04/28 - Environmental groups working with agencies find harshest critics are similar organizations - East Valley Tribune: News

04/28 - Environmental groups working with agencies find harshest critics are similar organizations

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Posted: Monday, April 28, 2003 10:24 am | Updated: 1:56 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

The harshest critics of environmental groups that work with federal agencies to plan forest-thinning projects typically are other environmental groups.

Cooperation is condemned as collaboration; compromise as betrayal.

A broad spectrum of environmental groups is active in Arizona. To find out how much of a premium each places on appeals and lawsuits, one need only check their Web sites.

The three groups most active in challenging treethinning projects in Arizona — the Center for Biological Diversity, Forest Guardians and the Forest Conservation Council — all tout lawsuits and appeals in their recent news releases. The center and the council also list litigation and political advocacy among their chief tactics in their mission statements.

In contrast, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Nature Conservancy, two organizations that frequently work with local groups and federal agencies to plan forestthinning projects, cite collaboration as their strengths.

"We believe enduring conservation takes place when ecology, economy and community support conservation goals," the Grand Canyon Trust states in its list of guiding principles.

The Nature Conservancy’s message is similar.

"We work closely with communities, businesses and people like you," that organization states.

Both sides say their ultimate goal is to protect the environment.

Both believe their tactics work the best.

"There is a certain amount of suspicion out there," said Pat Graham, Arizona state director of the Nature Conservancy, the nation’s largest environmental organization based on income. "If we are going to move forward on the forest health issue, we’ve got to build the trust that allows us to put these projects together more quickly and on a larger scale."

The Nature Conservancy does not get involved in appeals or lawsuits, Graham said. Rather it works with local communities and land management agencies to develop a consensus on work that needs to be done on the ground, he said.

The Nature Conservancy also uses its own funds to buy environmentally sensitive land for preservation, or to buy deed restrictions, whereby the original owners will retain title to the property but will agree to either preserve it or follow certain procedures aimed at protecting sensitive areas, Graham said.

"We don’t stay away from controversial issues, but we don’t approach them in an adversarial way," Graham said. "We’ve got to find a way to get past the conflict and build some trust."

The environmental group that has taken the most confrontational approach in Arizona, based on appeals and lawsuits filed, is the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

The center has filed a series of lawsuits that have blocked large-scale forest thinning in Arizona since 1995. In 2000, it sued to stop a thinning plan in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, a suit that dragged on for two years before the land was destroyed by the Rodeo-Chediski fire last summer.

The center was founded in December 1989 to provide scientific information needed to determine whether animals and plants should be listed as threatened or endangered, said Kieran Suckling, one of the original co-founders. Suckling and Peter Galvin, who were both active in the Earth First! environmental group, had worked as Mexican spotted owl spotters for the Forest Service, but concluded the agency was not doing enough to protect the birds, Suckling said. So they paired up with Robin Silver, an emergency room physician, to found the center. Silver developed an interest in the owl while photographing endangered species for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The center filed its first lawsuit in 1993 in an effort to protect two endangered fish native to Arizona, Suckling said.

"That really opened our eyes," Suckling said of the first lawsuit. "All of the sudden, everything switched from the world of talking heads to real conservation action occurring on the ground. Once we realized that that’s how things change, that’s when we started following up and doing more litigation. The simple reason why you litigate is it works."

Suckling said the intent of the center is not to obstruct forest-thinning projects. What the lawsuits have done is force the Forest Service and other land management agencies to follow laws written to protect endangered species and their habitats, he said.

"I have no interest in tying anything up," Suckling said. "When you see the amount of old-growth logging in Arizona dropping year by year, that’s not gridlock. That’s change."

The Grand Canyon Trust, based in Flagstaff, has been working in cooperation with local groups and the Forest Service on tree thinning projects since 1997, a year after a devastating fire season in the area, said Taylor McKinnon, program officer for the trust. The trust collaborated with other groups involved in forest management issues to form the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership, which works with the Forest Service to help plan thinning treatments in the area, McKinnon said.

The partnership was instrumental in helping plan thinning efforts in the Fort Valley area northwest of Flagstaff in 1998. Fort Valley was the first major forest thinning project planned for the Coconino National Forest after a series of court injunctions that had blocked such treatments ended in December 1997.

The plan was challenged by other environmental groups through four appeals and a lawsuit, filed by the Forest Conservation Council and Forest Guardians.

After two years of delay, the Fort Valley project proceeded after the Forest Service agreed to impose a diameter cap that prevented trees larger than 16 inches from being cut.

More recently, the trust has been active in planning a large-scale treatment in the area of Kachina Village south of Flagstaff. That project was not challenged.

Because of its willingness to work with the Forest Service, the trust is something of a pariah to other environmental groups.

"They are just too comfortable with their relationship with the Forest Service to step back and take an objective view," John Talberth of the New Mexico-based Forest Conservation Council said of the trust.

McKinnon said the distrust that comes from other environmental groups doesn’t concern him.

"We don’t work very closely with the environmental community on this stuff for obvious reasons," McKinnon said. "I understand where the rest of the environmental community is coming from on this. But for us, there’s a clear problem here and we are really focused on viable solutions."

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