Sierra Club Drills Palin/McCain Politics, NRA Fires On Obama: Who Do The Outdoor Enthusiasts and Sportsmen Trust To Lead??
John McCain or Barack Obama. Biden or Palin? Which of our Presidential candidates represents the best possibility for a clear-cut future to our Outdoor heritage? Which candidate will fight for our outdoor rights, fight global warming, get our nation away from foreign oil, and represent the “new” direction that each party is spewing towards a different government?
I thought it might be a good time to check in on two of the leading outdoor and conservation organizations in America. The National Rifle Association (NRA) and The Sierra Club are both big advocates of legislation geared towards each of their agendas. They are both very similar in some ways, while vaguely differing in others.
The NRA prides itself on second amendment rights-for those of you that don’t know, that’s the right to bear arms. It is a highly controversial stance, but one the NRA takes pride in protecting. This year, the NRA has promoted gun rights in Washington D.C., which recently helped to overturn the complete gun ban in our nations capital. They have also promoted opening up our National Parks to less stringent gun laws-making it legal for citizens to carry guns in our National Parks, with a valid permit. The NRA also promotes conservation, and views hunting as a way of stabilizing wildlife populations.
The Sierra Club believes in protecting our natural resources, finding ways to improve upon the enjoyment and protection of our environment, and also in providing a sustained effort to fight for America’s endangered species. They believe in non-destructive outdoor recreation. They are currently against initiatives to allow oil drilling in our National Parks and coastal areas, banning guns in our National Parks, and look down upon hunting as a means to sustain and enhance certain wildlife species.
These two organizations both believe in certain conservation measures, yet, they also have a very different outlook on what they do. They both encourage the outdoors enthusiast or sportsman to take action by getting involved in the voting process. Each organization has a vast network of chapters, represented in all 50 states, that are easily accessed for those willing, and they both look for volunteer efforts by their memberships. The NRA is definitely bigger and more represented, but The Sierra Club carries the same type of government persuasion and backing.
Now that we have each of their agendas down, let’s take a look at some recent headlines from each organization. The following headlines and links come directly from recent news releases from the National Rifle Asociation:
Alaska Voters Shoot Down Predator Control Initiative–8/27/08
76% of Sportsmen Say They Prefer To Elect A President Who Hunts or Fishes–8/22/08
State To Vote On Plan To Scale Back Cougar Hunting –8/13/08
To top things off, here’s three headlines recently published by The Sierra Club:
The Palin Doctrine–9/03/08
Hurricanes: Three Years Later-Five Truths–9/02/08
Denver 2008: “America We Can Not Turn Back. Not With So Much Work To Be Done”–8/29/08
If we take a look at these recent headlines, by both organizations, we can quickly come up with each organization’s prospective Presidential candidate. The Sierra Club’s stance is a bit more than suggestive. With Sarah Palin taking the nomination to be Sen. John McCain’s vice-presidential running mate on Sept. 3, 2008, The Sierra club quickly had an anti-Palin message as it’s leader. This message, “The Palin Doctrine” seems to try to align Mrs. Palin’s political stance with that of Barack Obama, while also suggesting that Palin is for some of the very issues that John McCain has fought against Obama’s camp about, namely, oil and oil drilling. The Sierra Club is against John McCain and Sarah Palin.
The NRA’s headlines are a bit more obtuse and less suggestive, but if we look at he bigger picture, we can quickly se their side, as well. Take their second headline: 76% Of Sportsmen Say They Prefer To Elect A President Who Hunts Or Fishes.
It is a well-known fact that Sarah Palin is an avid sportswoman. She hunts and fishes, and her parents own a sporting lodge. Her husband is a world champion snowmobiler—three times. She frequently goes on hunts or charter fishing trips and is a huge second amendment backer, as is war hero John McCain. The National Rifle Association is against Barack Obama and Joe Biden. Don’t believe me? Check out this headline from the NRA: On The Second Amendment, Don’t Believe Obama!. Enough said.
Here’s my dilemma:
I support BOTH of these organizations. I am all for gun rights, protecting the environment, conservation, and protecting our wildlife heritage. I believe that, if used responsibly, hunting and fishing can benefit the environment and even promote growth of certain species populations. I am undecided on the oil drilling issue. If it were proven that there could be an added benefit, that wouldn’t take 10 years to produce–I would be all in. That’s not the case, though, and in fact, many suggest that the oil drilled in our National Parks would equal less than 3% of our country’s needs. If that is the case, than I have to ask…why bother?? The money could be used in a better fashion..say solar and wind power initiatives or even clean coal technology.
Much of the 2008 Presidential race is shaping up to be based on these exact issues. Barack Obama is against gun rights. McCain is for. Obama is against Drilling in our National Parks, McCain is for. The confusion over some of these issues has many people focusing on both candidates and doing their own research. Sarah Palin is an avid sportswoman—so is over 40 million Americans.
People who play in the outdoors are more likely to vote for outdoor initiatives, yet, Palin is also for drilling in our National Parks. Barack Obama’s gun rights record speaks for itself-he is definitely an ‘anti’, yet believes that global warming is one of our biggest issues. John McCain actually agrees on this issue.
I think from an outdoors and sportsman standpoint, that John McCain and Sarah Palin represent the most likable duo. Their records and persona leave little in question other than the fact on oil drilling. Digging deeper in to the Republican basis for outdoor initiatives, George W. Bush, whom many say that John McCain’s policies will follow, has done little to promote the outdoors. He has established a couple more areas of protected land, yet, he is currently trying to change the Endangered Species Act. One, that I might add, that could result in dire consequences for species such as the wolf and Florida Panther.
So Who Is My Candidate Of Choice?
From gun rights to global warming, John McCain and Sarah Palin, hit all the right issues. Oil drilling may be a long shot solution to a growing problem, but if they stay on track, can provide the other areas with results, I might be able to deal with one inconsistency in my personal beliefs. Sarah Palin is also from Alaska, where the oil drilling in our nation’s parks has become the battleground. Being an outdoors enthusiast, it would be very hard for me to believe that she would do anything to harm this land that she covets. For the outdoors enthusiasts and sportsmen, McCain and Palin’s track records are undeniably hard to find fault with. I think I have my choice for President in 2008, how about you?
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July 14, 2008
By Josh Donlan
THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AGO, 20 million people experienced the grand vision of Senator Gaylord Nelson: the first Earth Day. More than a celebration, it was a revolution, a single day that raised America’s awareness of the plight of our earth and its ecosystems that support us. During the years immediately before and after April 22, 1970, the world witnessed the onset of American environmentalism. Agencies were formed and legislation was enacted to protect America’s biodiversity: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Today, the ESA remains one of the most powerful pieces of environmental legislation ever enacted by any country. Despite these actions, we have much left to do to protect biodiversity–our country’s natural heritage. Many plants and animals, like the dusky seaside sparrow, continue to go extinct despite such legislation. With the human population at 6 billion and realistic predictions of 10 billion by 2050 and our rates of resource consumption at all time highs and rising, safeguarding our nation’s biodiversity, along with our neighbor’s, will be an unprecedented challenge.
There is a deep historical relationship between humans and biodiversity. Understanding this relationship provides needed insights into the current biodiversity crisis and our efforts to curtail it. Ecological destructiveness and our ability to cause extinctions are not recent products of Western civilization as often suggested. These processes are at least tens of thousands of years old. This same deep history, however, provides a valuable perspective on individual and collective human behavior. While our potential to value and protect biodiversity is not limited to historical outcomes, it is constrained by facets of our own psychology and evolutionary history. Our continent’s history documents a long relationship between humans and biodiversity. For the plants and animals of North America, this voyage has been long and arduous, with loss every bit of the way. This voyage is worth knowing, for only when we know where we have been can we truly decide where we are capable and willing to go. If conservation strategies are to be successful, policy makers must keep these histories in mind as they shape and implement our nation’s policies for our natural heritage.
IT ALL STARTED 13,000 YEARS AGO when the last unhunted landscape of the Americas disappeared forever. As the first Americans strolled onto their new continent of open real estate, North America quickly lost much of its grandeur: 58 out of the 77 different types of mammals over 100 pounds went extinct, including our own elephants, lions, camels, and cheetahs. This massive extinction event was most likely triggered by overhunting by the first Americans. As a consequence, we grew up with elephant experiences courtesy of Barnum and Bailey, rather than a fixture of America’s landscape. Fossils are the only tailings left from those wild times, including a few mammoths with pre-historic spear points lodged between their ribs–a reminder of the history of our capabilities. As with the landscape, our continental perceptions would be changed forever.
By three hundred years ago, Americans continued to suffer categorical losses. During the mid 1700s the Danish explorer, Vitus Bering and his crew were the first Westerners to observe the Steller’s sea cow. Bering’s naturalist, Georg Wilheim Steller, described this grand denizen of the northern Pacific that topped out at 20 feet long and 12 tons, just before he and comrades hunted them to extinction from the Alaskan Aleutian Islands, their final stronghold. The sea cow and all its ecology had vanished a quarter century after its discovery. Bering achieved immortality through geography, but this sea heifer is unknown to most of us. A century later, we lost the great auk, the last flightless bird of the northern hemisphere. A bird collector, Carl Siemsen, sealed the species’ death warrant on June 3, 1844, when his hired hands killed the last couple. Their egg later sold for a mere 9 pounds (US$15) and their lonely viscera are jarred somewhere in Copenhagen for all posterity. Before the 19th century would turn, Americans would also bereave the death of the passenger pigeon. Reaching speeds of 70 mph, it was far from flightless and perhaps once the most abundant bird on the planet: four out every ten North American birds was a passenger pigeon. Long before smog made its debut in America, these scarlet-eyed pigeons darkened the skies of eastern North America with flocks a mile wide and 300 miles long. For market or sport, these birds were easy hunting. And with the rise of the repeating rifle, these flocks fell hard, never to rise again. Our ability to over-exploit our surrounding resources is far from new, and these bygone tales of North American elephants, 12-ton sea cows, flightless seabirds, and pigeons flocks the width of Ohio are testament.
Ecological history teaches us much. It defines our relationship with the natural environment, and in turn our environment shapes our history. In my own work, history provides a foundation, a guide when confronted with hard conservation decisions. Much of my work takes place on islands off the west coast of North America. These islands have witnessed a recent wave of extinctions over the past fifty years. These extinctions have been directly caused by the human introduction of non-native mammals such as feral cats and rats. The ecological histories of these islands have never included such predators, and thus the removal of these non-natives, albeit often difficult emotionally, not only prevents extinctions but restores the islands’ unique biological processes, which produce the biological diversity that we strive to protect. History gives us perspective and direction. It can also help us if we let it, as Jared Diamond writes, “…history is indeed such an onion…that peeling back on the onion’s layers is fascinating, challenging–and of overwhelming importance to us today, as we seek to grasp our past’s lessons for our future”. If we are going to save even a fraction of our biodiversity, we must grasp a little harder for those lessons from our past.
SINCE THAT FIRST EARTH DAY, we have continued to lose our natural heritage at an alarming rate. While we lost most of our big biodiversity millennia ago, our impacts now are swifter, stronger, and less selective. One third of the US’s more than 15,300 flowering plants are currently at risk. And if the North America megafauna serves as our poster child for prehistorical extinctions, freshwater snails are the new stars: 132 species have recently vanished. Alongside them, freshwater fish are disappearing at an alarming rate, the Clear Lake Splittail, the Tecopa Pupfish, and a darter from Maryland–just to name a few. It turns out the darter, last spotted in the Susquehanna River not far from I-95, was the only vertebrate unique to Maryland and nowhere else. Its image could have easily flown high on Maryland’s state flag. Instead, the darter was destined as collateral damage of nearsighted development: metropolises and agriculture. Every state has their darter. Some have vanished; others are on their way out. Some even fly as ghosts on flags: California’s golden grizzly disappeared in 1922, it too a victim of the repeating rifle.
The tale is similar abroad. Globally, biologists predict that we will lose 350 bird species by 2050, three percent of all birds known. Consider vertebrates (fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals), a group biologists know well. Around 52,000 species are known to science, with a few new species discovered every year. Scientists have checked in on about a third of these, evaluating their status on Earth. Of those 17,000 species, one out of every five is threatened with extinction. A little worse than Russian roulette odds. If things proceed as is, the chamber is spinning and nature will soon be a lot less interesting. But “less interesting” may be the least of our worries with more and more evidence amassing that biodiversity provides us with irreplaceable and invaluable services. Compromising biodiversity and its constituent parts, species and ecosystems, may hinder our nation’s ability to regulate climate, pollinate food crops, and protect us from catastrophes such as storms and drought. These ecosystem services maintain and improve not only the quality of our lives, but also our bank accounts. Although some disagree on the exact consequences, species are now going extinct at a rate higher than ever before in the history of life. And as we erode our biodiversity, we will lose all the benefits that go along with it (known and yet to be discovered). We are in a new chapter of Earth’s history, not unlike previous chapters, that unveils a common conflict of humans and their environment. Yet the impacts and potential consequences are now magnitudes greater, threatening not only a large percentage of biodiversity’s existence but also our own.
OUR ECONOMIC POLICIES ARE OFTEN IN CONFLICT with the sound stewardship of our environment. But, despite the current rate of biodiversity loss, Americans care a great deal about it: nine out of ten Americans believe protecting biodiversity is important. Nonetheless, with the exclusive focus of policymakers on short-term economic gains and a poor understanding of the longer-term consequences of our actions, we cause extinctions. Perhaps our biodiversity values do not run deep enough. For example, when our economic interests are affected, less than 1 in 2 Americans would opt for measures to protect biodiversity. So, while the current biodiversity crisis is bothersome and important, it is also exceedingly complex and our support appears conditional. We may stop a moment to mourn the loss of the more than 262 species of plants and animals driven to extinction in the United States over the past 500 years, but it will prove much harder to care deeply enough to craft policies that will lower the roulette odds for the thousands of species now threatened with extinction in our country. A sound starting point is to ask, why should we care? Our history plays a pivotal role in the answer.
History helps explain our tendency to destroy our environment and cause extinctions along the way. From our onset and as we populated the planet, Homo sapiens has overexploited their resources, with societal collapse being a common result. Easter Island is the best documented example, but the Anazazis and Maya of the Americas likely experienced similar fates. Exploitation by Hawaii’s first citizens caused a wave of bird extinctions, with 36% of the archipelago’s unique birds going extinct shortly after the arrival of the first Polynesians. An evolutionary perspective provides insight: our minds are designed to discount the future–exploit now, don’t worry about next year–an adaptation from long ago to enhance individual survival and reproductive success. Our tendency toward temporal discounting results from individuals always facing some uncertainty about whether potential future payoffs will be realized. Research suggests that people will always discount the future to some degree. What has been termed the tragedy of the commons arises because as a resource is exploited, those who exercise restraint are faced with opportunity costs (i.e., they may suffer relative to those who do not), and thus individuals are inclined to exploit before the resource is depleted. Exploit now, or others will. But, while people generally value their short-term interests over the common good, and therefore there are historical constraints on human altruism, higher forms of organization and cooperation can arise out of individual self-interest. This is encouraging news. And through the integration of biological and social science research we are learning that we are capable of avoiding a tragedy of our commons. Successful approaches to protect biodiversity must include economic, health, or reputational incentives for individuals. Individual incentives that serve self-interests are almost always a swift call to action, and our potential to value biodiversity is no exception.
Biodiversity holds value. Whether that value is intrinsic or instrumental is where views begin to diverge and the philosophical boxing gloves are taped up. An instrumental or human-centered value of biodiversity can be viewed on a continuum, ranging from the physical to the aesthetic to the spiritual. From clean water to breaching blue whales to wilderness rapture: all add value to our lives. The worry is that when push comes to shove, when it comes down to dollars, biodiversity will be the loser–cashed in over conflict. In the opposite corner, the idea that biodiversity has a value independent of humans, an intrinsic value, is philosophically troubling. Is the concept of value a human construct or does it predate us? Did dinosaurs have value before we discovered their bones? These are subjects of great debate. Some continue to argue that humans are the center of the universe or not, and others are somewhere in between. A pragmatic approach is likely our best hedge: history suggests that instruments that serve self-interests hold greater potential for action than any intrinsic outlook. But not all instruments are created equal. Some species make us feel fine and thus have value, while others provide us with an economic incentive to care.
Certain industrious species are busy at work providing us with what has been deemed ecosystem services, invaluable and often irreplaceable economic instruments for society. These species are good value, giving us clean air, fertile soil, and safe drinking water. Such services are worth a minimum of US$33 trillion per year, nearly twice the global gross national product. Ignoring that many of these services are irreplaceable, coming up with the cash to cover these services if they were to disappear would be an impossible task. Protecting species that provide ecosystem services is essential. But many species are not as “concerned” with providing us with such assistance. A newly discovered fish, the Chickasaw Darter, from Tennessee offers you and I no economic service. Thus, we also must elucidate a strong value system for those species that offer us non-economic incentives. History provides the foundation to care and love these e-service slackers.
Every species holds a history. Whatever the value, history forms the foundation of our relationship with biodiversity. That relationship may be one of economics or provision. Teosinte, Madre de MaÃz, is the plant species that our ancestors turned into corn some 8,000 years ago. Or the relationship may be spiritual, such as Hopi Indians dancing as snakes, the emissaries to the powers of rain. And then there is plain wonder. After countless visits to remote islands throughout the Americas, wonder is always with my first steps on these islands teeming with life often found nowhere else. Whatever the fabric of a species’ history, knowing it increases its value. History expands biodiversity’s instrumental value beyond economic gain to the enhancement of our culture and quality of our lives. History grounds our biodiversity values. All biodiversity is worth protecting; we must discover and leverage the reasons why.
THERE ARE REASONS TO BE OPTIMISTIC. Many opportunities are readily available to protect US biodiversity. And in our new world of Moore’s law, the global economy, and hyper-paced cultural evolution change has never been faster. Starting from the simpler and moving to the more complex, I offer a few prospects moving from the home to the White House in an attempt to bring biodiversity back into our lives and help safeguard some of it along the way.
FIRST, KILL YOUR LAWN. Swap it out for a garden. We must support policies and practices that recognize the connection between agriculture–in our backyards and beyond–and protecting biodiversity. With 50,000 square miles of lawns in the United States, on which Americans spend $30 billion a year, Michael Pollan reminds us that “like fast-food chains, like television, the lawn has served to unify the American landscape.” Such unification is not without costs, and biodiversity is one major expense. These days we cannot seem to settle for what will grow in our local environment; rather, we seek a sole species of grass from somewhere else. History lends insight into these lawn tendencies. Studies show we prefer savannah-like landscapes, not unlike Africa where we evolved our tendencies. Indeed it would seem strange if humans’ brief existence among urban and agricultural surroundings could so quickly overpower the inclinations left over from deep history. But the current homogenization of our front yards requires enormous inputs of fossil fuel fertilizers, computerized sprinkler systems, and chemical herbicides. Stuff that makes us sick and steals from our grandkids. We should diversify our yards with native plants, satisfying our propensities toward natural environments while at the same time connecting with our local flora and fauna. The garden is a wonderful place to start changing our ways, rekindling our relationship with US biodiversity. In your windowsill or backyard, get your hands dirty.
Gardens can serve as valuable refuges for considerable biodiversity. Plant a pollinator garden. Attract bees, birds, and butterflies to your vegetable and flower gardens, ensuring yourself a better harvest while allowing your local pollinators, threatened by habitat loss and widespread pesticide use, a continued existence. By doing so, you are also saving yourself from what Xerces Society founder Robert Michael Pyle calls “the extinction of the experience”–the loss of direct contact with wildlife. Grow your own tomatoes in your backyard instead of the supermarket Hothouses that traveled a thousand miles to land on your plate. You will not only be eating healthier but also serving your own self-interests. A number of studies suggest that spending time in natural environments, including gardens, reduces stress and offers other health benefits. More time planting tomatoes with dirty hands, less time being sick. And while you are in your garden by all means, plant a rose. First lady Ellen Wilson did and John Quincy Adams, perhaps the most enthusiastic Presidential gardener, spent countless hours in the White House gardens planting herbs, trees, and vegetables, perhaps in exchange for solace. There are over 18 acres of gardens at the White House, and the presidents who serve there, plant there. They should plant wisely, and encourage others to do so.
The majority of our country’s farm and ranch communities are in trouble. With agribusiness and absentee farm ownership on the rise, social conditions in these communities deteriorate. The White House should craft policies to support local agriculture and surrounding communities rather than absentee agribusiness. Others are now choosing to plant wisely. What started as an idea on two small East Coast farms in 1986, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has grown to over 1000 farms nationwide. CSA typifies an innovative and economic viable strategy to connect local farmers with local consumers. Farmers receive economic and community support and the consumers receive local, tastier, and safer food. CSA farmers typically use organic and other environmental sound farming practices, resulting in less impact on the surrounding biodiversity. CSA results in a regional food supply, a stronger local economy, and sound land stewardship. These community gardens, which are open to members, not only offer a service, but an aesthetic bringing us closer to nature–closer to biodiversity, allowing them to interact with food they eat and the environment in which it is grown. The art of growing something is simple, but potent, powerful, and with plenty of incentives. By doing so we reconnect with nature broadly and our lives are enriched, and in turn our communities and the nation.
SECOND, WE MUST DISCOVER AND WEAVE INCENTIVES INTO OUR NATION’S CONSERVATION STRATEGIES. Education and anticipated goodwill alone we will not protect our country’s natural heritage. While education has been shown to be effective with simple, low-cost behaviors (e.g., tossing your beer bottles in the recycling bin), little evidence suggests that it alone can evoke the behaviors at the scale that will be needed to protect biodiversity. While ideas and behaviors can spread throughout a society or institution rapidly, humans more often than not adopt behaviors that will likely provide an individual advantage. But, individual advantages can go beyond economics and even the individual. Successful strategies will include educating individuals that destroying biodiversity will have a negative impact on the health, reputation, bank account, and overall well-being of herself, her family, and friends–all of whom fall within her evolutionary self-interests. While such approaches may appear overly self-interested, certain conservation efforts are adopting them, and E.O Wilson concedes that “the only way to make a conservation ethic work is to ground it in ultimately selfish reasoning”. Ecosystems services emphasize such incentives and benefits to humans. However, we need to find ways to incorporate incentives into where protecting biodiversity matters the most: the land.
There are three main proximate strategies for protecting biodiversity: (1) ownership of land (including water), (2) regulation of land or animal and plant use directly, and (3) influencing land or resource use via non-regulatory means. The most obvious and direct strategy to enhance biodiversity protection is through ownership of land. The US government owns over 650 million acres, approximately one-quarter of all US land. However, these acres are managed under multiple and often conflicting mandates with the protection of biodiversity being paramount for only about 92 million acres of US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Wildlife Refuge System. Most of our federal land was acquired in ad hoc fashion prior to biodiversity conservation becoming a priority, and much is located on the most unproductive soils, the steepest slopes, and the highest elevations. Consequently, US public lands do not contain a high percentage of our biodiversity, and the majority of endangered species tend to occur in lower elevations, warmer climates, and coastal areas. Places where people live. Expanding the public land base will prove difficult for multiple reasons, including the high cost of land and limited public funds for acquisition. Organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, Ducks Unlimited, and local land trusts, significantly supplement land acquisition efforts. But ultimately, money available for land purchases and land available for purchase will be limiting. We must incorporate other strategies, alongside land acquisition.
Sound regulatory strategies are similar to land acquisition in that they are vital, but will not succeed single-handedly. The Clean Water Act and the ESA should be strengthened, our two premier regulatory laws that help safeguard US biodiversity. Special interests, bureaucracy, and legal loopholes often triumph over the good intentions of these laws, with biodiversity and the public being the ultimate loser. Recent regulatory attempts to strengthen the ESA, such as Habitat Conservation Plans, have been met with mediocre success. While strong in concept and potential benefits, these approaches have suffered both from lack of integration of scientific information and trust from private landowners. Many landowners choose to comply with the ESA by ensuring that they never create the conditions that might attract an endangered species to their land, in fear of any future regulatory actions on their land (or worse yet, shoot, shovel, and shut-up). New legislation such as Safe Harbor Agreements and Candidate Conservation Agreements are steps in the right direction; these approaches strive to protect endangered and threatened species while at the same time providing landowners assurances from additional restrictions. The White House should aggressively promote such approaches. In the vast majority of cases, we have failed to offer incentives, economic or otherwise, to protect US biodiversity. Given the large percentage of US biodiversity resides on private land, these failures must be rapidly reversed.
Individual incentives to local people to protect local biodiversity can result in swift actions with lasting conservation results. A small Mexican fishing community just sixty miles from the US-Mexico border provides an example that in our new world of NAFTA and globalization is closer to the White House than ever before. In the town of Puerto PeÃ±asco, Sonora, a group of commercial diving fishermen approached a local conservation organization to help them conduct studies on the decline of their main fishery, the black murex snail. Five years after adopting a community-based approach, they serve as a premier, and unfortunately currently rare, example of what I call value-added conservation. The fishermen have voluntarily established spatial-temporal marine reserves, protecting both their livelihood and over 35 Mexican-protected marine species. They approached the Mexican government with a conservation plan, backed by sound science and first-hand knowledge of the socio-economic obstacles, rather than the opposite, a government agency implementing a plan lacking local knowledge of biology and socio-economics. Further, the PeÃ±asco fisherman participate in the regular monitoring of their commercial species in collaboration with biologists, ensuring lasting biodiversity and economic benefits. These accomplishments come in a time when marine protected areas with strong top-down regulations are being encouraged widely, often with limited buy-in from the fishing sector and with negative social consequences. In the backdrop of many failures, these Mexican fishermen and the black murex demonstrate that at least in some cases community-based conservation can succeed brilliantly in conserving biodiversity.
Community-based conservation approaches work as long as the stakeholders embrace the incentives. As biologist Richard Cudney-Bueno has learned from these Mexican fishermen “when the fisheries is strong, the community is strong, and biodiversity benefits”. And to the surprise of some, such approaches are now gaining wider recognition. In 2001, the Mexican organization (ConservaciÃ³n de Islas) I work with was awarded Mexico’s National Conservation Award for their work to protect Mexico’s islands. On our footsteps in 2003, the fishermen of Puerto PeÃ±asco accepted this prestigious conservation award.
Just back over the border in southern New Mexico and Arizona, similar community-based conservation is underway. The Malpai Borderlands Group, a group of ranchers who work collaboratively with scientists and conservation organizations, has been engaged in landscape restoration and management for over a decade. They are protecting and restoring both their ranching culture and the biodiversity in which their lifestyle is embedded. These progressive ranchers have realized the many incentives that point toward sustainable ranching practices and sound biodiversity stewardship, and subsequently have organized to do so. The presence of two endangered species, often thought of as archenemies of the rancher, on the group’s priority list exemplify the success of this conservation effort: prairie dogs and jaguars. Actions entailing local citizens taking responsibility for local conservation efforts that work are becoming more common globally; however, it is still relatively rare in the United States. Given our ecological history and these success stories, the White House should strive to find novel ways to encourage individual and community incentives toward biodiversity conservation.
LASTLY, WE MUST ADOPT CONSERVATION STRATEGIES TO A RAPIDLY CHANGING WORLD. A new conservation framework is needed, linking local, global, and ecosystem processes by using mutually reinforcing top-down and bottom-up approaches. Mexican fishermen and Malpai ranchers exemplify, local, bottom-up strategies that incorporate individual incentives in a fruitful approach to protecting biodiversity. These strategies hinge on participation and stress access rights, equity, and social responsibility. In contrast, top-down governmental approaches deal with global agreements, national policies, and strategic plans. In a globalized world, the protection of biodiversity without integrating both of these approaches will prove increasingly difficult. Environmental organizations, universities, and corporations can help bridge top-down and bottom-up approaches to biodiversity conservation.
The islands off the west coast of North America, where my colleagues and I have been working over the past decade, provide an example of melding top-down and bottom-up conservation approaches. We have succeeded in restoring and protecting over two dozen islands that are home to dozens of seabird species and unique plants and animals. This biodiversity was protected directly by the removal of non-native mammals, the main threat to islands worldwide. Long-term protection was secured by more a complex, integrated process. Initially, a sister Mexican organization was established, providing the necessary local infrastructure to capitalize on local conservation opportunities and overcome obstacles. We then engaged in a series bottom-up programs, such as community-based education, capacity building of local biologists and conservationists, and on-the-ground ecological research. Simultaneously, we developed a top-down approach that included regional conservation planning, long-term fundraising, and working closely with governmental agencies. A strategy that includes working both with local communities and national governments allows conservation incentives to surface for all stakeholders. Neither approach alone would have been as successful in safeguarding the biodiversity of the islands off North America.
Scaling this approach from islands to the continent, where more diverse stakeholders and special interests exist, will prove complex and challenging. Some conservation organizations are making progress with similar approaches. The Natura 2000 initiative has protected a large biological corridor European Union, while compensating private landowners who commit their property to conservation. In North America, The Wildlands Project backs a bold conservation vision–wolves roaming from Mexico to the Yukon–with an organized network of partnerships that include local and regional organizations, government agencies, private landowners, and scientists. Like incentives, such organized networks of collaboration will be a requisite in our efforts to save US biodiversity.
In the next few decades, we will either save or lose a large percentage of our nation’s biodiversity. Given the history of the human-biodiversity relationship over the last ten thousands years in North America, this will be a momentous challenge. Our relationship with biodiversity is defined by our deep history, which elucidates our tendencies and capabilities. Our conservation strategies must take this history into account to be most effective. Incorporating incentives, economic and aesthetic, into biodiversity conservation is an approach history suggests may be our best hedge. Given the large stakes, we should act swiftly–at home and at the White House. Like it or not, we are now gardeners of biodiversity in our backyards and beyond. And we rely heavily on this continuum of gardens, from weeds and watermelons to wilderness. To paraphrase ecologist Daniel Janzen, we are beasts born of interaction with biodiversity and to strip us of that complexity is to render us “colorblind, deaf, and tasteless”. For hundreds of years now, each generation has left its descendents a world less full. Less ecosystem services, less history, less wonder, and less biodiversity. Every year, we are losing a little more of our senses. Like some of the leaders before, our future Presidents should act wisely to protect our nation’s biodiversity–to restore sense to his garden and the nations’. In the last few days of the year I was born, a nearly unanimous Congress passed into law the Endangered Species Act. Upon signing the act, President Nixon proclaimed, “nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life which our country has been blessed.” These words should hang in the oval office as a daily reminder.
About The Author: Josh Donlan is the director of Advanced Conservation Strategies, an organization that runs a number of biodiversity conservation projects around the world. Josh works on a variety of issues, including understanding how species interact and the ecosystem consequences of those interactions, reversing the impact of invasive species, incorporating ecological history into conservation strategies, and developing financial and incentive instruments for conservation. Josh is a fellow at Cornell University, and was highlighted in New York Times Magazine’s “Big Ideas of 2005” issue and named “25 of 2005 Saving the Planet”by Outside Magazine. While not traveling, he loves to hide out and ski the backcountry of Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. This article first appeared in Shifting Baselines.