Viewpoint: Montana’s forest collaboratives are a devious charade
According to its website, the Montana Forest Collaboration Network (MFCN) has twenty-six participating groups. Their website states that this network was formed in “August 2016, to assist collaborative groups across Montana in forest and grassland restoration, conservation, and resource utilization for the benefit of all.” Does that claim hold up?
Are the Network and individual collaboratives actually helping restore and conserve forests and grasslands or improve resource utilization for everyone’s benefit?
During the last November’s MFCN annual workshop, Leanne Martin, Regional Forester for Region 1 said, “Improving the health and resilience of Montana’s forests relies on all of us working together.”
The lists of members of MFCN and individual collaboratives reveal many are, or were, closely associated with the timber industry. In short, members of MFCN and individual collaboratives represent activities the Forest Service is supposed to regulate and constrain. That is unreasonable.
It is farcical to ask a participant in a regulated activity, “How should we regulate you?” Government agencies, including the Forest Service, were put into place to restrain activities that diminish the interests or property of the public, not pander to those being regulated.
The Forest Service, in an April 2019 publication (FS-1128) claimed, “The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service is embracing an ‘Age of Collaboration’ in its exercise of the National Environmental Policy Act [NEPA] and other Federal laws and regulations governing its decision processes. … citizens’ collaborative groups have been proliferating; these groups are self-governing, independent, and voluntary. They come together to work with the Forest Service for a variety of purposes. These groups of stakeholders are not controlled by the Federal Government… .”
But is it really true the Forest Service does not attempt to control collaborative groups?
While it may be partially true that Montana’s collaboratives are voluntary, not every member of a collaborative group is a volunteer. Some are members because their jobs or affiliations require them to participate. They are paid to participate! Funded participation undercuts the Forest Service’s purposeful insinuation that these collaboratives are composed only of volunteers.
The fact that people representing activities the Forest Service is expected to regulate are not only allowed but asked to participate in collaboratives, is an indication the agency is a victim of regulatory capture.
Regulatory capture occurs when a regulatory agency is unduly influenced by an industry it is tasked with controlling. When that agency, charged with acting in the public interest, instead prioritizes the commercial concerns of the very industry it has an intrinsic duty to police rather than the interests of the public, it has been captured.
For example, in contrast to a small number of scientists, the timber industry is overly represented on the MFCN and individual collaboratives. Therefore, it is valid to ask whether the Forest Service typically minimizes findings of the best available science simply because it is being prodded by the timber industry to increase the amount of logging and thinning on agency-managed public lands.
Past actions strongly suggest the Forest Service does not believe that collaboration includes cooperation. Only when a collaborative’s suggestions agree with an agency’s management-proposed project is there any offer of support. Proposals from collaboratives not in agreement are belittled, maligned, and ignored.
As practiced in Montana, the Forest Service’s encouragement and participation in the collaborative process is an exercise in form over substance, a subterfuge designed to rationalize predetermined decisions that sacrifice the wellbeing of our public lands to producing sawlogs.
MFCN functions not for the benefit of all. It acts only for the benefit of the timber industry.
Michael Hoyt is an independent environmental researcher and the author of guidebooks for the Bitterroot Mountains.