Written by the first scientist appointed as science advisor to the director of the National Park Service and the eighteenth director of the National Park Service, this is a candid, passionate, and ultimately hopeful book. The authors describe a unified vision of conservation that binds nature protection, historical preservation, sustainability, public health, civil rights and social justice, and science into common cause—and offer real-world strategies for progress. To be read, pondered, debated, and often revisited, The Future of Conservation in America is destined to be a touchstone for the conservation movement in the decades ahead.
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The year 2016 witnessed two events significant to the future of conservation in America. One was the centennial of the National Park Service. The centennial was celebratory, marking the hundredth anniversary of its creation as the federal agency assigned to care for the growing number of America's national parks and historic sites.
The anniversary generated wide public interest and support for national parks, public lands, and conservation. It led to over 330 million visits to the National Park System, a record, and more than major league baseball, football, basketball, NASCAR, and the Disney amusement parks combined. President Obama established nine new national monuments during the centennial year, including the historic home of the National Women's Party in Washington, DC; the eighty-seven thousand–acre Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine; and Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah. Other federal agencies, cities, state park systems, corporations, and many conservation groups joined the celebration.
Beyond the centennial activities, 2016 saw the federal government and many states advancing progressive and scientifically grounded agendas to confront the challenges of climate change. World conservation leaders welcomed a renewed American presence and leadership within the international conservation movement. Over two hundred countries signed the Paris Accord on climate change, including the United States. Conservation was gaining ground on many fronts.
The other momentous event was a national election of a new president and Congress. The election was divisive, profane, and intensely fought over the course of the year. Political expression was coarsened, ugly, and often malevolent. Donald Trump's rallies unleashed long-contained public anger, as he encouraged chants of "lock her up!" aimed at his opponent. Hillary Clinton cast Trump's supporters as "deplorables," and the far right and alternative fringe media amplified the viciousness of the campaign.
Attacks on conservation were a constant feature of the Republican side, framing conservation as "job-killing" or "government overreach." Specific targets included Environmental Protection Agency regulations, the Paris Accord, and the Obama administration's denial of permits for the Keystone Pipeline. Environmental and climate scientists were labeled as fraudulent (Trump had declared them "hoaxsters" as early as 2012). President Obama's proclamations establishing national monuments were portrayed as unjust and ill-done takings of local rights. Members of Congress and local, vocal activists fervently disputed federal management of public lands. Opposition turned violent when armed militiamen and ranchers staged a hostile takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt to protect habitat for birds.
These two events, the centennial and the election, converged on October 22, 2016, when candidate Trump visited Gettysburg National Military Park. The park commemorates one of the most devastating battles of the American Civil War, with fifty thousand casualties during three days of brutal fighting. It also commemorates a revered speech in American oratory, President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Historian David Voelker describes the scene of Lincoln's remarks:
Four and a half months later, the process of reburying the thousands of bodies that had been shallowly interred on the battlefield had begun but was not yet complete. In this sobering setting, Lincoln delivered a brief address to an audience of about 15,000 people, who interrupted him five times to applaud. Newspapers across the North also responded very favorably. Lincoln's comments that day, however, comprised only a brief moment in the cemetery's dedication. Prior to Lincoln's three-minute speech came music, a prayer, and a featured oration, a two-hour discourse delivered by Edward Everett, retired Massachusetts politician and former president of Harvard. While Everett's speech dwelled on the details of the battle, Lincoln attempted to give meaning to the events at Gettysburg, indeed to the Civil War itself, by speaking about the ideals for which he believed the Union stood.
Using the same historic battlefield as stage and lectern, Donald Trump gave a speech that quickly "curdled into bitter resentment," reflecting a strident contrast to the sacrifice symbolized by the park and the ideals of Lincoln. Trump railed against his perceived enemies, particularly the media, the government, the opposition party, and the intellectual elite. The irony of the setting was perhaps not noticed by the candidate.
The election was held less than three weeks later. A stunning amount of money had been spent — over $2.2 billion in the presidential race alone. Nevertheless, overall voter turnout was modest, representing 58 percent of eligible voters. Donald Trump was elected president, winning the Electoral College while losing the popular vote by three million votes.
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The clash of these two events — the centennial of the National Park Service and the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States — reflect much larger forces and divisions operating within American society. Conservation of natural resources such as forestlands and preservation of scenery such as mountains, hot springs, and waterfalls have long been traditions in America. The well-told story describes a movement initiated by 1890s' business interests (some linked to the railroads and firearms manufacturers) and wealthy individuals. The movement grew to include both of the major political parties and middle- and working-class Americans (mostly white) and has recently expanded to include persons of color, Native Americans, underrepresented communities, and the millennial generation. Still, many Americans perceive conservation as driven by and for the economic and cultural elite.
There has always been an anti-elite and populist strain in American politics, beginning with Andrew Jackson's rise, the contested election of 1824 (which he labeled "corrupt"), and Jackson's election as president in 1828. Current populism has recycled themes of previous populist risings — the People's Party of the 1890s, Huey Long's popularity in the 1930s, the racially divisive presidential campaign of George Wallace with his slogan "Stand Up for America" (1968), and Pat Buchannan's two presidential campaigns (1992 and 1996) with his claims that "the news media lies!" The political fuel driving these cycles of American populism has been working-class resentment at being disrespected, forgotten, and placed at unfair disadvantage in securing economic opportunity. In 2016, the resentment was loosely targeted at the intellectual and financial elites, scientists, the media, minorities and immigrants, and the Washington, DC–centered federal government. The conservation movement (other than hunting and fishing groups) was largely included in this collection of resented interests.
The centennial and election in 2016 were both watershed moments in the nation's civic life. But events are not trends. The deeper patterns represented by the centennial and election matter far more than one anniversary and one voting cycle. Our focus is on the immediate challenge and the long view. The election of Donald Trump was a signal event; the deeper challenges of populism, anti-science attitudes, and resentment against government are a more profound and long-term concern. The long-simmering tension and now open conflict between those who view conservation as a shared, bipartisan, and vital national and global interest and the opposing rise of a populist, nationalist politics embracing class resentment, strident partisanship, and narrow self-interest will profoundly influence the future of conservation in America.
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Small books can have big aims. Our goal is to provide a guide for how the conservation movement can effectively advance its agenda over the near and long-term future. We argue that understanding the clash of forces currently dividing the nation, responding to the emerging assault on the environment by the Trump administration, and framing conservation in new and transformative ways are together the best path for progress. We write this book for leaders of environmental organizations, professionals in conservation advocacy groups, federal, state, and local policy makers, resource managers, scientists, students, and interested citizen activists.
Our views regarding the future of conservation reflect our personal and professional paths. Raised in urban Seattle in the Pacific Northwest, Gary Machlis gravitated toward science, studied sociology and ecology, and has followed a career path of conservation research in U.S. national parks and forests, China (on the giant panda), the Galápagos Islands (on the impact of tourism), and in Africa, Europe, and the Caribbean. Jon Jarvis, who grew up in rural Virginia, studied biology and had a career in the National Park Service as park ranger, resource management specialist, park biologist, chief of natural and cultural resources, superintendent at several parks (from Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska), and regional director. Our two paths crossed frequently, as Machlis conducted research in parks managed by Jarvis. In 2009, Jarvis was nominated by President Obama to be the eighteenth director of the National Park Service and confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Standing near Jarvis at his formal swearing in, Machlis became his science advisor, the first science advisor to the director appointed in the National Park Service. Thus began our work together in Washington, DC, which spanned both terms of the Obama administration and continues with collaboration on this book.
It should not be a surprise that many (but not all) of the events, actions, conflicts, and challenges described in this book reflect the National Park Service; we ascribe to the writer's dictum: write what you know. But there are other reasons to use the National Park Service as an illustrative example. The park ranger is an iconic role in American life, respected in public service, and widely trusted. The National Park Service deals with issues from climate change to civil rights; protects both natural and cultural resources; and partners with other countries, states, large cities, and rural towns. It has responsibilities that cross seventeen time zones and includes programs from bear management in Alaskan wilderness to historic-preservation tax credits in Detroit. In many ways, the service confronts the full breadth of challenges facing conservation in America. And the national parks have played a pivotal and enduring role in the history of American conservation, as we describe in the next chapter. We should be clear: the National Park Service is a useful example but not the exemplar, and our focus is on the future of conservation in America writ large.
Throughout this book, we emphasize a core concept: strategic intention. Conservation actions (protecting a watershed, reforming a management policy, creating an educational program, organizing an event, and so forth) are most effective when they build the foundation and momentum for future actions. That is, strategy should select tactics that, when successful, lead the way for yet additional progress. An example is the National Park Service centennial, which was intentionally designed and conducted to create a new generation of park visitors, supporters, and advocates (more on that later). This theme of "intentionality" runs throughout our narrative.
We believe there are effective and tested strategies that can help chart the future of a broadened American conservation movement. We offer them as essential and practical tools and advocate for their use at local, state, and national levels. Also essential for progress is a new and unified vision of conservation. We call for the various branches of the conservation movement — some as traditional allies and others as new partners — to share common cause and work more closely together than ever before. In what follows, we describe this unified vision of conservation and how it can succeed.
This is an intensely personal book, borne of practical experience. Together we have accumulated over eighty years of service to conservation and are grateful for the opportunities, hard lessons, adventures (and misadventures), and even the crises we have experienced. There are innumerable and extraordinary individuals that have inspired us — from presidents to park visitors and from government employees to Nobel Laureate scientists and young students. The varied American landscape and the nation's sprawling and diverse history have demonstrated to us their restorative powers. While there is "rough water" ahead, we remain optimistic about and confident in the resilient future of conservation in America.
An Enduring Responsibility
In early 1915, the industrialist and owner of the Thorkildsen-Mather Borax Company Stephen T. Mather used his brilliant marketing skills and enthusiasm for conservation to convince a group of influential men to join him for a camping trip in the Sierra Nevada mountains. The "Mather Mountain Party" included writers for the Saturday Evening Post, the vice president of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the ranking Republican congressman on the House Appropriations Committee, the president of the New York Zoological Society, and the publisher of the Visalia, California, daily newspaper. Joining them was a professional photographer, several prominent attorneys and businessmen, California's state engineer, and Gilbert Grosvenor, director of the National Geographic Society. The group included one park ranger who served as horse packer and two cooks, Ty Sing (considered the best camp chef in the West) and his assistant.
For two weeks, the Mather party camped in alpine meadows, plunged into cold streams, reveled under a starlit night sky, and silently absorbed the stunning vistas. Cunningly, Mather let the mountains "do their magic." After the mountain travel and evening campfires, all present committed their publishing and political power to the preservation of the national parks. The following year, the National Park Service was established, with Mather as its first director. The new agency was assigned an enduring responsibility: "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."
Our contemporary proposals for meeting this enduring responsibility extend beyond the National Park Service and are based on several premises. First, for over 150 years, a passion for conservation in America has thrived in periods of growth and persisted in times of challenge. Second, the most successful individual actions (such as Mather's artful camping trip) have strategic intentions that lead toward larger conservation goals. Third, there have been several generational transformations — key opportunities when a new generation of Americans comes of age and empowerment. And fourth, conservation actions are most effective when tested, experienced, refined, and shared.
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Coming out of World War II, the national parks had been intermittently closed and often neglected; the parks required a restoration of public commitment to their care. In 1953, popular writer Bernard DeVoto even penned an article for Harper's Magazine titled, "Let's Close the National Parks." He sarcastically called for the park closures because they were so underfunded and their condition so deplorable that they were an embarrassment to the nation.
His caustic critique as well as congressional demands to improve park conditions drew the attention of National Park Service director Conrad Wirth; in 1956, Wirth launched Mission 66. This was a ten-year branding, marketing, and construction effort intended to connect a new generation of Americans, especially returning World War II veterans, to the national parks. With peacetime prosperity, an emerging interstate highway system, and clever automobile company advertising ("See the USA in Your Chevrolet"), the white middle class visited in droves with the baby boom children in the backseat of the family automobile. They saw and experienced their country through the grandeur of parks such as the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, and Zion. With segregation starting to weaken as the civil rights movement converted protest to progress, and the nation's archaic Jim Crow laws slowly being eliminated, a small but emerging subset of black middle-class visitors also connected with the parks.
Excerpted from "The Future of Conservation in America"
Copyright © 2018 Gary E. Machlis and Jonathan B. Jarvis.
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Table of ContentsContents Totality: A Foreword / Terry Tempest Williams Chapter One: Watershed Chapter Two: An Enduring Responsibility Chapter Three: A Chart for Rough Water Chapter Four: Strategies for the Future of Conservation Chapter Five: Toward a Unified Vision Chapter Six: Resilience Acknowledgments Notes Photo Captions