Right behind an historic show of bipartisanship in the Montana congressional delegation, a new study of collaborative efforts in the state claims that playing nice together can reap big rewards.
The “Collaboration at a Crossroads” report looked at 15 of the 37 active roundtables trying to fix land-use issues in Montana.
Accomplishments ranged from 15,000 acres of noxious weed treatment backed by the Blackfoot Challenge to a dozen detailed recommendations for the Flathead National Forest management plan provided by the Whitefish Range Partnership.
The Coalition to Protect the Rocky Mountain Front scored one of the most tangible results of all – inclusion of its wilderness, recreation and noxious weed legislation in the National Defense Authorization Act, which the U.S. House of Representatives approved Thursday.
Republican Rep. Steve Daines and Democratic Sens. Jon Tester and John Walsh stood together Wednesday to reveal the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act’s inclusion in the must-pass legislation. The coalition’s mix of hunters, conservationists, ranchers, bicyclists, business owners and politicians kept the bill moving forward since 2006.
“I think that announcement gave Montanans hope and reason to believe in the process,” said Scott Brennan, Montana state director of The Wilderness Society, which commissioned the study. “Montanans of all stripes are really committed and working hard together to solve some long-standing problems. And all collaboratives benefit when Montana’s congressional delegation bucks the national trend and works together.”
Report participant Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber said collaboration was also working on a smaller scale with the U.S. Forest Service.
The Seeley Lake-based Pyramid Mountain has been a leader in developing stewardship contracts in which local community needs are bartered with access to timber to improve both wildlife habitat and local employment.
The challenge has been keeping the government focused on those local efforts.
“We believe collaboration is the future of the Forest Service,” Sanders said. “Continual turnover within the agency makes it difficult to have consistency with collaboratives. They recognize that. They know it’s an issue, and they’re working hard to get more consistency.”
Collaborative groups have their share of detractors. The Whitefish Range Partnership has been criticized by some as exclusive, while others question whether the Forest Service will give its effort any more weight than other politically focused groups.
Michael Jamison of the National Parks Conservation Association and a WRP member said sometimes the word gets in the way.
“There are two definitions of ‘collaborate,’ ” Jamison said. “It can be to work jointly to create something, or to cooperate traitorously with the enemy. There’s that fundamental difference of opinion about what it means when we say collaborate. I choose the former definition.”
Former legislator and Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown chaired the WRP. He said some simple rules can make group decision-making successful.
One is that everyone must be polite. The other is that everyone must agree to the final product – because the power of individual vetoes forces everyone to concentrate on doing the things that can be done.
“In the Legislature I always followed the old rule: Everyone’s entitled to their say, but no one’s entitled to their way,” Brown said. “I’m an old guy, but today I’m pretty optimistic. I think good things are beginning to happen in our political system.”