Creative Conservation

Yellowstone National Park

As the first cold fronts come through Washington, my wife and I have begun to make plans for our annual winter trip to Montana to see our children. A high point of the trip for me is cross-country skiing in the backcountry of Yellowstone National Park. It is about as close as one can get in the lower 48 to going back in time.

Yes, I know from the ongoing discussion at the Conservancy about the “age of man” that no place, not even Yellowstone in winter, is unaffected by human impacts.

This discussion is not new. More than 60 years ago, Aldo Leopold wrote, “man’s invention of tools has enabled him to make changes (to the land) of unprecedented violence, rapidity and scope.” Science writer Emma Marris (who spoke at the Conservation Leadership Team meeting in Utah a few weeks ago) advances the argument that we will have to learn to accept a nature altered by human activities.

So, while I hate to admit it, now it seems that every place requires some form of management, even if only to protect what remains of its “natural” condition.

The extent to which this is true was brought home to me in a recent conversation with Phil Kramer, The Nature Conservancy’s Caribbean director. He described the die-back of coral reefs in his region and his team’s efforts to restore them by selecting coral genotypes that seem most resilient to warmer water, growing those corals in nurseries, and then using them to rebuild reefs at many locations.

For thousands of years, consciously and unconsciously, humans have shaped their environments to fit their needs, but this kind of intentional intervention to respond to the growing threats to nature seems to me to represent a new direction in conservation. We are now trying to create our conservation future at increasingly large scales.

This creative conservation process builds on the analytical approaches to conservation that we have used in the past, but it does not depend only on baseline analysis of historic ecosystems to establish goals for the future. Rather, it requires that our goals be derived from a synthesis of human and natural needs and benefits guided by what Leopold called “a land ethic” — an informed personal responsibility for the health and future of our land and water.

I wrote a recent essay on this subject that appeared in “Land Lines,” the publication of the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy. In the essay I suggested that if creative conservation is to be successful, it must:

  • Work at the landscape scale and come more from “the bottom up” through what the Conservancy now calls whole system conservation.
  • Use multiple conservation tools at the same time.
  • Recognize, respect, and quantify the short- and long-term human benefits of conservation.
  • Continue to reference baseline conditions as a guide to our actions.
  • Learn to balance adaptive management with long term goals because successful, creative conservation projects extend over decades, not years.
  • Maintain fair and consistent environmental protection laws as a consistent and flexible framework for shaping the future.
  • Do more to ensure the involvement of citizens and diverse stakeholders in planning for the future because if our society is not simply protecting nature, but creating a future world, then all of us have an even greater right to be involved in setting those goals.
  • Identify, train, and mentor a new generation of local conservation leaders.

And, I argued, that these steps can advance practical solutions to the nation’s growing political impasse on conservation and the environment. At the heart of this impasse is the shared belief that we have lost control over the future of our families and communities, that we have become victims of the actions of distant forces. Done right, creative conservation can give all of us significant roles in shaping the future of the places most important to us — our home ranges.

It also offers two benefits that can have powerful political traction — the opportunity for better places to live, work, and visit that provide tangible benefits to our lives, and the sense of respect and self-worth implicit in helping to determine the future of the places we love.

The stone arch at the North Entrance to Yellowstone was erected to commemorate the creation of the park and is inscribed “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” But now, in the twenty-first century, it seems to me that the gateway arch also has an important message about looking outward from the park, down the Paradise Valley where the Yellowstone River heads toward the Missouri, the Mississippi, and the Gulf of Mexico. The conservation challenge before us, against all odds and whether we like it or not, is to create a future for the benefit of the people, based on a respect for and understanding of the multiple values of nature in many more places across America.

Click here for the complete essay in the Lincoln Institute for Land Policy publication.

[Image: Yellowstone National Park. Image source: AnitaErdmann/Flickr]

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