Re-inventing Conservation: A Practitioner’s View
(Reprinted with permission from Island Press, Washington, D.C., “Reconstructing Conservation: History Values, and Practices”, edited by Ben A. Minteer and Robert E. Manning, publication date in late 2002.)
By Rolf Diamant, Glenn Eugster, and Nora J. Mitchell
August 23, 2002
“Timing is everything” according to an old
created the opportunity to reassess and re-envision
conservation history and philosophy, both from the
perspective of the academy and practice. From the perspective of
conservation practice it is a particularly important time to step back and
reflect on the recent trends and begin to describe a new vision of conservation
for the 21st century.
Coalitions Of Diverse Interests
The writer Rick Bass describes his neighbors on the Yaak Valley Forest Council in northwest Montana as “hunting and fishing guides, bartenders, massage therapists, road builders, heavy construction operators, writers, seamstresses, painters, construction workers, nurses, teachers, loggers, photographers, electricians and carpenters.” [i] Where once the diverse coalition working in the Yaak Valley was an unusual phenomenon, it is now more a rule rather than an exception. Community leaders don’t want to make choices between a healthy economy, culture and environment—they want it all. The diverse coalitions that have formed reflect all the interests of society. Groups such as the United Auto Workers and the Delaware Nature Education Society are supporting the protection of White Clay Creek watershed. Along the Potomac in Northern Virginia, the Arlington County Democratic Committee, patients from Fairfax County Hospital and the Greater Washington Chapter of the Jimmy Buffet “Parrott Heads” are cleaning up the River. These conservation networks are stepping forward across the country to shape the future of their communities and the landscapes that surround them.
Stuart Cohen and Sim Van der Ryn write in Ecological Design, "Everyone is a
participant and a designer!" More than in the past
The desire to conserve important values, and have natural or cultural park-like qualities in all our
communities--not just in Yellowstone or the Everglades, seems to have converged
Nation's rediscovery of democracy. Quality of life has increasingly become an
issue in the U.S. and people realize that government alone isn’t capable, or the appropriate force, to attempt to
restore communities and landscapes.
Motivated by quality aspirations and the realization that people can—and need to influence their future, groups and individuals have taken responsibility for conservation efforts in huge numbers. Local initiative, occasionally in partnership with government, has taken the form of land trusts, small watershed associations, greenway and trail groups, friends of parks, “Main Street” organizations, and heritage area coalitions. These organizations have taken a hands-on approach to craft conservation plans and work to carryout specific actions, with a level of sophistication normally found only in consulting firms and government agencies.
Democracy and Civic Dialogue
John Elder has written, “… we must pursue stewardship not simply as the maintenance of valuable resources but also as a way of fostering a broader experience of democracy and community.” [iii] Certainly, the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act of the 1960s and early 1970s forever changed the landscape of public dialogue in environmental and historic preservation decision-making. These landmark laws and many state and local derivatives vastly expanded opportunities for greater inclusiveness and public participation.
More recently, the concept of conservation as a “big tent” continues to broaden as the reach is increasing with the level of public engagement. The focus of conservation has also been extended beyond a traditional emphasis on natural resources issues such as air and water pollution, so that the public environmental agenda embraces an expanding list of “quality of life issues” including public health, sustainable practices, smart growth, energy conservation, public transportation, environmental justice, and cultural heritage.
In her landmark book, The Power of Place: Urban Landscapes as Public History, Dolores Hayden explores places associated with history of women and people of color, illustrating the loss of many and the lack of value given to those that still remain in our public memory. Hayden speaks of “memory rooted in places” and how “new kinds of professional roles and public processes may broaden the practice of public history, architectural preservation, environmental protection, and commemorative public art, when these are perceived as parts of wider urban landscape.” [iv]
Exploration of public history and memory is also opening up new venues for civic dialogue and making those conversations more inclusive. Several recent additions to the National Park System serve as illustrations including Cane River Creole National Historical Park and its plantation slave quarters; Central High School National Historic Site in Little Rock, Arkansas; and Manzanar National Historic Site, the World Ware II internment camp for Japanese American citizens. “Our goal,” writes Dwight T. Pithcaithley, Chief Historian of the National Park Service, “is … understanding who we are, where we have been, and how we as a society, might approach the future. This collection of special places also allows us to examine our past--the contested along with the comfortable, the complex along with the simple, the controversial along with the inspirational.”[v]
Measurement of Conservation Success
Robert Putnam, the widely read author of Bowling Alone, describes “social capital” as the “connections among individuals—social networks and the norms of reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them….Civic virtue is most powerful when embedded in a dense network of reciprocal social relations.”[x] It would be difficult to imagine successful conservation on any level in the twenty-first century that is not in large measure dependent on such social benefits. Fortunately, conservation activities often generate their own social capital. It is seen in grassroots organizing, fundraising, meetings, and all manner of volunteer activities.
Conservation practitioners are also seeing ethical re-evaluation and enrichment of personal and public life through the process of re-connecting to place, social networking and the act of conserving. This trend not only recognizes the centrality of place in people’s lives, but also suggests a fundamental rethinking of how success in conservation work, particularly land conservation, is measured. Reflecting on this transition, Gus Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry, has written “we broke things down to the component parts and laid out rational plans of attack, with deadlines, for tackling isolated problems. Now we know the most important resource is human motivation – hope, caring, our feelings about nature and our fellow human beings.”[xi]
Peter Forbes has been an early and consistent voice for new
measures of success. In an essay
written for Trust for Public Land’s new
Land and People ” ,
he describes conservation as an engine for social cohesion:
“To save a piece of land, people re-think their future not in terms of what they could do for themselves but in terms of what they could do for others. They are building rootedness, based on their sense of service toward one another and the land. To act on such feelings is the essence of citizenship and moves us from isolation to community.”[xii]
“The act of conserving land” he goes on to observe, “has brought into people’s moral universe a renewed sense of justice, meaning, respect, joy and love, and made people feel more complete.”[xiii]
But there is more to this than personal self-fulfillment, it is also about community building. Land conservation and social capital are so interdependent, that no action or benefit can be continued for any extended period outside of the context of a healthy, stable, engaged community vested in conservation’s success and continuity. Measurement of conservation’s contribution to social capital is gradually becoming more sophisticated. The Northern Forest Center’s Northern Forest Wealth Index is one example. The Center, a non-profit established to strengthen citizen leadership and regional collaboration in the northeast’s Northern Forest region, developed the Wealth Index based on a community’s self- assessment of core assets and values. These core assets and values, including culture, economy, educational systems, and environment, are measured to determine the overall wealth or well being of Northern Forest’s communities.[xiv]
A Framework for Multiple Objectives
Creating a framework for
multi-objective planning and decision-making came to the
the conservation movement as a result of two somewhat parallel efforts. One effort, the Unified National Program for
Floodplain Management, involved a redesign of the federal government’s approach
to flood loss reduction. This
initiative attempted to make sense out of 28 different federal agencies, with
44 different legislative authorities that were involved in flood control
activity. As a result of this effort,
long-term institutional, technical, and funding solutions to flood loss were created
using a combination of structural and nonstructural controls.
In 1989, the second effort was led by Congressmen McDade and
with the assistance of the National Park Service, in response to a growing
public concern for river conservation.
This initiative sought ideas and information from government and private
sector leaders across the U.S. about ways to “recognize all of the legitimate
beneficial public and private uses of river corridors and encourage coordinated
decisions which result in the maximum public and private benefit with the least
adverse impact on significant river values.”
While neither the Floodplain Management nor the McDade-Udall effort met all the expectations of their supporters, these efforts both had a major impact on conservation theory and practice. The multi-objective perspective began to be embraced by a significant part of the river conservation community and some parts of the federal bureaucracy. Since the National Park Service played a role in the river conservation initiative, the framework was replicated in other conservation projects and programs. These two efforts also began to redefine the traditional conservation role of government and resulted in a shift from centralized federal and state activities to a more decentralized approach.
Experimentation with entrepreneurial models of conservation economics is encouraging new ways of working and new relationships that cultivate a more sustainable development path. “Conservation Economics,” a term coined by The Nature Conservancy’s Center for Compatible Development, represents a broad range of ventures in different parts of the country.
For example, alternative financing mechanisms for sustainable development are being tested, in places like Virginia’s Cinch River Valley. The Nature Conservancy has set up a “Forest Bank” for small private woodland owners. They permanently “deposit” their timber rights in return for a guaranteed annual income based a program of sustainable forestry and the knowledge that their woodlands, often in their family for many generations, will never have to be clear cut or liquidated to meet debts.
Another example is ShoreBank Pacific, a community development bank with an environmental focus, founded as a joint venture between Shorebank Corporation of Chicago (the nation's first community development bank) and Ecotrust (an environmental non-profit). The Bank is set up to provide financial and advisory support to individuals and communities enterprises that combine conservation and economic development. These projects build both natural and financial capital but in so far they providing good jobs, generating local tax revenue. They are also strengthening community self-determination and confidence and building social capita.
More and more ventures involve food, a cultural common denominator that can build social capital in almost every corner of the world. The Nature Conservancy, for example, is now using the Web to market “Conservation Beef” from conserved ranches in Colorado’ s Yampa Valley. In addition to their financial ventures, Ecotrust also partners with local fishermen on the Columbia River to market value-add seafood with the “Fresh From Young’s Bay” label, a guarantee of both high quality and ecologically sensitive fishing practices. With the advent of the Slow Food movement, which began in Italy in the 1980s, the careful stewardship and marketing of traditional food products often cultivated or created by artisanal methods, is gaining international recognition and momentum. In many places around the world, food is bringing together people passionately committed to landscape and agricultural stewardship, cultural diversity and tradition, craftsmanship, public health, and general well being – and good, healthy food!
Experts agree that
a longer-range horizon for
conservation change will include significant investments in schools,
curriculum, and life-long learning opportunities. These investments reflect a priority on place-based education and
life skills including civic learning, service learning, and cooperative group
work and problem solving. Place-based education writes Jack Chin,
Co-director of the
Funders’ Forum on Environment and Education, “provides students with
opportunities to connect with themselves, their community, and their local
environment through hands-on, real-world learning experiences. This enables students to see that learning
is relevant to their world, to take pride in where they live, to connect with
the rest of the world, and to develop into concerned and contributing
David Lacy, an archeologist with the Green Mountain National Forest, runs a summer archeology camp for Rutland, Vermont middle school kids called “Relics and Ruins.” Guiding students to cellar holes and remnant orchards on abandoned farmsteads with sheaths of historic maps in hand, Lacy’s place-based approach to learning focuses the nature of change and its relevance for young people. “We look at artifacts and their stories but also look at the larger vision of change ” says Lacy, “and the powerful influence people have had through history on land use, shaping all our landscapes, even places that today appear wild. We want students to realize that they too hold this power in their hands and they need to be very thoughtful about the change they put in motion.”
provide for a significant optimism overall , there
several factors that present challenges to contemporary conservation
practice, particularly community-based frameworks.
Community-based efforts by their nature are independent, diverse and frequently geographically random. With the ever increasing number of relatively small public or private conservation initiatives it is harder to predict whether these efforts are efficient, effective and will accomplish anything beyond their project boundaries.
The scatter-shot approach to these efforts confronts
conservation leaders with a phenomenon called "the tyranny of small
. Community-based efforts may result in
small, apparently independent conservation decisions made by individual
communities, groups and governments that may, or may not achieve a predictable
or desirable outcome.
The Relationship Between People And Their Landscape
On the whole, the trend
in conservation practice is toward inclusiveness, collaboration and the valuing
of local people’s knowledge and experience. However, work is still being done
where people are still treated as “the problem”
, or worse,
they are object of condescension or they largely circumvented in the process. Many
conservation practitioners and technical experts are not adequately trained and
skilled in areas such as the building and maintaining of relationships,
collaborative problem solving and use of social science tools and
Chris Durney, in “Complex Systems and New Forms of
Federal Agency Involvement”, writes, “Faced with a rapidly evolving electronic
environment and greater demand—locally and nationally, for partnerships and
empowerment of local decision makers, the deterministic approaches that have
been employed up to now by many conservation agencies and organizations are no
longer sufficient”. Technology, democracy, partnerships and community-based
efforts are shaking up old notions of appropriate roles and responsibilities
particularly among government agencies. However, in many cases the delivery of
services has not been redesigned to support and enhanced the capacity of
community-based conservation organizations and efforts.
Home Rule and Fragmentation
Land use decision-making remains the responsibility of local and state governments.
Home-rule and private property issues have made meaningful discussions of region wide growth and the conservation of larger landscapes extremely sensitive and often controversial. Conservation organizations and agencies are in instances reluctant to advance, or even discuss publicly, policies and alternatives that suggest any departure from a traditional emphasis on economic development or that might be perceived as infringing on private property rights. Inability to identify and work towards larger common conservation interests, for example the protection of wildlife corridors, that would involve multiple ownerships and jurisdictions, contribute to continuing landscape fragmentation can lead to the erosion of values including habitat, scenic and cultural character and traditional agricultural land uses.
Principles for Reconstructing Conservation in the 21st Century
The emergence of community-based conservation has
shifted the center of gravity from top-down management strategies toward more
decentralized, localized, place-based approaches. This emphasis on local solutions and place-based strategies is
balanced with a greater sense of larger regional and global contexts.
Conservation practitioners are thinking at larger scales, looking at whole systems and landscapes. There is a growing emphasis on cross-boundary collaboration, interdisciplinary, and international perspectives. Conservation is often most effective working across sectors. Today there is a more favorable environment for participatory activities and co-management, and a growing appreciation of how conservation can play an important role in enhancing public life and long-term economic prosperity and sustainability.
The ethical framework for conservation is also becoming more socially inclusive, focusing on broader community values and social equity. There is also a greater respect for the cultural relationships that have developed between human communities and the natural world, often based on traditional local land use practices and a deep spiritual connection between people and place.
The analysis s(explored in
the previous section) creates Certain p the
framework for at rinciples to reflect key elements of s uccessful work in
conservation. set of principles
comprehensivehowever, is undergoing some fundamental change. Four themes –
people, dialogue, –
represent key components of this evolving framework for
conservation. They include:
, DIALOGUE, AND L
1. Conservation is always about people.
Behind every successful conservation project is an
outstanding man or woman. Our
Successful strategies acknowledge that all conservation partners, and both local and outside experts, are important. A vision for the future is built upon special knowledge of the landscapes and communities.
2. Conservation requires good civics, as well as good information.
generation of conservationists works to integrate good information with good
civics. Conservation thought and
practice requires better understanding of the values of a community and its
ecological, cultural and economical context.
The conservation process is locally led, open to public discourse, interdisciplinary, and inclusive. Dialogue, relying on story, skill and experience, is used to exchange ideas and move the discussion beyond individual opinions and points of view.
Deciding what action to take to conserve a community, a landscape, and specific sites within it requires a process--an equation, to decide what actions should be taken; why, by whom, and how? The process is consensus-based and agreement is secured at the beginning, and at every major decision point.
3creates a framework to .
4. Multi-disciplinary approaches are used to understand landscapes and communities.
Geographic context is essential in order to understand a region, watershed or site and to gain knowledge of the place, its inhabitants and all of the area’s physical, biological, and cultural history. It is essential to recognize all environmental, community and economic values.
Conservationists use resource information and community visioning to answer the following “McHargian” questions for a place (i.e. basin, physiographic region, site, etc.): What are the environments? How did they come to be? What physical, biological and social processes characterize them? What tendencies do they exhibit? What has been the effect of human use? What is their current status? What do we want for our future?
5. Conservation must integrate programs,
interests, and points of view to achieve healthy people, communities and
landscapes. Anne Swanson, in “Chesapeake Bay: Managing and Ecosystem” wrote
about the difficulties encountered in place-based efforts including…”defining
management units, understanding the biological, physical, economic, and
cultural factors at play, and structuring a management framework that properly
integrates all the component parts”.
Landscapes and the conservation business are extraordinarily
complex. A framework to manage these
places and activities must involve cooperation with a complex array of
stakeholders from all levels of the government and the private sector; strong
communication; crossing traditional areas of responsibility; respect for other
values and perspectives; and Conservationists think one size larger.
Conservation leaders think one size larger than the scale that they are working at to ensure that they understand the relationship of their actions to other values, efforts and influences. Ecology—biological, physical, and human - demonstrates that the ecological, social, economic and spatial context is important to consider in any conservation project or program. It's important to recognize the relationship of conservation work to people, businesses, living resources and values most directly affected.
6.leadership is about collaboration.
Successful chave collaboration skills, ,ssand builds organizational capacity.
8. Conservation must be approached by design and
discovery. Each landscape, community or site is unique and the
conservation process used to respond to an opportunity or a problem must be
hand-tailored to fit the unique set of circumstances. Conservation initiatives must include a dynamic interplay of two
salient features—a general emphasis on designed approaches and an openness to
discovery—that appear to work together to create forward progress in working in
places. Frances Seymour wrote in, "Are Successful
Community-based Conservation Projects Designed or Discovered" , that
design means the use of tools, templates, methods or approaches that have been
developed and proven outside a specific place and that are brought in to
respond to specific concerns or issues.
Discovery, the flip side of the design coin, is the emergence of locally
conceived and instituted actions developed to meet a particular need or demand
that may have emerged or revealed itself during the conservation process. Conservation leaders that are open to the dynamic interplay
of designed and discovered approaches will be more effective at building on the
successful traditions of a community or a landscape This
"discovery approach" has the potential to reveal and have many, many more
alternatives to solving problems or seizing opportunities for conservation.
9. We must value
Conservation success must be a higher priority than organizational power. Although most conservationists will agree
that it is more important to be successful in conservation than it is to be in charge,
many efforts are thwarted because of “organization turf” and healthy egos. Conservation efforts must be planned for
success and leaders must be willing to share decision-making, responsibilities
and the responsibility and recognition that comes with it in order to achieve
positive results. Sharing conservation
responsibility will improve effectiveness, increase efficiency, enhance equity,
fulfill missions more effectively, gain access to a larger resource base,
increase predictability, improve employee morale and public relations. . Conservation action is never just about
money. Funding is typically a high priority
with public and private conservation agencies and organizations . However, successful conservation work is never dependent
totally upon money. Whether a
conservation effort is successful or not always depends upon whether various
stakeholders can agree on what they hope to achieve together. If there is agreement on vision and on a conservation
action, money never seems to be a problem.
8. is both
In response to nearly three decades of accelerating landscape change, dis-investment in urban areas, sprawling development, and biodiversity loss, a promising new direction of community-based conservation is emerging based on the fundamental principles outlined above. It is important, however, to recognize that community-based conservation work in today’s world can often be difficult, complicated, and challenging. Success requires time, patience, and perseverance. There are few shortcuts or alternatives to a way of working that carefully builds and sustains long-term relationships, respects a process that is fundamentally democratic and inclusive, and is guided by sound conservation principles.
The conservation community is challenged to continuously broaden it base and encourage an ongoing dialogue among people representing a wide variety of backgrounds and interests. This dialogue can share conservation experiences working with wild lands and urban neighborhoods; public lands and private lands; tangible and intangible heritage; leisure and working landscapes; and the academy and practice.
Wendell Berry has written, “…people now are living on the far side of a broken connection, and that this is potentially catastrophic.” To reach out across to the far side of that broken connection, we will need to strengthen the potent ties that bind the people to places, to stories, and to one another. We will also need leadership and imagination to better define a language for conservation that is more inclusionary than the paradigms of the 19th and 20th century. We will need a conservation community that is ethical, democratic and humanistic in the broadest sense, as well as creative, entrepreneurial and intergenerational. Conservation that both taps and invests in the next generation is conservation that will have social capital for its own sustainability.
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