Conservation for a New Generation: Redefining Natural Resources Management

Conservation for a New Generation: Redefining Natural Resources Management

by Richard L. Knight

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In hundreds of watersheds and communities across the United States, conservation is being reinvented and invigorated by collaborative efforts between federal, state, and local governments working with nongovernmental organizations and private landowners, and fueled by economic incentives, to promote both healthy natural communities and healthy human communities.


In hundreds of watersheds and communities across the United States, conservation is being reinvented and invigorated by collaborative efforts between federal, state, and local governments working with nongovernmental organizations and private landowners, and fueled by economic incentives, to promote both healthy natural communities and healthy human communities.

Conservation for a New Generation captures those efforts with chapters that explain the new landscape of conservation along with case studies that illustrate these new approaches. The book brings together leading voices in the field of environmental conservation—Lynne Sherrod, Curt Meine, Daniel Kemmis, Luther Propst, Jodi Hilty, Peter Forbes, and many others—to offer fourteen chapters and twelve case studies that

• demonstrate the benefits of government agencies partnering with diverse stakeholders;
• explore how natural resources management is evolving;
• discuss emerging practices for conservation, including conservation planning, ecological restoration, valuing ecosystem services, and using economic incentives;
• promote cooperation on natural resources issues that have in the past been divisive.

Throughout, contributors focus on the fundamental truth that unites human and land communities: as one prospers, so does the other; as one declines, so too will the other. The book illustrates how natural resources management that emphasizes building strong relationships results in outcomes that are beneficial to both people and land.

Editorial Reviews

Natural Areas Journal - Monte P. Sanford

"Conservation for a New Generation is a must read for those engaged in conservation science or practice. The book is uplifting, motivating, and encouraging of new ways of thinking about and doing conservation. The book should become a standard in conservation biology and natural resources management courses across colleges and universities around the globe."
Australasian Journal of Environmental Management

"Conservation for a New Generation would be well suited as supplementary reading material for a university course, or could also serve as a reference piece for managers who could benefit from new approaches to problem solving."
Choice - R. L. Smith

"Conservation for a New Generation is a must read for all conservationsists."

-- R. L. Smith, emeritus, West Virginia University

Natural Areas Journal

"Conservation for a New Generation is a must read for those engaged in conservation science or practice. The book is uplifting, motivating, and encouraging of new ways of thinking about and doing conservation. The book should become a standard in conservation biology and natural resources management courses across colleges and universities around the globe."

"Conservation for a New Generation is a must read for all conservationsists."

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Read an Excerpt

Conservation for a New Generation

Redefining Natural Resources Management

By Richard L. Knight, Courtney White


Copyright © 2009 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-921-6



Curt Meine

We head north at sunset through choppy waters along the east shore of James Bay. Fred guides our fleet of three fully loaded, twenty-foot freighter canoes though a labyrinth of islands, mainland points, and submerged granite ledges. Fred is the ouchimaw in this part of the Cree nation of Wemindji. Among the James Bay Cree, the ouchimawch serve (in the words of one student of their vital role) as "senior grassroots managers of this vulnerable ecosystem."

We have spent several days at the community's annual gathering on Old Factory Island, forty miles downshore as the canoe glides (figure 1.1). Now we are heading back to the village, where the Cree relocated two generations ago, in 1959. Bouncing over the waves in the pink subarctic twilight, we pass islands crowned in dark spires of white spruce and balsam fir. One small island catches my eye. Beneath a rise of barren granite, a series of terraces steps down toward the chilly waters of James Bay. The land around the bay in Quebec and Ontario is rebounding. At the time of the last glacial maximum, twenty thousand years ago, this place lay buried under five thousand meters of glacial ice at the heart of the Laurentide Ice Sheet. The burden was so immense that it compressed the earth's crust. Over the millennia, as the great ice sheet melted back, the depressed land has sprung back. It is still rising. The geologist's term for the phenomenon is isostatic rebound. The Cree speak of "the growing land."

The terraces on the small island are ancient beach ridges, each one marking a pause in time as the land has grown. The terrain at Wemindji has risen about seventy meters over the last six thousand years. It continues to rebound at the rate of about a meter per century—fast enough to outpace the rate of sea level rise that also came with the melting, fast enough even to be noted across a human lifetime. Wemindji's elders can tell you of places that have emerged from the waters, of plants and animals living differently here than they once did, of the Cree responding and adjusting.

My opportunity to be here has come through colleagues from McGill University in Montreal who have joined the Cree in an innovative partnership. The academics and the Wemindji Cree are collaborating on a proposal to establish a protected area that would embrace two entire watersheds feeding into James Bay. The proposed protected area would coincide closely with the hunting territory that Fred oversees in his capacity as ouchimaw. It is a creative proposal that defies traditional expectations—as well as recent criticisms—of protected areas as a conservation strategy.

The twelve hundred Cree of Wemindji represent the latest generation to live upon, and with, the growing land. By almost any conservation standard they have lived well here and have done so for some five thousand years. Cree traditions and practices have served to reinforce a tight network of reciprocal relationships connecting the land, the water, the plants and animals, the people, and the spirit.

In the four centuries since the arrival of the Shaped-Wood People from Europe, the resilience of those relationships has been constantly tested. Yet, even against the backdrop of those last four centuries, the rate of change in the last two generations stands out as remarkable. Transformation has come to the culture, economy, and landscape of the James Bay Cree in a series of cascades, one consequence after another: the forced relocation of Cree children to government-supported residential schools; the movement toward permanent settlement in Wemindji; the loss of the age-old pattern of families living a subsistence life in "the bush" for half the year; the announcement in 1971 of the Quebec provincial government's vast plan for hydropower development in the Cree lands east of James Bay; construction of the paved Route de la Baie James to facilitate the hydropower plan. Now the pressure to open gold and diamond mines in Wemindji country is growing. And in this subarctic land, the impacts of global warming on the ice and wind, the plants and animals are noticed even by the younger Cree. The Wemindji Cree wonder, along with communities around the world, how changes in their land will result in changes in their identity—and vice versa—and how they ought to respond.

My academic colleagues and my new friends from Wemindji are gathered to review the progress of their partnership. My appointed task, the reason for my even being here, is to offer a few relevant—I hope—words about Aldo Leopold and the land ethic in the land of the Cree. I am not at all convinced that this is possible.

The sun sets by the time Fred maneuvers our big canoe around the last spruce-studded point, into calmer waters, toward the lights of Wemindji.

* * *

As we may learn from the growing land, the terra is only relatively firma. Our science and our stories tell us that land changes and that human communities change. They change in different ways, at different rates. They change in response to each other. They change due to forces large and small, long-term and immediate, far away and close at hand. Amid such change, conservation aims to encourage ways of living by which we can meet our material needs, allow ourselves and our communities to flourish, express our human hopes, honor the beauty and mystery of the world, sustain its biological diversity, and promote its ecological health.

These are complex and interrelated aspirations. In pursuing them, conservationists have had to change, as the movement that first fully emerged a century ago has itself continually evolved. The story of conservation is one of shifting philosophical foundations, increasing scientific and historical knowledge, evolving public policy, and novel tools and techniques—all in dynamic interplay, occurring within a larger world of relentless cultural, economic, and environmental change. To gain perspective as conservationists on our own place in time is no simple matter.

Conservation in its modern sense gained legitimacy and definition in the early 1900s, in the wake of an unprecedented, three-decade wave of private exploitation of North America's forests, prairies, rangelands, fisheries, and game populations. As conservation became official government policy under the leadership of President Theodore Roosevelt and his "chief forester" Gifford Pinchot, the utilitarian definition of conservation as the "wise use" of natural resources held sway. That definition carried corollaries: Conservation ought to serve "the greatest good for the greatest number over the long run"; it aimed to produce sustained yields of particular commodities (timber, water, fish, forage, game); it would achieve those sustained yields through efficient, professional, scientific management; it would strive to ensure fair distribution of the wealth that flowed from resource development. Conservation was conceived with the Progressive Era's faith in the capacity of science, technology, economics, and government to correct the ills wrought by the unbridled abuse of natural resources.

Meanwhile, walking with Pinchot but whispering into Roosevelt's other ear was their contemporary John Muir, the voice of a wilder America, of the big trees and monumental landscapes, of that strain of conservationist that sought to protect the beautiful, the unique, and the sublime. The preservationists could make common cause with the utilitarians, sharing as they did an appreciation of science and a faith in government's potential for effective administration. But they parted ways when "wise use" undermined the aesthetic, restorative, and spiritual values of wild things and wild places. The friction between utilitarians and preservationists would provide the dramatic storyline for much of conservation's long political drama across the twentieth century.

Aldo Leopold and his generation of conservationists inherited this philosophical tension in the 1930s and 1940s. It drove Leopold's own conceptual innovations and evoked his plea for a unifying land ethic. He could not abide merely material definitions of progress or the economic determinism and "ruthless utilitarianism" that in his view had disfigured the American landscape and revealed flaws in the character of American culture. Neither could he abide that approach to conservation that segregated aesthetics, averted its eyes from unpleasant economic reality, and sought refuge in the "parlor of scenic beauty." For all of its success in establishing itself in the public mind and in government agencies, conservation had made scant progress toward reconciling its own multiple aims and achieving a more "harmonious balanced system of land use."

Leopold once noted that our advanced technologies served to "crack the atom, to command the tides." "But," he continued, "they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it." That ultimate task could not be achieved simply by gaining new scientific knowledge or developing new tools; it required an ethic to better guide application of that knowledge and use of those tools. That ethic would avail itself of new ecological understanding and encourage new ways of valuing the nonhuman world. It would see land not merely as a commodity belonging to us, but "as a community to which we belong." It recognized the interwoven history and destiny of people and land while demonstrating broad commitment to the common good. It called upon us all—as individuals and communities, producers and consumers, business owners and land managers, citizens and elected officials—to assume responsibility for the overall health of the land.

Leopold gathered these ideas in "The Land Ethic," the capstone essay from his classic 1949 book A Sand County Almanac. The essay represented a bold advance in conservation, a leap beyond both the rationale and the tensions that had marked the young movement. In it, Leopold distilled the lessons acquired by an entire generation of conservationists. They had witnessed (and inevitably participated in) the mechanization and industrialization of the landscape; weathered the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and World War II; developed whole new fields and disciplines (including soil conservation, range management, and wildlife management); and, for the first time, brought findings from the emerging science of ecology into conservation practice.

"The Land Ethic" also anticipated the changes that would come with the rise of the environmental movement in the 1960s and 1970s. With its view of land not merely as a commodity but as "a community to which we belong" and its call to sustain "the integrity, stability, and beauty" of that community, "The Land Ethic" became a touchstone for subsequent generations of professional resource managers, landowners, and citizens alike as they confronted profound changes in social and environmental conditions.

Conservation evolved in divergent ways after World War II. On the one hand, it became a worldwide concern, and its professional ranks swelled. It absorbed revolutionary scientific findings in fields ranging from paleontology and geology to ecology and genetics. Its diagnostic and information technologies grew vastly in sophistication. It began to address a suite of concerns that accompanied the prosperity of the postwar years: the accelerated loss of wildlands; a growing list of threatened and endangered species; nuclear proliferation and the threat of atomic warfare; air and water pollution and other forms of environmental contamination; the development and indiscriminate use of new artificial chemical compounds; the triumph of the automobile culture; and the spread of suburbia.

On the other hand, conservation's ability to integrate new information and ideas, and to respond effectively to new threats, suffered in the postwar years. The conservation movement, as such, was fragmented among publics interested in various parts of the land (fish, game, soils, scenery, forests, rangelands, parks, rivers, wilderness, trails, etc.). Professional resource managers became increasingly specialized and focused on the output of their particular commodities (sport fish, game animals, commodity crops, visitor days, board feet, livestock forage, acre feet, kilowatts, etc.). The distinctions of place were overwhelmed by the need to get out the cut, meet the demand, enhance the visitor experience, maximize the output. Progress was measured according to raw economic and political benchmarks rather than any ethical one.

Along the way, conservation gave way to environmentalism. Environmentalism in the United States came of age along with the postwar, largely urban and suburban, baby-boom generation. Some older conservationists became environmentalists; others did not. Some younger environmentalists appreciated the strengths (as well as the shortcomings) of the older conservation tradition; others did not. In any case, the transition from the older conservation movement to modern environmentalism left behind it a tumultuous wake washing up against a complex and rocky shoreline. We are still riding over the roiling waves, in heavily laden canoes.

Yet, in the aftermath of the environmental awakening of the 1970s, creative conservationists began to challenge the fragmented, overspecialized, output-driven approaches that dominated professional natural resources management through much of the twentieth century. Over the last three decades, conservationists have gone about exploring, and inventing, a new approach, one that seeks safe passage through the shoals of harsh political ideology, toward common ground. And in seeking to restore and sustain healthier connections between people and land, conservationists have contributed importantly to a still broader societal need: reclaiming the vitality of community life.

The experiment in partnership growing at Wemindji is but one example of this flowering. We can also find such innovation in the more than two hundred institutions and organizations that belong to Chicago Wilderness, an extraordinary regional consortium that is redefining the notion of conservation in urban settings. We find it in the Quivira Coalition's conventional wisdom-defying efforts to bring western ranchers and diverse environmental interests together in the shared pursuit of land stewardship and sustainable communities. We find it in charismatic mega-landscapes, through the work of groups like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and the Blackfoot Challenge. We find it as well in less celebrated places, through a vast, proliferating array of conservancies, alliances, land trusts, initiatives, coalitions, networks, projects, partnerships, councils, and collaboratives.

This still emerging approach seeks to work fluently across multiple spatial scales, from the local to the regional to the global. It seeks also to be aware of multiple time scales, seeing its goals through varied layers of time and aiming to harmonize present and long-term needs. It sees land not as a collection of discrete parts, but as a complex, changing whole. It recognizes the need to work across disciplinary and jurisdictional boundaries and across entire landscapes. It appreciates degrees of human impact on the land and the intricate interrelationships between the natural and the cultural in any landscape. It aspires to sustain not merely yields but also the ecological functioning that underlies and defines land health. It recognizes the need to extend Leopold's notion of the land ethic to embrace aquatic and marine environments. It honors the bonds that link land to community life, economy, and identity. It acknowledges a hard reality: that all our places are weighed down by the overburden of past injustice and injury. It holds that the sustainability of human communities and economies cannot be defined apart from the land. It understands the necessity of community-based and participatory approaches in building the social foundations for effective conservation.

These are hopeful signs, indications that, a century into the conservation- environmental movement, we might finally be getting the scale part, the relationship part, and the integration part of conservation right.


Excerpted from Conservation for a New Generation by Richard L. Knight, Courtney White. Copyright © 2009 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Richard L. Knight is professor of wildlife conservation in the Warner College of Natural Resources at Colorado State University. Courtney White is cofounder and executive director of the Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit organization dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists, and others.

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