This last Saturday morning I stood in a circle of friends in a meadow next to a Nature Conservancy preserve on Block Island off Rhode Island’s south coast. It was a perfect, cloudless late summer day with a cool northwest wind, crickets singing in the tall grass, and the bright sun illuminating a vast blue ocean. We were there to celebrate the life of Dennis Wolkoff, a long-time Nature Conservancy leader who died last spring. Dennis had a distinguished record of accomplishment at the Conservancy. One of the things he himself and all of his colleagues valued most about his work was his role in the remarkable story of the conservation of Block Island.
In the last 30 years, Block Island has gone from 4 percent of its land conserved to almost 44 percent. Virtually every place identified as important to protect the island’s scenic, biological and recreational character has been saved.
Block Island is protected, but there are more and more natural places at risk. Each year, our nation loses 3 million acres of land to development. Congress has the power to change that – now. Legislation pending in the U.S. Senate can ensure reliable and substantial funding to protect large areas of land and water.
This is the most important conservation legislation in decades, including full funding of $900 million a year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and provisions for offshore drilling safety and Gulf of Mexico restoration. The U.S. House of Representatives should be commended for passing similar measures in the CLEAR Act in July.
I encourage you to join the Conservancy in supporting this legislation to protect your important lands and waters.
There are several lessons for conservation across the country in the history of cooperative conservation work on Block Island:
- The conservation effort was begun by, led by and inspired by some of the oldest island families — merchant seamen, farmers, real estate agents and schoolteachers who desperately wanted to save the character (and the economic future) of their home.
- There was an exceptional level of cooperation among non-profit organizations and government agencies who arrived at common priorities and worked together to get things done.
- The conservation results are mostly accessible and valuable to everyone including the thousands of ordinary people who ride the ferries to Block Island every summer to enjoy a day away from the cities where they live and work.
- There has been continuity and trust among the individuals involved over all those years.
- The Federal government, through money from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, played a critical role in getting it all started.
Why was the Land and Water Conservation Fund and Federal help so important? Around 1980, at a time when neither the state government nor local groups had any money for conservation land acquisition, the donation of a conservation easement and a trail along the ocean by an island resident was used to match Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund money to acquire other conservation properties. This began a chain of land protection accomplishments that continues today. And a National Park Service technical assistance program helped to create a conservation plan that became the blueprint for cooperation among local, state, Federal and non-profit groups and agencies.
In addition to supporting the acquisition of land for well-used Federal wildlife refuges, forests and parks, this is just the sort of catalyst role The Nature Conservancy sees for the Land and Water Conservation Fund across the U.S. in the 21st century. We know from our ongoing experience in the field, from our public opinion polls, and most recently, from the America’s Great Outdoors outreach sessions held by the Obama Administration, that people around the country very much want to work together to protect the natural areas and the working forests, ranches and farms that define the character of the places they call home.
Now that I am back in Washington, I cannot help but wish that the members of the U.S. Senate could have been standing in that meadow on Block Island with us last weekend. That circle of good people and the saving of Block Island’s landscape would have been a compelling argument for the passage of the legislation that would, at last, assure that the Land and Water promise made so long ago is kept in the years to come.
Despite their differences on so many other issues, one would hope that Senators of both parties would, in the end, like to be remembered, as we remember our friend, Dennis Wolkoff–as men and women who acted in time to make it possible for the citizens of our country to work together to protect what’s best about the beautiful and remarkable places where they live, work and visit. Our children and grandchildren may be critical of some things we do today, but all of our history suggests that they will only be grateful, only remember us well, for the opportunity to walk with their children along a quiet path in the forest, along a mountain ridge, by a winding river or across a Block Island meadow with the view of the sea shining in the late summer sun.
(Image: The white blooms of Shadbush decorate the lush Spring landscape on the trail in “the Maze” on the northeast corner of Block Island, Rhode Island.)