Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Stewardship and Aldo Leopold

Webster's dictionary defines stewardship as "the individual's responsibility to manage his life and property with proper regard to the right's of others."

Who are the others we would be concerned about if we wish to practice good stewardship?  Our family, neighbors, community, region, state, nation, world?  All of the above, and more.

Aldo Leopold, in his seminal work "A Sand County Almanac,"  writes of the need for a new land ethic, in which common citizens see the land as a community of plants and animals, within which the human community lives.  By seeing ourselves as connected to all other living things, our relationship with the land  changes,  and that is different from that of most of our ancestors.

"In short," he writes, "the land ethic changes the role Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.  It implies respect for his fellow-members [animals and plants], and also respect for the community as such."

When land is treated as a community as opposed to a commodity, it becomes unthinkable to allow extinctions of plants and animals that we have a responsibility to treat with "proper regard."

Aldo Leopold learned while working for the US Forest Service that the government itself cannot be expected to do all that is necessary for good land stewardship.  In fact, he was able to see during his travels all over the country that private citizens often did a far better job at land stewardship than the government.  By providing incentives and assistance, however, the government can and does enhance the degree of stewardship being practiced thoughout our nation.

Leopold would likely have been astounded at how the extension of his ideas has manifested itself in the modern world, with millions of acres of land under private ownership having land use agreements (conservation easements) that will assure "proper regard" for the future protection of the plants and animals in the land community he wrote about two generations ago.

Yet he might also be disappointed at how many still regard the land as a commodity and wilderness as a place to be tamed and put to human use.  We have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go.


Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Case for Open Space Funding

CT and much of New England currently has far more trees and small forests than it did in colonial days.  Our ancestors cleared much of the land for farming, lumber and charcoal.  The land can recover, if not covered with asphalt. 

But sprawl has decimated much of the deep "core forest" areas that are essential habitat for much of our wildlife, especially in CT.  The big mammals (moose, bear, cougar, wolf, fisher, beaver) become too close for human comfort when residential development extends into the forest and chops up the intact large forest blocks that provide them food and cover.  So their comeback will cause conflicts that can be avoided if core forests are preserved.

Birds are no such threat to humans, but are of major importance to our culture, our love of nature, and our economy.  Birdwatching, and the tourism and recreation it inspires, is a multibillion dollar industry.  But many of our interior forest birds are in serious jeopardy from loss of "core forest" habitat. They include Cerulean Warblers, Scarlet Tanagers and Wood Thrushes, treasured for their feathered beauty as well as their songs, .

The "American dream" of a house with a big backyard has driven the residential housing market for generations. The impact of this building pattern on the forests has been devastating.  Consider that CT has a little over 3 million people and 3 million acres of land, much of it unsuitable for building.  Giving everyone their "acre" of space would destroy every forest and farm in the State. 

A new paradigm favoring more dense residential development in already-developed locales will revive our urban areas, and not only saves forests but makes for transportation and utility efficiency.  Such development lowers the human impact on climate change and the pollution of our air and water.  We need healthy cities to prevent the urban flight that puts enormous pressure on the natural resources of rural areas.  Acquisition of open space redirects investment into our urban areas to make them more healthy and sustainable.

Significant open space funding for acquisition now comes from the state's Community Investment Act  (CIA), dedicated fees levied on land record filings.  Some would raid these funds to help balance the State budget, blind to the importance of saving forests and agricultural lands, meadows and fields.

Bonding has provided another major source of open space state funding in the past.  Some would stop bonding any new open space projects, failing to see the value in buying now to save this land when it is available at lower cost and while it is still available in large undeveloped parcels that are a key to wildlife diversity.

In general, it seems unfair to borrow today with bonds while making the next generation pay the bill.  But in the case of open space, future generations will treasure the land that is saved even more than today's generation.  As pressures from population growth and lifestyles continue to expand, our wildlife and air and water quality are increasingly threatened. Over the years, conserved land will gain in real value but also in biological value, protecting these natural resources. 

As investments by the State go, bonding for open space provides huge economic and social value for future generations as well as our own, and thus makes sense even in hard economic times.  Note that some of the CT's best State Parks were purchased during the Great Depression.

I have been asked to write a one page "Case for Open Space Funding" for our legislators, to encourage them to see the wisdom of maintaining current open space funding by saving the "CIA" and supporting bonds for open space conservation.  My case, above, is already too long. I am sure there others out there that can do better.

I invite any of you that can make the case in shorter and more effective terms to edit or replace what I have written above, to make the case in fewer words and with greater impact.  We (the birds, the turtles, the spring peepers and I) need your help! 

The Comment section is a blank slate, awaiting your wisdom to help us win this round of unmonopoly.  The case should be the same whether you live here or abroad, so don't by shy if logic and persuasion are your strength, no matter where you live.

Thanks, David

Monday, February 7, 2011

Religion and Environmentalism

Playing Unmonopoly, some might argue, is akin to "playing God."  Saving land for biodiversity is like building Noah's Ark, and every decision on policy related to conservation favors some species or another, with godlike implications. Certainly, there are many whose religious beliefs and environmentalism run hand in glove.

But religion is not based on science, while environmentalism is.  And divisiveness among religions is the rule, while it is the exception among the environmental community where the scientific method, rather than faith and dogma, becomes the arbiter of disputes. 

Those who wish to be successful at the game of Unmonopoly would do well to keep their religion separate, perhaps as a partner but not as the leader, if one wishes to gain the necessary respect from all the stakeholders in seeking a sustainable world with a healthy environment, with clean air and pure water.  The historical conflicts of religion unfortunately tend to be settled by war, an approach which is the antithesis of conservation.

An excellent article on the subject of whether Environmentalism is a Religion is found at the following website.  I encourage interested readers to pursue it:
Incidentally, NRDC, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the website where the above article is found, has been a key player in the conservation game for a generation.


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Saving Land - learning the ropes

When I returned to live in my home town of Salem, CT after my years of education and 2 years in the US Army medical corps, I had already been involved in land conservation at the federal level.

I worked with the Sierra Club while in my OB-Gyn training years in Ann Arbor, MI, in the late 1960's.  The state chapter there was deeply involved in getting Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore designated by Congress as a National Park service site.  My role there was tiny, because I had no money and little time.  But I could do math and offered to serve as treasurer for the chapter, an organization with little money but a lot of talent and enthusiastic activism.

By offering to play that role, I sat in on the deliberations and strategy sessions, and met those who were focused on getting out letters to higher officials, educating the public, bringing people to see their special places so that they would care about protecting them, testifying at hearings.  I learned a lot there about how group activism empowers individuals who could never succeed on their own, and how persistence overcomes what seem to be impossible obstacles by wearing away the opposition over time.

When I completed my medical training, I went to Ft Bragg, NC, in 1971.  The Viet Nam War was on and I had signed up to join when my training was complete.  I went in with the rank of Major, and didn't even know how to salute!  But it was soon after the amazing national awakening at the first Earth Day.  Coming from Ann Arbor, I knew a lot about organizing groups, and I was ready to do my part for Mother Earth.

There was a strong Sierra chapter in North Carolina, and I volunteered to get a group going in the small city of Fayetteville.  Being a military town, one would think that environmental activism would be given a hard time.  But the opposite was the case.

My wife Annie B collected letters to the editor of the local newspaper, written by local people on environmental issues.  She then looked up all the phone numbers  of that group that we could find and invited them to a meeting to discuss how they could get their concerns addressed by the local government or the state. 

We expected 2 or 3 might come, and were amazed to find about 15 people crowded into our little living room, wanting to help in whatever way they could.  There many issues raised, and we talked about the different national organizations that they could join to work on their particular issue.  But all of us had some interest in all of the issues raised.  The one organization that seemed able to help us address all of the various interests of the group was the Sierra Club.  So we formed a group, went through the approval process from the state chapter (it was minimal, and nelped with templates for such things as by-laws), and we went to work.

We picked up litter, we went to major sites of concern in the state, we started a recycling center and got the city to separate newspapers from the rest of the trash.

Getting involved is the first step.  Finding compatible partners is the second, if you want to be successful at the conservation game. There are plenty of people around you who want and need your talents. They will know what to do. You learn by doing.


Saturday, February 5, 2011

Introduction to Unmonopoly, the game of land conservation

Growing up on a farm in rural Connecticut, the natural world was my playground.  And what a playground it was, and still is, for one interested in frogs and beetles, birds and snakes.

Little did I know that planners were considering damming the river for future water supplies and recreation, and to provide jobs for builders and boatsmen,  by turning our remarkable valley into a lake.

The farm my father inherited is in a valley where I now live.  The land straddles the Eightmile River.  The river, and in fact the whole watershed, is now designated as a Wild and Scenic River, worthy of federal protection.  How it got protected is part of this story, for another day.

I left the valley for an extensive "education" which taught me remarkably well about basic science, literature, the history of man, and the arts.  But in retrospect, it failed to educate me in an area which may most important of all for future human survival. 

I got no lessons at all in ecology, in natural history, in the study of how mankind relates to the environment that sustains our communities.  But I learned how to learn, and I have been an enthusiastic student.  Fortunately, there have been wonderful teachers and writers and mentors I have learned from along the way.  Hopefully, I can tell you about them as well one day.  They are worth knowing about.

As time passed, however, it has become clear that the wonders of nature I have hungered to learn about are increasingly at risk.  The incredible natural playground I grew up in was threatened by plans for a dam.  Neighboring towns sprouted subdivisions where there once were hundreds of farms.  Pressures from population growth but also from consumptive lifestyles are putting unsustainable pressure on what is a limited and fragile planet that seems to shrink by the day.

So my life has become devoted to trying to restore and protect the delicate equilibrium of nature that mankind is tipping out of balance.  Spectacular and fascinating life forms are becoming extinct before we even know them. Where we are responsible for this disruption, worldwide we (mankind) have an obligation to ourselves and our fellow creatures to restore and protect this fragile planet called earth.

It has been said that "the art of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts."  And the best way to save the parts is to conserve land, watersheds and oceans.  We can do conservation by fiat if we had the will and the  power (we don't in this nation, and don't want to in a democracy).  We can do conservation by regulation if we have sufficient police to enforce the rules (we can't, or won't, afford them).  Or we can seek ownership of the land and/or development rights and provide stewardship.

Ownership is something our society respects highly.  Stewardship issomething society needs to learn mdore about.  This approach, seeking appropriate ownership and applying stewardship, has been my avocation for 50 years.  In that time I have worked on projects where lands or land-protection agreements have been acquired for conservation by the federal government, the states, local communities and private non-profit organizations such as land trusts.  There are lessons to be learned at each level.

Each deal requires skills similar to those I used when I played Monopoly as a boy. But in this new game,  the winner has the fewest houses and hotels, the most undeveloped land, the most biodiversity.  Thus I have been playing what I like to call Unmonopoly.  Success at this game takes the same strategies, and makes everyone a winner.

I was good at the conventional board game, Monopoly, in my youth - a winner most of the time I played.  The game I play now is much more serious, but it uses all of the same skills.  And it has also been more fun, because really there are no losers.  Biodiversity is the winner, and all humanity is in the game, directly or indirectly.

Each acre saved is an important one for the thousands of critters living there. Thanks to those who have been playing this game, thousands of acres have been protected just in our watershed. Internationally, conservation partners have saved millions more. 

And the rewards are gratifying.  Every time I hear a spring peeper, or birdsong or the call of a coyote in our valley, I feel it is saying "thank you" for protecting this land. 

The deed on file at Town Hall says my father's farm will have no development on it "in perpetuity."  How long is that?  We won't know until it is over.  But land protection agreements in the US have stood up for hundreds of years.  And that is good enough for me to have worked to get the family to sign over these rights.

There is much work to be done. The game never really ends, since there will continue to be risks to the environmental and economically sustainability of our community, region, nation. Many more citizens with talent are needed to pursue the game after we are gone, to seek the security of a world where human communities on earth are in harmony with nature.

I welcome your thoughts and suggestions for playing Unmonopoly.  And if you are not playing already, I urge you to participate in the game.