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Public participation in transparent decisionmaking has been proposed as a panacea for environmental protection. Bargaining theory suggests drawbacks to transparency such as hardening of attitudes and intransigence. Yet achievement of consensus on environmental values for integrated water resource management demands public involvement. Historical study of attempts to prevent reservoir construction in upland valleys designated for protection of nature suggests that ‘closed-door’ bargaining proved more effective for environmentalists than open, public debate. Records now open for analysis of disputes over Teesdale and Farndale, 1950–1970, allow comparisons to be made between behind-the-scenes deliberations and ‘open-door’ public discussion. The ambition of progressing from public participation to devolution of environmental decisionmaking and responsibility to the local scale demands more conceptualization of the process of decisionmaking on water resource development.