Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Problem with National Forest Collaboratives


Collaboratives have been initiated on many national forests across the West. The stated goal is to resolve controversial resource issues through cooperative discussions between various interests, Thus collaboratives typically include representatives of industry such as timber companies, ranchers, local tourist promotion, county commissioners, Forest Service, BLM, FWS, state and county government, and state wildlife agency representatives, recreational interests like horseman, mountain bikers, ORV interests and what are variously termed “environmentalists” which typically includes one or two paid staff of national or regional environmental groups like the Sierra Club, Wilderness Society and so forth.
I have participated to one degree or another in five collaboratives and I can attest that there are institutional biases inherent in all collaborative that makes them unlikely to promote policies that are in the best interest of the public in general, much less the integrity of the land. Indeed, some critics argue their purpose is to reduce public participation in public lands management decisions.
First is the fact that participation in collaborative is voluntary. Meetings are typically scheduled during week days during “work” hours which is one way that overall public participation is significantly reduced. What happens is that most involvement is from those with a vested economic interest in the outcome-- paid lobbyists of the timber industry, ranchers/grazing industry, ORV industry, and other groups.
One timber company representative acknowledged when asked why we were at the meeting said quite unabashedly that he was paid to be there to lobby for more logging.
One can question the ethics of allowing individuals with a direct financial stake in the outcome to participate in decision-making and recommendations that will benefit themselves or their employers.
While it’s true that occasionally there are one or two paid representative of environmental groups or other members who do not represent exploitative interests (nor have a financial stake in the outcome), they are completely overwhelmed by resource extractive interests.
Even beyond the obvious representatives of industry who often dominate these collaborative, other agency and public employees in attendance also have a philosophical and indirect vested interest in continued resource exploitation. For instance, many of the collaboratives I’ve attended include county extension foresters, state foresters, representatives of the state forestry schools, and Forest Service foresters in attendance. If you are a forester your job depends on continued logging of public lands, and most take it for granted that logging is overall a public good.
Occasionally you might get a Forest Service or Fish and Game biologist attending who might have a slightly different outlook on what is the “public good”, but even these folks know their marching orders—which are not to interfere ultimately with the general demand for some logging, grazing, or other resource exploitation.
Beyond even these obvious conflicts of interest, others in attendance like county commissioners, extension agents, and other public employees also generally see resource extraction like logging and grazing as a “good” for local economic interests.
Given the membership of the typical collaborative it is hardly surprising that most support greater logging/grazing of our public lands.
To make an analogy, imagine there was a collaborative that was put together to determine whether a nuclear power plant should be build adjacent to your city and the majority of participants were representatives of the nuclear power industry, nuclear engineers, and members of the local power company with maybe one or two environmentalists—would you trust their recommendations to the federal nuclear regulatory agency?
Beyond these obvious conflicts of interest, there are starting assumptions that serve to limit participation as well. Basically those who agree with the basic premise that our forests need to be “managed” and are “improved” by logging are those who self-select to be on collaboratives. Those who may question such starting assumptions have limited opportunities to voice their objections and disagreements and if they attend at all, often become frustrated and leave. This self selection process guarantees certain outcomes and recommendations.
There is also a lot of group pressure to “get along”, so even when environmentalists are paid to attend the meetings and may have some different ideals than the overall group philosophical values, it is difficult for anyone to make any substantial differences except along the margins. It takes real courage to attend such meetings and continuously voice objections, or concerns that run counter to the dominant paradigm. Most environmentalists I’ve encountered at collaborative meetings are subtly pressured to agree to actions that they are uncomfortable supporting, but resisting the social pressure to “cooperate” is difficult.
Because of this group think, there is little opportunity or support for alternative interpretations of science, economics, and policy paradigms. For instance, all collaboratives I’ve attended believe our forests are “unhealthy” even though forest health is largely defined in terms of timber management goals. Most believe that wildfires, beetles, and other natural selective processes are detrimental to forest ecosystems, despite a growing body of literature that questions such assumptions.
Most believe that wildfires “damage” the land, again despite a lot of science that shows that wildfires are largely beneficial to the long term health of forest ecosystems.
Most believe that logging is good for the economy, ignoring the fact that nearly all federal timber sales are money losing affairs subsidized by taxpayers. And most of the economic analysis used to justify logging/grazing do not consider the inherent collateral damage caused by resource extraction as a cost. Thus sedimentation from logging roads, weeds spread by livestock, trampled riparian areas that harm fish, loss of biomass from the forest ecosystem, and other impacts are simply ignored or downplayed.
Most start out with the assumption that thinning/logging can preclude or stop wildfires (again because wildfires are viewed as “bad”), even though there is abundant evidence that under severe fire conditions, wildfires burn through, over, and around thinned forests.
Because most are dominated by pro-logging/grazing interests, they ignore other alternatives that might achieve many of the same goals but with less environmental impacts and less direct subsidies to the industries. For instance, one will hear that logging will reduce forest density which is presumed to improve forest health, but it’s not considered a viable option when it is pointed out that beetles will selectively reduce forest density for free, and do a better job of picking the trees that are genetically or otherwise most vulnerable to drought.
In addition, due to the technical nature of some of the issues, in particular the science on fire ecology, thinning effectiveness, grazing practices, fire management, logging impacts, wildlife impacts, and even what constitutes a healthy forest that are used to justify resource exploitation, participates are really not scientifically equipped to debate or disagree with the dominant paradigms.
To give one example of how new science can change assumptions, in Oregon many logging proposals are now justified on the belief that wildfire is detrimental to spotted owl survival due to the owl’s need for old growth forests. If the forests burn up, so it is thought, owls are harmed. While it’s true that owls require old growth forests for nest and roosting habitat, it turns out that recent studies demonstrate that owl preferentially forage for prey in burned forests due to the increase in rodent populations created by wildfire regrowth. But most agency personnel, much less the average collaborative participant, have never heard of these studies, and thus support logging and thinning on the presumption that they are protecting spotted owls.
Unfortunately even the agency personnel do not have the time to keep up with the vast amount of new scientific information generated annually, and it is beyond the ability and time constraints for anyone else involved in these collaboratives to monitor the latest scientific literature except in the most cursory manner. No matter how dedicated one may be to keeping up with the latest science, one can’t know everything and there will always be debate about what constitutes the “best” science. So nearly all collaboratives are operating under flawed assumptions, outdated ecological science, and of course, the inherent bias to find science that supports resource extraction while minimizing and/or ignoring science that questions such assumptions.
We all want to be liked and respected and the social pressure to agree with collaborative decisions is exceedingly strong—which is why collaboratives are so universally endorsed. Those in power know that getting the approval of a collaborative with “representatives” of environmental interests certifies and legitimizes the outcomes.
Participation in collaboratives also silences environmental groups on many other issues that are not necessarily discussed as part of any particular collaborative. There is a tendency to avoid vigorous advocacy for environmental protection in other areas if it might offend other stakeholders (read industry representatives and rural politicians). Thus environmental representatives that may be promoting wilderness designation may avoid criticism of livestock grazing or logging proposals if they believe they must remain “friends” with the timber, ranching and others collaborative members.
They also know that all those meetings are a huge time commitment, and since most environmental groups have limited funds, paying an employee to attend meetings usually comes at the expense of other activities like reviewing and commenting upon environmental impact statements, visiting timber sale sites and grazing allotments, and most importantly organizing community resistance to additional resource extraction and/or promoting wilderness designation and other protective measures.
Given all the drawbacks is there any reason why anyone with environmental concerns should participate in a collaborative? I think yes, but with qualifications. This should not be done In the absence of good organizing, advocacy in other ways or coop your group or you from voicing objections to nebulous and destructive projects.
Be clear from the start that you are like the Lorax—there to speak for the forests. People are more likely to respect you if they know you are speaking from heart-felt and honest feelings.
Participation does guarantee that collaborative members will hear alternative perspectives that they might not otherwise be exposed to in their daily encounters. I am certain, for instance, when I repeatedly voice the opinion that wildfires, beetles, mistletoe, and other natural agents are “RESTORING” the forest, it is counter intuitive and contrary to what most collaborative members ever hear otherwise. Or when I point out that some scientists question the validity of fire scar studies for determining past wildfire history due to inherent biases in how the data is collected and analyzed, I know this is news to many in the group. Now, of course, many may dismiss my ideas as heretical to “good forest management” but at least they are exposed to the ideas.
In addition, there are some agency people who regularly attend these meetings who are sympathetic to the concerns of environmentalists. When someone questions the dominant paradigm or introduces some new scientific perspective, it gives them the political cover to raise these same issues in their own internal discussions and decision-making process.
Finally there are some members of the collaborative who are truly open to new ways of viewing forest management and concepts. Voicing a different perspective may be the only exposure they may have to these ideas and it can change opinions and perspectives.
Nevertheless, I think it’s important for the media, politicians, agency personnel, and the general public to recognize the inherent conflicts and limitations of collaborative efforts. No one should automatically assume that collaborative are reaching the best outcomes in terms of public interest , much less the best interest of our forests.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Cow Conspiracy Video hits Home Run

George Wuerthner
I recently had the pleasure of viewing Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn new video Cow Conspiracy. The basic question these two film makers ask is why the contribution of livestock to ecosystem degradation is missing from the world’s environmental agenda. To find the answer they set out to interview environmental leaders as well as others to see if they could find the answer. The video is well researched and illustrated. But more than that, it is also entertaining. You will enjoy this video.
The first lesson they learned is that no one wants to fund a video about why livestock degradation is ignored. That was a lesson itself about the cow conspiracy. The duo were not able to find any normal sources of funding, instead had to rely upon contributions from strangers. But they persevered and produced what I think is one of the best environmental documentaries done in recent years. What they show and document in their video is the implicit or in many cases, the explicit omission of livestock production as a major source of global environmental degradation on many fronts including water pollution, deforestation, global warming, species extinction, ocean dead zones, and more.
So, for instance, the duo interview various well known authors and scientists like rancher Howard Lyman, of Mad Cowboy; Michael Pollen of Omnivore’s Dilemma; Will Tuttle, Environmental and Ethics author, Dr. Greg Lutis, and others who lay out the basic problem—no one wants to talk about the contribution of livestock to global environmental destruction.
This is illustrated over and over again throughout the video where spokesman for various “green” groups are interviewed and either avoid livestock as a problem or deny/downplay its contribution to environmental woes.
For instance, Bruce Hamilton of the Sierra Club, is interviewed about global climate change. Hamilton correctly identifies fossil fuel burning as one factor contributing to global warming, but when asked about livestock’s contribution to green house gas emissions—Hamilton says “what about it?” At this point, the video discusses many recent scientific papers that point to livestock production as the single largest contributor to GHG production—even exceeding all transportation sectors, yet the Sierra Club, like many other groups, simply does not identify it as a problem.
The duo has similar responses from other organizations. For instance, when interviewing Rainforest Action Network about the causes of rainforest destruction, land clearing for livestock grazing and forage production is barely acknowledged.
Their goal is not to embarrass these individuals or organizations, but rather to illustrate how the contribution of livestock to environmental degradation is too often ignored or omitted from official recognition by nearly everyone.
The movie goes far beyond the obvious impacts of livestock production such as overgrazing of rangelands, and talks about everything from water pollution (from manure) to energy use in the production of meat to the mistreatment of meat producing animals by humans. Overall it makes a very cogent and articulate argument against meat/dairy consumption.
They even take on Allan Savory, advocate of more livestock production as a means of reducing global warming, pointing out that methane production from domestic animals is one of the largest contributors to warming climate, and vastly exceeds any ability of grazed grassland ecosystems to absorb more carbon.
The video is full of facts illustrated with great graphs like how many more gallons of water or the amount of land required in the production of a hamburger vs. a veggie burger that will make it easy to understand why livestock are one of the greatest threats to global biodiversity and ecosystems.
So why is livestock production and its multitude of environmental impacts so ignored by even environmental groups? The conclusion that Andersen and Kuhn come to is that it’s just too risky to discuss. Many groups depend on contributions from major donors and foundations that do not want livestock production criticized. The rancher and dairy farmer are cultural icons in many parts of the country—you cannot challenge them without risk to your organization’s financial security.
There exists what I call a Bovine Curtain very similar to the Iron Curtain that once prevented outside news from penetrating the old Soviet Union. The Bovine Curtain comes in many forms. Land management agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management seldom critique livestock production as a source of ecosystem degradation because they must answer to western politicians who often are ranchers or otherwise associated with agriculture. Similarly, many universities researchers do not investigate the negative consequences of livestock production and are silenced because they rely upon funding from legislatures dominated by Ag producers. In some states it is even against the law to critique Ag interests—as TV host personality Opiah Winfrey learned in 1998when she was sued by a Texas cattleman for allegedly making disparaging remarks about beef. Even though Winfrey ultimately won the suit, she no longer will even discuss the issue so in essence the threat of another law suit has silenced her.
My personal experience confirms Andersen and Kukn’s assertions that there is an unspoken and explicit desire to discuss livestock as an environmental, ethical, and health issue. For instance, I once worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) in Montana. GYC expressly forbade me to discuss livestock production’s contribution to the issues that the organization was highlighting. The organization’s board of directors included many wealthy people who had purchased ranches in the ecosystem and raised cattle. And GYC, like many western based environmental groups wanted to avoid antagonizing regional politicians like county commissioners to governors and Congressional representatives who are frequently ranchers or otherwise connected to Agricultural interests.
For example, when I was asked to discuss the threats to the ecosystem at the organization’s annual board meeting, I was not allowed to mention livestock production even though many of the issues the group was fighting could be traced directly back to ranching as the ultimate source of the environmental problem. Whether it was dewatering of rivers for irrigation and its detrimental impacts on fisheries, to the spread of disease from domestic sheep to wild bighorn sheep, from the killing of bison that wandered from Yellowstone Park to opposition to wolf recovery to the continued policy of elk feedgrounds in Wyoming, the ultimate source of the problem was and is livestock. However, GYC was unwilling to frame the issue that way for fear of antagonizing its board and/or regional politicians.
In another example of the Bovine Curtain slamming down, I had been admitted to a Ph.D. program at Montana State University in Bozeman and offered a four year financial grant to support my academic pursuits. However, when the Montana ranching community learned that I, a well-known Montana livestock critic, might be attending the state’s premier Ag school, they applied pressure to everyone from the department head to the President of the University threatening to cut funding to the university if my admission wasn’t denied and grant withdrawn. In the end I did not attend the university due to this perceived hostility.
The cow conspiracy is not only in the West. I lived for a time in Vermont where dairy farming is relegated to the status of a God. For instance though dairy farms are the chief source of pollution of Vermont’s rivers and one of the major contributors to the eutrophication of Lake Champlain, there is virtually no critique of dairy farming in the state. No environmental groups are actively pursuing reduction in dairies despite their well document environmental impacts, not to mention the health risk associated with consumption of dairy products. Instead dairy products are lauded as “good” in Vermont and supported as “local” agriculture. Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream which was founded in Vermont is often held up as a responsible corporation even though consumption of ice cream is extremely unhealthy to consume. And while a few groups discuss the negative consequences of sprawl on the landscape, they virtually ignore the far greater acreage in Vermont that is degraded by corn and/or hay production to feed livestock. Of course dairy farming contributes to many impacts from manure, fertilizer and pesticide run off into streams, GMO seeds, to the mono cropping that destroys native biodiversity. Even Bill McKibben’s, a group based in Vermont and dedicated to reducing global warming, fails to mention the contribution that livestock production makes to global climate change.
The truth is that there are very few environmental organizations that are willing to even discuss livestock production’s impact on biodiversity and ecosystem function, much less other related issues like human health and ethical treatment of animals.
Hopefully after viewing he Cow Conspiracy you be will motivated to start questioning politicians, environmental organizations and others why they are ignoring what is ultimately one of the major contributors to global climate change and biodiversity losses.
You can find out more about the movie at this link-- Watch the trailer. Get a copy of the video and show it widely. Arrange for a showing at conferences, in your college classes, at your church, and any other forum. Better yet support Kip and Keegan’s efforts by making a contribution to them and joining one of the few organizations that are directly addressing livestock impacts on public lands like the Idaho based Western Watersheds Project (
Author’s Bio: George Wuerthner is an ecologist, author of 37 books dealing with wildlands and environmental issues including Welfare Ranching: The Environmental Impacts of Livestock Production on the Arid West. He is also a board member of Western Watershed Project.