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  • David Mattson

The Gallatin Forest Partnership and the Tyranny of Ego

by David Mattson

We all have egos that we erect to circumscribe and reify the “self,” or so I have been told. Some scholars have gone so far as to argue that our lives consist of little more than obsessively hitting the world’s feeder bar to obtain emotional and material rewards for the ego, not unlike rats in a gigantic elaborate maze. Even so, this fundamental premise obscures important distinctions between motivations that literally arise from different portions of our brains, as well as from our narratives about who we are, what’s important, and why. And such distinctions matter when it comes to the consequences of our actions for both ourselves and others.

Art and a Movie

Terry Gilliam’s recent movie The Man Who Killed Don Quixote vividly captures the tension between what Sigmund Freud called the ego and superego, a distinction faithfully rendered centuries before by Cervantes in his original 1605 and 1615 novels. Don Quixote personifies the otherworldly, often impractical, but decidedly self-transcendent superego in his quest for the ideal; his squire, Sancho Panza, the self-concerned desires and considerations born of the egoistic flesh; but each protagonist dependent on the other. These two starkly different people in relationship embody tensions the ego, and superego that can sometimes make our individual lives rife with contradictions, and our communities torn by conflict.

Apropos, a host of artists in addition to Cervantes have been attuned since time immemorial to a fundamental divide between motivations arising from a desire to overtly gratify “self” versus other more noble motivations arising from self-transcendent aspirations—the difference, say, between egotism and greed and self-sacrifice and altruism. The former manifests as actions designed to gratify and aggrandize self with minimal regard for consequences to others; the latter characteristically features the importance of others—whether near or far in time, space, or relatedness.


Complementing this corpus of literature, Shalom Schwartz, a noted Israeli scholar, produced a 10-part schematic for describing “values” that turns out to offer a functional language for diagnosing peoples’ ego- and superego-originating motivations. Schwartz helpfully grouped a portion of his values under the super-ordinate categories of “self-transcendent” and “self-enhancing”—i.e., Universalism and Benevolence versus Achievement and Power. Of these, Universalism most closely aligns with a self-transcending superego. He notably also distinguished the values of Stimulation and Hedonism that don’t fit particularly well in any of his broader categories, yet plausibly align with Id- and ego-originating motivations.

But, more than this, Schwartz went on the make clear that there were profound consequences for humanity depending on which values, value orientations, and value exchanges dominated peoples’ behaviors and collective interactions. An obsessive focus on Power, Wealth, Security, or Conservatism, in disregard for Universalism and Benevolence, promises a cataclysmic unravelling of our increasingly interdependent world. Likewise, an ego- or id-driven obsession with Stimulation or Hedonism promises nothing good for individuals or communities, other than profits for those who cater to those impulses. Universalism emerges as a paramount value if humanity is to have any chance of creating and securing a healthy sustainable world. And, notably, Schwartz, together with scholars such as Peter Singer and Steven Pinker, has observed that universalist regard for other humans naturally accommodates similar universalist regard for other sentient species.

So, hold this thought while I jump tracks for a while to focus on something that may seem to be completely different—but isn’t.

The Custer-Gallatin NF Planning Process

For the last four-plus years the vast 3.1-million acre Custer-Gallatin National Forest of Montana has been in the process of revising its Forest Plan. This process will eventually produce an authoritative Record of Decision that determines what people will or will not be able do with specific parcels of the Forest; essentially, a land use plan with legal teeth. In certain places people will be able to ride mountain bikes, in other places, they won’t; likewise for Off-Highway-Vehicles, or OHVs. And, so on, for timber harvest, livestock grazing, camping, hang-gliding, or generally running amuck.

These planning processes are invariably contentious as stakeholders strive to have their interests codified in the Forest Plan. Some of this struggle plays out in public, in the press or through formal processes eliciting public input. Some plays out in a more overtly political way, often behind closed doors or in the muddy waters of far-off Washington, DC. In the aftermath, litigation is not uncommon. The Forest Service is invariably caught in the middle in ways that deplete morale, amplify anxiety, and jeopardize careers—at least for the proximally-involved personnel.

Enter the Gallatin Forest Partnership

So it’s not surprising that Forest Service higher-ups seized on what some might call a ploy to deflect criticism and scrutiny, while simultaneously providing legitimizing cover for whatever Plan was produced. Emerging out of a somewhat murky history, the Gallatin Forest Partnership—a consortium of 14 “stakeholder” groups—was formally adopted by the Custer-Gallatin National Forest as a centerpiece for its planning process and a forum for presumably working out differences among stakeholders. Since then Forest Service spokespeople such as Forest Supervisor Mary Erickson have often and loudly proclaimed the virtues of this stakeholder group, invoking the new-age rhetoric of citizen-based “collaboration” and “negotiation.” Perhaps cynically, one could view these proclamations as merely part of a public relations program designed to bolster the cover given to Forest Service decision-makers by this Partnership.

Importantly, there are several figurative elephants in the proverbial living room of this Partnership, partly obscured by the largely unspoken assumptions built into its bones. For one, it is assumed that all interests, all values, and all stakeholders are equal. In other words, no distinctions warrant being made among the worldviews or demands that participants bring to the table. For another, the group is tacitly assumed to be perfectly representative of the spectrum of interests that exist in the region—that none of any importance has been left out. For another yet, it is assumed that the interests of people living in the region supersede the interests of everyone else in this country. And, last, without being exhaustive, it is assumed that by simply invoking the language of “partnership” and “collaborative” all-important issues of group governance have been consummately addressed.

In fact, I would argue that all of these assumptions fail and, because of that, the Gallatin Forest Partnership warrants being seen as the ill-conceived, ill-constituted, ill-governed, sometimes cynically-motivated, and otherwise fatally-compromised group that it is. This is not to say I am hostile to collaborations or partnerships. Rather, I am averse, not only to what the Partnership embodies, but also to many of the outcomes it promises to help promulgate. Moreover, I expect a certain degree of integrity and intelligent design when any process sallies forth under the flag of collaboration in our rapidly withering democratic society.

Failures of Governance

As central in some regards as they are, issues of governance are not my main focus here. Yet they need to be briefly addressed, albeit with the qualifier that I do not claim privileged or exhaustive knowledge of all that has happened in the Partnership. I would have probably slit my wrists long before I invested the time, patience, and energy necessary to bear personal witness. Nonetheless, I do know enough to reach some unambiguous conclusions.

First, as a matter of principle, even law, regional parochial interests should not supersede interests of the national public in matters central to disposition and management of national public lands such as those on the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. If nothing else, parochial interests are notoriously biased towards direct exploitation in one form or another—whether for profit or thrill. Think mountain biking, snowmobiling, snowboarding, downhill skiing, outfitting dudes, outfitting hunters, logging, mining, and more. In terms of Schwartz’s values schematic: Stimulation, Wealth, Achievement, and even Power—the self-enhancing values.

Second, the Partnership is not, in fact, representative. Parenthetically, representation is the all-important but grossly neglected aspect of most collaboratives. Who has authoritative standing and voice in the process, and does that affordance provide participation for all important interests?—questions that are rarely asked and even more rarely seriously addressed. In the case of the Partnership, representation was largely a consequence of attrition or crass assessments of cost-benefit. In some instances, people or groups left as victims of passive-aggressive exclusion. In other instances, groups chose to be at the table simply because they concluded that they had more to gain than lose by participating. Often, these same groups or businesses (think the Greater Yellowstone Coalition or Lone Mountain Ranch) had paid staff they could commit for the duration. Not an auspicious or representative collection.

And, again, without being exhaustive…third, group governance was far from ideal. Yes, the Partnership went through tedious rituals tantamount to Robert’s Rules under the direction and tutelage of a moderator. But a veneer such as this does not equate to good governance. Often, in fact, such a façade merely serves as cover for backroom bargains and behind-the-scenes deal making. Think of the reality that governs what actually happens in the Senate versus the tedium dictated by 1200 pages of rules and the Leader’s gavel. In fact, by all indications, behind the scenes deal-making backed by tacit (if not overt) threats largely dictated the more substantive Partnership outcomes. It doesn’t hurt to be a Partnership member with vast wealth (as were two of the members), ownership of substantial inholdings (as were two), and willing to issue threats delivered by a well-paid large white male who knows how to work behind-the-scenes politics (as was one).

Not All Motives are Equal

But this is not my primary focus. Rather, I go back to where I started, which is non-equivalence of motivations. More to the point, not all values, interests, or demands are equal in a world teetering on the edge of an ecological and even political cataclysm.

In Terry Gilliam’s movie, the Sancho Panza character (AKA, Toby) often laments that nobody is thinking about him or his plight. The Don Quixote character retorts, “Why does everything always have to be about you, Sancho?! Me, me, me, me, me, me.” Meanwhile, Don Quixote is obsessing about his passionate necessarily unconsummated love for Dulcinea, pursuing and defeating malevolent Enchanters, and restoring the lost ideals and honor of chivalry.

Perhaps it is testimony to the randomness of my associations, but these vignettes from the movie struck me as having an uncanny similarity to the dichotomy of public rhetoric surrounding our debate over what to do (or not do) with the Custer-Gallatin National Forest. Almost invariably, those who represent themselves as spokespeople for mountain bikers (three groups on the Partnership) or OHV users (not represented on the Partnership) voice an analog of “Me, me, me, me, me, me.” Or, more closely, “why should I have to forgo my thrill-sport to benefit wildlife or some hikers. What about me and my enjoyment of the Forest?” By contrast, those extolling the virtues of protecting as much untrammeled wilderness as possible are, perhaps, fighting the malevolent Enchanters. Their invocations are (literally) of “future generations” and of “animals and other living things that have no voice.”

The invoked scales are in similar striking contrast. Among those advocating greater “use,” the relevant scale seems to be here, now, and local. There is already enough Wilderness , with a capital “W” (39% of the Custer-Gallatin). For those advocating greater protections, the relevant scale is the long-term and the national—if not global. At this broader scale, Wilderness is much imperiled and a trivial portion of our national allocation of lands (only 2.4% of the coterminous US).

One response to this might be “so what.” My retort is, a lot.

The Stakes are High

There is no ambiguity about the psychological roots or invoked and manifest values on different sides of this debate. Self-identified “users,” whether for thrill or profit, are transparently deploying self-enhancing values rooted in feeding the ego—in the crass sense of more immediate gratification, with little regard for other generations or other sentient beings. By contrast, those advocating maximum allocations for Wilderness are deploying self-transcendent values arising from the superego. Realizing I have in some measure reduced the contesting narratives—and people—to a caricature, due regard for nuance still does not make the divide a subtle one.

And, moreover, the stakes are high. At one level this is about designation of Wilderness in the Gallatin Range and Crazy Mountains on a Forest already rich in Wilderness, yet situated at a crossroads of nationally-imperiled biodiversity. Others have already written eloquently about this aspect of things. But at another level, this debate and related controversy is a window into monumental issues of survival—of wildness, of biodiversity, of functional natural systems, even of humanity.

The extent to which human affairs continue to be governed by primacy of the ego and related pursuit of self-enhancing values will dictate, in turn, the extent to which any semblance of health and sustainability will remain globally imperiled. Mountain bikers careening down a trail in pursuit of the next adrenalin fix at a cost to our increasingly threatened wildlands and wildlife may not seem like a momentous threat. Yet nothing exists in isolation. Such people, such behaviors, and such motivations are not part of the solution to our global existential crisis. They are part of the problem.

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