West, too, I guess; is for me that one of the greatest dangers of these collaborative efforts is exactly what you said about how somebody can see “Oh, the Wilderness Society supports this, therefore it must be good for wilderness.” And it can be this tremendously powerful tool on the part of those who are actually destroying wildlands.

GW: Yes. And I might add that there’s legislation – I’m not 100% on this. But legislation that would say that the collaborative efforts could get implemented without doing normal NEPA review. I don’t want to say I’m 100% sure, but I think I remember reading that. I don’t know if it’s been, how far along it is. Politicians love collaboratives because it takes away the pressure from them to make difficult decisions. We are paying senators and congressmen to figure out what the policy should be. And what they love about collaboratives is it sort of takes away that decision-making from them, so they don’t have to be involved in a controversy, and they say “Well, the collaboratives came out with this, so if they endorse it, it must be great, so we’ll implement it as policy.” And the Forest Service loves it for the same reason in most cases, unless they’re strikingly different from what the Forest Service normally wants to do, which is not often the case. So collaboratives become a way for others who in theory are supposed to be considering all these points, from the Forest Service or the BLM and/ or congressional representatives, and it sort of takes responsibility away from them to have to sort out these competing interests. It makes it easier for them to move ahead without controversy. And then again, like I said, the public in general is left out of the conversation because once it’s endorsed by the collaboratives it becomes hard to reverse or counter that narrative.

DJ: Yeah, exactly. That can become the only narrative we hear, and an example of that from the 90’s that I take a very contrary position to a lot of people on, and I still get hate mail to this day about this position, is that when wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, which was a very big collaborative process, including Senator Jim McClure who was one of the most anti-environmental senators ever; at the time, I was talking to a lot of local grassroots organizations out of Montana who were furious about the reintroduction because they said the wolves were coming there on their own and because it was a reintroduction it would reduce the level of protection that the wolves there already had. And so one person said to me “There are timber sales and grazing allotments that are going forward because of the reintroduction.”

And I’m not saying wolves shouldn’t be in Yellowstone. Of course they should. What I’m saying is that the wolves were moving in and we never hear, even 20 years later we never hear that part of the story. When I say this out loud, I still get hate mail to this day from people saying “No, that process of reintroducing, that collaborative process was actually good for everybody.” Do you see what I’m getting at with this?

GW: Yeah, you were talking about the reintroduction of a non-essential population, which would reduce their protection under the Endangered Species Act. Those introduced populations in Yellowstone and central Idaho had less protection as a result, whereas the ones that were naturally colonizing up by Glacier were considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act and had in theory greater protection, a legal handle that somebody could use to perhaps argue against logging or whatever uses were happening on public land.

DJ: And the point here is that other narrative is completely gone today. I’m just echoing what you said, that one of the dangers of this collaborative process is that we end up coming to believe that that was actually the position taken by environmentalists when it wasn’t.

So we have like a minute left. What do you want people to do with this analysis? How can we use this analysis to strengthen wildland protection?

GW: Well, I think the first take-home message, if you’ve been listening to everything I’m saying, is to be very suspicious of collaboration results and policy recommendations, because I think they’re often biased towards vested financial interests. That doesn’t mean they’re all that way, and again I’m generalizing, but that would be the first thing to examine. Who’s participating, what their starting assumptions are, etc. And the second thing I would say is that if there is legislation that’s going to certify collaboration as the way to go in the future, on public lands, to fight that, because it very much cuts down the average citizen’s participation in many ways. And you have to be suspicious of the people who are pushing these people, like Secretary of the Interior Zinke and others who are obviously friends of industry. So I would say collaboration as a rule is generally going to end up in less protection for wildlands and wildlife than existing laws and existing legal measures allow us and it’s a way to short circuit those measures that otherwise might be available to people and the general public to protect our lands.

DJ: Well thank you as always for your unwavering voice in defense of the wild. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been George Wuerthner. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen
No Responses — Written on March 18th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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