A New Year needs a new conservation movement

The Conservation Movement needs to reinvent itself. It's time for the new Conservation Movement if we are to stem the tide of critical habitat loss. The original movement, whose idea was birthed by Thoreau, energized in adolescence by Theodore Roosevelt, matured with the essays of Aldo Leopold and called to action in its prime by Rachel Carson is on its deathbed.

"Despite nearly a century of propaganda, conservation still proceeds at a snail's pace; progress still consists largely of letterhead pieties and convention oratory. On the back forty we still slip two steps backward for each stride forward."

So wrote Aldo Leopold in his essay "The Land Ethic", published as part of his book "A Sand County Almanac" in 1949.

Almost 60 years later, little has changed.

Certainly Leopold's Land Ethic — what he identified as the "third element in human environment" — has not evolved to any legitimate level of maturity in the American conscience since it was written.

Can we afford the time to allow it to evolve, if it ever will, naturally?

We continue to lose critical habitats like grasslands and wetlands at alarming rates. And we accept it by anesthetizing ourselves (to paraphrase Leopold) by: obeying the law, voting right, joining some organizations, and practicing what conservation is profitable on our own land; and hoping the government will do the rest.

Government is incapable of doing the rest.

It is as much a part of the problem (the documented environmental destruction done by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, misguided agriculture policies, etc.) as it is a part of the solution (farm bill conservation programs, the Wilderness Act, the Endangered Species Act, et al).

Obeying the law simply entails not doing any further harm but doesn't require the law-abiding citizen to do anything to restore what is already lost.

Voting "right" — whatever that means — doesn't necessarily mean your conservation-minded candidate will win (or do what he/she promised).

Too many self-professed conservation organizations don't get dirt under their fingernails. They're mostly talk. Agents of audible advocacy, and do no real land restoration at all. Talk truly is cheap compared to the price of real land restoration, protection and management.

And there are few profitable conservation practices out there that private landowners can immediately see a positive change in their bottom line.

The traditional "buy it and fence it off" protection advocated by the land trust conservation real estate industry is economically limited. And bully pulpit conservation via presidential decree — which Roosevelt used so effectively — is non existent.

This all adds up to the present-day Conservation Movement being on life support.

The triage necessary to save and reinvigorate the Conservation Movement is exactly what Leopold identified as a "... basic weakness in a conservation system based wholly on economic motives ..." But it is these very economic motives that are exactly what's needed to launch a vibrant new Conservation Movement.

Leopold argued "... that most members of the land community have no economic value." He gave wildflowers and songbirds as examples. Maybe not in a traditional sense do they have economic value, but I offer that an endangered wildflower or a threatened songbird do have economic value.

More importantly, an endangered or threatened landscape like the duck factory wetlands of the Prairie Pothole Region and its associated grasslands has tremendous economic value (far more than the insanity of plowing it under to plant corn for ethanol).

Instead, landowners could sell Prairie Pothole wetlands or grasslands "credits" to private industry as an "offset" to pollution or habitat degradation. This would bring new and much needed money into the business of conservation restoration and protection.

Present laws can't restore what is already lost and won't protect all of what is left of our grasslands, wetlands and other important ecosystems. Government programs and the efforts of individual conservation organizations can't do the job by themselves either. But a combination of these along with private money paying for environmental credits, which in turn give viable economic options to private landowners, makes restoring and protecting these incredible landscapes actually possible.

What has evolved, matured and changed since Leopold's initial skepticism of "... a conservation system based wholly on economic motives ..." is that the members and benefits these land communities provide to the public do have economic value.

The list is growing: air quality credits, wetland credits, flood storage credits, sedimentation credits, threatened and endangered species credits, water quality credits, critical habitat credits.

It's time for the Conservation Movement to get off its deathbed and push hard for the recognition and regulatory acceptance of these credits and a free-market system for the purchase and sale of them.

I watched this credits system work when the electric utility company Entergy paid for the restoration of 600 acres of bottomland hardwoods in Arkansas along with paying the landowner to lease the resulting carbon credits those trees would create over 80 years of trapping and sequestering the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. The government chipped in with an easement payment, and the non-profit I was working for facilitated the whole deal. Entergy was committed and willing to pay for offsetting its CO2 emissions from its day-to-day operations.

But what struck me most was the old farmer at the press conference who said how happy he was to restore his land back to the great forest it once was.

Had he evolved into a Leopold Land Ethic of sorts? No, not quite.

That farmer finished by reaching into his pocket and jingling his change and saying, "And it sure feels good to get paid for it, too."

Fortune 500 company.

Rural landowner.

Government conservation program.

Conservation non-profit organization.

Habitat — Leopold's back forty — restored. An example of the new Conservation Movement at work.