In the March 1996 issue of A CLEAR View, a California activist wrote about a nearby logging town whose warring citizens had sat down at the local library to talk about their differences. From those talks came a forest management plan that became a bill in Congress and now has been declared dead until Congress reconvenes in January. Focusing not as much on the substance of the plan as on the consensus process by which it was conceived, we return a year and half later to the Quincy Library Group. In this issue, we provide the views of supporters and detractors, examine the environmental backlash's surprisingly quiet response to the QLG bill, and present examples of other collaborative processes nationwide that merit more attention than they have received.Background of the Quincy Library Group
When the timber supply dwindled in the 1980's in Quincy, CA, the local extractive industry felt the effects. Timber workers, out of escalating frustration, blamed the environmental community for the reduced timber volume, mechanization of jobs and loss of revenues to county governments. In retaliation, bullets were fired into office windows and swerving logging trucks frightened pedestrians on the "wrong side" of the issue.
Instead of following a path to destruction, however, local citizens decided to work together to figure out how to restore community stability and manage forest fire hazards. Also slated for the region's future was an Environmental Impact Statement on the California Spotted Owl. By planning ahead, according to participants in the group, the town wanted to avoid the kind of economic problems plaguing Pacific Northwest logging communities.
After meeting for more than two years in the Quincy Library, the "Quincy Library Group" by consensus developed a comprehensive plan that, proponents say, would reduce fire dangers by logging away dense and unnatural undergrowth. The pilot project would require the US Forest Service to remove 40,000 to 60,000 acres of overgrowth each year from fire-prone sections on Federal lands within the Plumas and Lassen National Forest and the Sierraville Ranger District of the Tahoe National Forest -- a total of 2.5 million acres.
The group brought their completed plan to the Forest Service in 1992. Because the Forest Service would only implement parts of the plan, the group decided to ask Rep. Wally Herger (R-CA) to sponsor the whole proposal.
Representative Herger introduced his version of the QLG Community Stability Proposal in H.R. 858. Before H.R. 858 was voted on, Representative Don Young (R-AK) offered amendments to the House bill that were requested by Representative George Miller (D-CA) to try and bring the bill into compliance with NEPA and the National Forest Management Act process. The bill and the amendments were approved by the House on July 9, 1997, when the bill passed by a vote of 429 to 1.
Representative Diane Feinstein's (D-CA) Senate version of the Quincy Library Proposal (S-1028), passed by a voice vote out of the Resources Committee Wednesday, October 22. It has now been declared dead until Congress reconvenes in January 1998. If the bills are reconsidered, they may be sent as a single piece of legislation to the President.
The Quincy Library Bill Controversy -- Round Table or Square?
Confidence in the consensus process -- bringing to the table varying interests to discuss the fate of natural resources in a particular region -- is at the root of the QLG controversy. Environmentalists believe there is no set of criteria or standards for what is or is not an officially recognized collaborative effort. Any "spontaneous" gathering of "concerned citizens" may be described as a collaborative effort and could impact public policy issues regardless of what guidelines, if any, have been followed.
In a widely circulated memo that was featured in an article by Patrick Mazza (Cascadia Planet, 8/97), Sierra Club Chair Michael McCloskey wrote critically of the collaborative process with references to the QLG in particular. He wrote of the power industry holds over rural economies and their ability to "generate pressures on communities where it is strong, which it doesn't have at the national level." McCloskley also warned that "all the non-local stakeholders are excluded from the process" and that "there's a precedent being set here. So we don't have national forests anymore, but just forests run in local dictates."
This concern is echoed by Felice Pace of the Klamath Forest Alliance (KFA) in Etna, CA. According to Pace, the KFA does support the idea of consensus building and community dialogue, including groups like the QLG. However, he says the QLG final plan troubles the KFA. Pace argues that implementing a pilot project through Congressional action could allow other consensus efforts to opt for a legislative solution rather than working out an agreement within the group. Echoing the concerns of McCloskey, he says this bill could "herald a process of balkanization of national forest management."
The National Audubon Society has also voiced their apprehension to the collaborative process, especially concerning the Quincy Group. While the group's local affiliate, the Plumas Audubon Society in Quincy, supports the bill, the national organization and many of its other local chapters say the QLG fails Audubon's standards for community forums. That standard is based on the question "Is there an opportunity for full public participation?" Audubon said that in the case of QLG, such mundane issues as when and where to meet and how to contact people may have excluded interested parties. The Quincy area is mountainous, begging the question of whether it was too difficult for the public to physically attend the meetings. Also in question was whether people trusted the meeting? Without a set of standards, Audubon contends that it is impossible to determine whether a consensus group represents a true agreement between interested parties.
National Audubon believes that the Forest Service has the potential to approximate public interest across the nation better than any special interest groups. They also "provide a reliable and known set of procedures people can become comfortable with and utilize." Audubon believes the answer to more full participation is "to improve federal procedures not...make unnecessary exceptions to them."The Information: Who Has It
The California office of The Wilderness Society alleged a lack of public participation when it stated in a press release that efforts from outside environmental organizations were spurned by QLG participants. The release further claimed that the public was not informed of the agreement until after all details had been finalized.
Participants in the QLG take issue with complaints that QLG locked citizens out. Rose Comstock of CA Women in Timber says that public participation was welcomed by all QLG members and that there was no effort to blacklist or exclude anyone. True locals comprised the group, but the public can and will be able to have its say, she says. To support this, Comstock points to the impending Environmental Impact Statement the Forest Service must write regarding protection of the California Spotted Owl. Linda Blum, an environmentalist on QLG and a longtime forestry activist who served a two year stint on the Western Ancient Forest Campaign board, concurs. She said that no one was intentionally left out and that the meetings were public forums, not the closed door sessions their opponents would like to portray. Blum is also a member of the Friends of Plumas Wilderness, and is on the steering committee of the California Ancient Forest Alliance. Recently, she unsuccessfully tried to stop the California Fish and Game Department from dumping pesticides into Lake Davis in its effort to kill non-native fish.
Mike Jackson, an environmental attorney and founding member of the QLG, claims that the QLG repeatedly asked for participation by members of the environmental community outside the Quincy area. However, its entreaties were rebuffed.Filling Up Seats
Another problem inherent with consensus groups, according to environmentalists, is the strong influence of industry and its supporters in communities economically dependent on natural resource extraction. Some logging companies, for example, paid their workers to attend demonstrations against spotted owl protections during the timber wars in the Pacific Northwest. The on-going public relations battle waged by backlash activists and industry portraying environmentalists as anti- human and anti-community can isolate environmentalists in such communities. Numerous documented instances of harassment, intimidation, and violence directed towards activists have had a cumulative effect as well. Many environmentalists believe that proponents of consensus-based solutions adeptly exploit this built-up fear and weariness among rural activists thereby forcing them to negotiate from a position of weakness.
To some extent, this power imbalance did have an impact on the QLG. One of the reasons the citizens began meeting initially was to try and temper the increasingly hostile environment in the community of Quincy. In a videotape called "Forestry Wars", Mike Jackson, environmental attorney and QLG participant, jokingly referred to trucks speeding up when he was trying to cross the street. Linda Blum concurs, saying "Pick-ups with yellow ribbons [symbols of support for the logging industry that first appeared during the Northern Spotted Owl controversy in the late 1980s] have been slowing down..." since the formation of the group and the camaraderie has made friends of former enemies.Ingredients That Work, Substitutions That Don't
Some environmentalists have complained that, in the case of QLG, interested parties -- the public and the agencies mandated by Congress to formulate management plans and enforce regulations -- were left out of the process. Legislating a local plan outside of existing political frameworks sets a dangerous precedence, critics say. The result, according to National Audubon, would be an unacceptable level of control of public resources by one local group.
Linda Blum argues that forestry management has always revolved around parochial interests. Realistically no one environmentalist can truly claim to be active in every public lands decision, she says. Blum claims there is no new "huge legal and historical precedent" with the QLG bill and points to the Sterling Forest and Presidio Park (CA) legislation from past sessions as examples of federal legislation serving local interests.
"That is like comparing apples to oranges," according to Steve Holmer of the Western Ancient Forest Campaign. Holmer states that in the case of the QLG bill, the actual management of the land would change. The Presidio and Sterling Forest bills that Blum pointed to only resulted in the ownership of land changing hands, he argues. Holmer adds that the QLG bill would establish "piecemeal management" that conflicts with the "whole ecosystems management" advocated under a science based approach to species and land protection.
For some environmentalists, the problems with collaborative efforts are straightforward and precedent-setting. Supporters of QLG see these complaints as having to do with other issues entirely. Comstock believes the opposition stems from a "fear of success" that the QLG proposal might prove to be effective. She says finding a solution "seems to upset Washington lobbyists for the environment," which explains their desperate tactics to derail the legislation. Comstock claims the environmental movement would lose their bogeyman, and fundraising cash cow, should resolutions be pushed rather than continuing the conflict over forestry management.Divided Lines -- Which Way Up
The collaborative effort embodied by the QLG has caused a degree of conflict between environmentalists, has helped forge new alliances between would-be enemies and has caused some environmental supporters of QLG to adopt backlash rhetoric.
On the question of why there is such strong opposition from environmentalists to a proposal that has the support of some local environmentalists, National Audubon has said that it has nothing to do with fundraising goals of national environmental groups, as some suggest. Rather, in Audubon's view, it's mainly small grassroots groups around the country panning the QLG for a specific reason. These groups often have opportunities to participate in community coalitions on local environmental issues, and are in the best position to understand the potential dangers inherent in them.
Local environmentalists involved in the Quincy matter see it differently. Parroting language used by backlash activists for many other public policy battles, environmentalists on the panel have gone on the offensive. Blum minces no words in describing the motives of her naysayers. She believes the environmental community needs "to defeat this to keep others from coming forward with other ideas." Blum claims the national environmental organizations "want gridlock" and "don't believe rural people should participate" in the legislative arena.
QLG founding member Mike Jackson also responds to the criticism lodged by environmentalists, saying that class and regional prejudices help explain the differences in approach. Jackson says that urban, professional environmentalists oppose the bill while rural, blue-collar folks -- those who live in towns like Quincy -- want to work to find a compromise that allows for a healthy community and a sustainable environment.Users Response to QLG -- Anyone Home?
Longtime trackers of the environmental backlash would assume that a proposal that controls public lands at the local level and has pitted environmentalist v. environmentalist would have the backlash crowd jumping for joy. Based on web site and literature reviews, however, few backlash organizations are actively embracing and promoting the legislation.
Extractive industry supporters who are promoting the bill say there was considerable debate among the backlash crowd over aspects of the QLG. According to Comstock, some backlash activists questioned the logic of sitting down with environmentalists and were suspicious of her involvement in the QLG process. She mentioned that some were skeptical about the silvicultural methods proposed in the bill. Comstock says many urged her to shy away from terminology like "sustainable yield," which they argued was environmental terminology. Comstock says she was "upset and baffled" with the sometimes personal criticism directed at her by activists from within her own movement. Luckily, she says, most members of the California Women in Timber came to her defense and urged her to continue with the QLG.
Bruce Vincent, head of the national umbrella group Alliance for America, disagrees that the backlash was slow to embrace the QLG. He says that his organization supports local resolutions and supported the QLG effort.
In regard to the lack of articles or materials from the environmental backlash promoting the QLG bill, Comstock writes this off as the difference between pushing a national issue such as the American Heritage Rivers Initiative versus a piece of legislation that only impacts the state of California. She said that alerts sent out to People for the West! and the Alliance for America networks, along with the positive response she received at the Fly-In For Freedom, were instances where the national leadership did prove responsive.
When asked about resistance to the QLG from "wise users," as in Rose Comstock's experience, Vincent agreed that there was some conflict but he writes it off to a difference in perspective between property rights activists and public lands activists. He also admits that the proposal does not contain everything the backlash movement would like but, he says, that "locals know better."
Chuck Cushman, head of the American Land Rights Association, has his own thoughts about consensus and QLG. He defines a consensus group as legitimate only when all constituents are satisfied with the decision-making to move to the next step. He applauds efforts at dialogue, saying that "people are more moderate" when forced to confront each other as opposed to lobbing rhetorical bombs against a faceless enemy.
While applauding the process in Quincy, Cushman could generate little enthusiasm for the QLG legislation. He argues that the fatal flaw of the bill is that the timber- dependent communities still will not survive. He believes that the QLG was "borne out of desperation" as backlash timber activists looked for anything that might keep their dying industry on life support, even if was only on a short- term basis. He claims that negotiating from a position of weakness meant that the activists allowed the environmental activists to steamroll the other side. Summing up his position, Cushman says "compromise doesn't mean you put yourself out of business."SIDEBAR: Consensus Groups Nationwide
Activists differ on the exact number but presently, there are over twenty identified consensus groups ongoing throughout the nation.
Minnesota In Minnesota, an effort is underway by northern counties to establish a new process for handling land use and environmental issues. Billed as the Northern Counties Land Use Coordinating Board (NCLUCB), the group is comprised of local officials and concerned citizens. According to activists in the area, however, the local grassroots backlash organization, Conservationists with Common Sense, along with iron mining and timber industry supporters, are dominating the proceedings. Funded in large part by the state, the NCLUCB initiative has been hampered by failures to notify interested parties about scheduled meetings.
Maine Industry used the consensus-based process to divide and conquer the environmental community in Maine's north woods. In 1995, the Green Party and a local environmental organization called RESTORE: The North Woods pushed a referendum to ban clearcutting in the state. With polls showing increasing support for the measure, the timber industry and Governor Angus King (Ind.) formed a consensus group to devise an alternative to place on the ballot. The group enlisted the support of the Natural Resources Council of Maine and Maine Audubon but shut out national organizations and other state groups.
The result was The Compact for Maine's Forest which included a number of industry favored regulations. Despite launching what is reported to have been a $6 million ad campaign in 1996, the industry measure only garnered 47 percent of the popular vote, in repudiation to the Governor and industry, and a victory for grassroots environmental organizations. A referendum drawn from the King proposal failed at the ballot box earlier this year, largely because of the strange bedfellows alliance between clearcutting opponents and small private forest land holders who found the ballot measure too restrictive.
Boston Another collaborative effort is underway in Massachusetts to clean up PCB contaminated soil from the New Bedford Harbor. Unlike other examples mentioned, this consensus-based approach works within the existing regulatory framework and does not establish new rules or allow for tradeoffs.
Listed as a Superfund site in 1983, the harbor was dredged in 1990 with plans to incinerate the soil under the authority of the EPA. The ensuing public outcry forced the agency to abandon the proposal, resulting in 15,000 cubic yards of muck that sat in a fenced-in, heavily lined containment pool within the city of New Bedford.
To find possible solutions, the EPA convened a citizen's committee to analyze and outline an effective clean-up program. Using a panel of scientists, the consensus group is in the process of devising a three step approach that will not only treat the current waste, but will clean the 450,000 cubic yards yet to be dredged.
Even though the collaborative effort is moving slowly, the group seems to have won the support of the town residents, including the area's representative, Barney Frank (D-MA). He applauds the efforts of the group saying, "it is very much a participatory process, and that is good."SIDEBAR: Another Look At Consensus: An Interview with John Stauber
A CLEAR View talked to John C. Stauber, co-author with Sheldon Rampton of Toxic Sludge is Good for You! Lies, Damn Lies and the Public Relations Industry about consensus groups. Stauber is the executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, established in 1993 to publish PR Watch, a quarterly newsletter, and to serve as a clearinghouse for journalists, activists, and academics who need information about the public relations industry. He can be reached at 3318 Gregory Street, Madison, WI 53711; Phone 608-233-3346; Fax 608-238-2236; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; Website: www.prwatch.org
ACV: How would you define a community consensus group or process? Is it a misnomer?
JS: The term "consensus process" is a brilliant misnomer because it implies democracy and agreement. In fact, the consensus process as used by government and industry is best viewed as a public relations crisis management tool that primarily divides, stymies and defeats social change activists while protecting and strengthening the status quo.
Consensus groups claim to act in the name of community democracy, conflict resolution and social reform. In fact, status quo interests carefully choose a group willing to sit down with industry and develop a position that usually protects industry's most fundamental position in the long run while tossing a few crumbs to the non-profit and community participants.
There are PR firms that specialize in helping industry defeat community activists via these techniques. One of them is the Mongoven, Biscoe & Duchin firm which we examine at length in our book Toxic Sludge Is Good For You. MBD classifies activists into three categories: radicals, idealists and realists. The corporate goal is to defeat the real social change activists, the so-called radicals, by co-opting the realists and idealists into partnerships and consensus processes, while marginalizing the radicals.
While idealists play a part, it is carefully selected realists who get invited or seduced into joining the consensus process. MBD's Ron Duchin says these realists are able to "live with tradeoffs; willing to work within the system; not interested in radical change; pragmatic. The realists should always receive the highest priority in any strategy dealing with a public policy issue." In other words, the realists can be counted on to sell out the concerns of the radicals, and do so in the name of pragmatism and "win-win" solutions.
The ultimate aim of the consensus process is to produce these "win-win" solutions. Since industry is almost always participating from a position of strength, and the objective of the process itself is to divide activists and marginalize the so-called radicals, industry never has to give in. MBD, E. Bruce Harrison and other experts at this co-optation strategy counsel their clients to "never get to yes by giving in." Harrison got his start 35 years ago leading the brutal chemical industry assault against Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring. He points out that simply initiating a consensus process can be a winning strategy for the status quo forces because it projects a media image of industry being reasonable, it allows carefully selected participants to share that spotlight, and it undercuts confrontational protests and community organizing while it is occurring.
ACV: How long have consensus groups been around and what was their origin?
JS: These types of "divide and conquer" techniques are as old as the hills; the consensus process is just a recent manifestation dressed up in the trappings of democracy and community involvement. I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and the first time I saw the process applied was fifteen years ago here in my state by mining interests and their friends in Wisconsin government. The Wisconsin legislature put together a "consensus committee" dominated by industry attorneys, legislators, state environmental bureaucrats, and a couple attorneys from mainstream Wisconsin environmental groups. Industry's purpose was to change the state's ground water law to open up the state to transnational mining firms. Local grassroots activists in northern Wisconsin were at the time successfully organizing to oppose mining, but when the consensus process weakened the state's ground water law, it was a major defeat for the grassroots activists. However, the professional environmentalists who participated insisted that the changes were actually progressive. Years later they realized the grassroots activists were right.
ACV: How widely used are consensus groups? Are they growing at local level?
JS: Consensus groups, partnerships and similar co-optation techniques are unfortunately on the increase. Many mainstream foundations and environmental groups naively participate. Mark Dowie, in his important book Losing Ground, has very accurately critiqued the weaknesses among environmentalists that allow business and its subsidized Wise Use forces to defeat our movement. I strongly urge groups to not participate in industry partnerships and consensus groups, and concentrate instead on building grassroots political power, strengthening the movement and winning real, not imaginary victories. Consensus groups are best seen as one of a number of corporate and government strategies employed to co-opt and defeat social change activists.
(A CLEAR View Sources: Patrick Mazza, Cascadia Planet, August 1997; National Audubon letter opposing S. 1028 9/17/; Boston Globe 10/4; CLEAR interviews; The Wilderness Society; Greenwire 10/28; Sports Afield 10/97; San Francisco Chronicle 10/21)
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