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A Look at New Approaches to Conservation

Grass-roots Seeds of Compromise

Every month since 1993, about 30 environmentalists, loggers, biologists, union representatives and local government officials have met the library of Quincy–a timber town in northern California that has been the site of a nasty 15-year battle over logging.
Out of these monthly meetings has emerged a plan to manage 2.4 million acres of the surrounding national forests. Instead of leaving the forests’ ecological fate solely to Washington-based agencies and national interest groups, the once-bitter adversaries have tried to forge a compromise solution on the ground–a green version of Jeffersonian democracy. When the House of Representatives, notorious for its discord on environmental legislation, approved the plan 429-1 in July 1997, the Quincy Library Group became the symbol for a promising new means of resolving America’s intractable environmental disputes.

The Quincy Library Group is one of scores of citizens’ associations that in the past decade have brought together people who previously met only in court. Sometimes called “community-based conservation” groups, they include the Friends of the Cheat River, a West Virginia coalition working to restore a waterway damaged by mining runoff; the Applegate Partnership, which hopes to restore a watershed in southwestern Oregon while keeping timber jobs alive; and Envision Utah, which tries to foster consensus about how to manage growth in and around Salt Lake City.

Like many similar organizations, the Quincy Library Group was born of frustration. In the 1980s, Quincy-based environmental advocates, led by local attorney Michael B. Jackson, attempted with varying success to block more than a dozen U.S. Forest Service timber sales in the surrounding Plumas, Lassen and Tahoe national forests. The constant battles tied the federal agency in knots and almost shut down Sierra Pacific Industries, the biggest timber company there, imperiling many jobs. The atmosphere was “openly hostile, with agitators on both sides,” says Linda Blum, a local activist who joined forces with Jackson in 1990 and aroused so much opprobrium that Quincy radio hosts denounced her on the air for taking food from the mouths of the town’s children.

Worn down and dismayed by the hostility in his community, Jackson was ready to try something different. He got a chance to do so late in 1992, when Bill Coates, a Plumas County supervisor, invited the factions to talk to each other, face to face. Coates suggested that the group work from forest-management plans proposed by several local environmental organizations in the mid-1980s. By early 1993, they were meeting at the library and soon put together a new proposal. (The Forest Service eventually had to drop out because of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which places cumbersome requirements on groups who meet with federal agencies.) Under this proposal, timber companies could continue thinning and selectively logging in up to 70,000 acres per year, about the same area being logged in 1993 but drastically lower than the 1990 level. Riverbanks and roadless areas, almost half the area covered by the plan, would be off-limits.

The Quincy group asked the Forest Service to incorporate its proposal into the official plans for the three national forests, but never got a definite answer. Convinced that the agency was too dysfunctional to respond, in 1996 the group took its plan to their congressman, Wally Herger, a conservative Republican. Herger introduced the Quincy proposal in the House, hoping to instruct the agency to heed the wishes of local communities. It passed overwhelmingly–perhaps the only time that Reps. Helen Chenoweth (R-Idaho), a vehement property-rights advocate, and George Miller (D-Calif.), one of the greenest legislators on Capitol Hill, have agreed on an environmental law. Then the bill went to the Senate–and slammed into resistance from big environmental lobbies.

From the start, the Quincy group had kept in touch with the Wilderness Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club. The three organizations offered comments, and the Quincy group incorporated some. Still, the national groups continued to balk, instead submitting detailed criteria necessary to “merit” their support. When the Quincy plan became proposed legislation, the national groups stepped up their attacks. The Quincy approach, said Sierra Club legal director Debbie Sease, had a “basic underlying flaw”: using a cooperative, local decision-making process to manage national assets. Jay Watson, regional director for the Wilderness Society, said: “Just because a group of local people can come to agreement doesn’t mean that it is good public policy.” And because such parochial efforts are inevitably ill-informed and always risk domination by rich, sophisticated industry representatives, the Audubon Society warned, they are “not necessarily equipped to view the bigger picture.” Considering this bigger picture, it continued, “is the job of Congress, and of watchdog groups like the National Audubon Society.”

Many local groups regard national organizations as more interested in protecting their turf than in achieving solutions that advance conservation. “It’s interesting to me that it has to be top-down,” said Jack Shipley, a member of the Applegate Partnership. “It’s a power issue, a control issue.” The big groups’ insistence on veto power over local decision-making “sounds like the old rhetoric–either their way or no way,” Shipley says. “No way” may be the fate of the Quincy bill. Pressured by environmental lobbies, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) placed a hold on it in the Senate.

Despite the group’s setback, community-based conservation efforts like Quincy provide a glimpse of the future. Under the traditional approach to environmental management, decisions have been delegated to impartial bureaucracies–the Forest Service, for example, for national forests. Based on the scientific evaluations of ecologists and economists, the agencies then formulate the “right” policies, preventing what James Madison called “the mischief of faction.”

But today, according to Mark Sagoff of the University of Maryland Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy, it is the bureaucrats who are beset by factions: big business and environmental lobbies. For these special-interest groups, he argues, “deliberating with others to resolve problems undermines the group’s mission, which is to press its purpose or concern as far as it can in a zero-sum game with its political adversaries.” The system “benefits the lawyers, lobbyists and expert witnesses who serve in various causes as mercenaries,” he says, “but it produces no policy worth a damn.”

In contrast, community-based conservation depends on all sides acknowledging the legitimacy of each other’s values. Participants are not guaranteed to get exactly what they want; no one has the power to stand by and judge the “merit” of the results. Although ecology and economics play central roles, ecologists and economists have no special place. Like everyone else, they must sit at the table as citizens, striving to make their community and its environment a better place to live.

In short, Quincy’s efforts and those like it represent a new type of environmentalism: republican environmentalism, with a small “r.” This new approach cannot address global problems like climate change. Nor should it be routinely accepted if a local group decides on irrevocable changes in areas of paramount national interest–filling in the Grand Canyon, say. But even if some small town would be foolish enough to decide to do something destructive, there’s a whole framework of national environment laws that would prevent it from happening. And, despite the resistance of the national organizations, the environmental movement should not reject this new approach out of hand. Efforts to protect the environment over the past 25 years have produced substantial gains, but have lately degenerated into a morass of litigation and lobbying. Community-based conservation has the potential to change things on the ground, where it matters most.