28 March 2007

Conservation AND Access

A long lineage of conservationists did not distinguish between the need to conserve and protect natural resources and the need for the public to have access to natural resources. Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, Ed Abbey, ... -- all realized a deeply integrated relationship between conservation and access.

How is it, then, that some modern groups can promote conservation and ignore access? The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is probably the most prominent among such groups. TNC, it seems, would be happy to tie up the entire natural world in conservation easements for wealthy landowners that preclude any and all public access. As TNC has increasingly gotten into bed with wealthy donors and landowners, it has also become embroiled in numerous ethical messes. Goldman Sachs' CEO Henry Paulsen became Chair of TNC and President Bush's Treasury Secretary. And never mind the other TNC scandals related to buying land and selling it at a profit, rigging land deals to benefit board members and corporate donors, or a TNC-Mobil Oil cooperative oil drilling venture that hammered an endangered species of prairie chicken...

What do these ethical problems share with the conservation/access divide?

These ethical problems all stem from the national board of a major conservation group being in bed with wealthy corporations and elite landowners. Often these are the same corporations and elite landowners that promote the privatization of nature. As a group moves toward a conservation mission that ignores public access, it will also make that group prone to other moral compromises regarding nature. Money can do that.

I am not arguing that wealth necessarily leads to bad environmental ethics. Many wealthy landowners and corporate blokes have a healthy respect for both the rights of nature and the rights of the unwashed masses. Wealth, like any other power, however, needs to be balanced. You know, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely..."

Within a conservation group, wealth needs to be balanced with an understanding of the role of nature in people's lives--ALL people's lives. My friend Mr. Kennedy (who owns 3,200 acres on the Ruby River) enjoys fishing that river no more or less than I, Butte pauper that I am. Mr. Kennedy and I share a zeal for Trout Unlimited's mission to conserve salmonids. For me to share this zeal, however, requires that I have access to the river that runs through both of our lives. My right to access that river is found in the Public Trust Doctrine (as well as the Montana Constitution). Only a free citizen who has the right to vote and the right to information about their government is likely to care about that government. This is why, for example, Napoleon's soldiers (and the American revolutionaries) fought for their cause and won battles (and the war) against vastly better equipped and trained armies.

So too public access. I can be a good soldier for Trout Unlimited and other groups only if I both (1) am respected as a member of a democratic organization; and (2) have access to the natural resources the group works to conserve.

Now, in the modern world, I realize that some people do not feel this way. They feel some guilt or some sentiment toward nature, even though it might not be an important part of their lives. They take a week to vacation in some overcrowded National Park, and that is about it. To salve their guilt or their sentiment, they send an annual donation to TNC or TU or one of a host of other conservation groups. They don't want to be involved, they don't want to participate in the group's work day to pick up litter at a public fishing access site etc.

Also, in the modern world, there is certainly a strong tendency toward specialization. TNC can focus on acquiring conservation easements on critical (private) properties, while a truly grassroots group such as Public Lands/Water Access Association, Inc. can focus on defending public access rights. Meanwhile, the board of directors at TNC can become more and more insulated from public issues, democratic participation and transparency, and the need to make nature a part of everyone's life.

This modern tendency is fed by Professional Staff. When a group's day-to-day operations are directed and effected by Professional Staff, the rank-and-file membership no longer need to care. The rank-and-file membership no longer need to do the heavy lifting of showing up to testify at public meetings, raising money to fund local projects, or writing articles for the monthly newsletter. Just send in your membership dues, and the Professional Staff will take care of everything.

As a modern organization that went down that road, consider John Muir's own Sierra Club. By the 1960s, the group was simply irrelevant to many of its rank-and-file members who sought a deep connection with nature. As the Sierra Club became increasingly bureaucratic and beholden to wealthy interests, it alienated activist, grassroots members such as David Brower and Ed Abbey--and thus EarthFirst! was born.

A group need not cave in to modernist tendencies that alienate grassroots members. It is very possible to combine grassroots involvment with a Professional Staff, national board of directors, and wealthy donors. To its credit as an organization, Trout Unlimited has been such an organization. To date, the national board has generally not made hasty decisions catering to wealthy donors without first working through the local chapters and grassroots memberships. Projects and initiatives emerge from both local chapters and from the national organization. There are and will be some tensions, to be sure, but the system has worked.

Trout Unlimited has formed an ad hoc committee that will study the Stream Access issue and make a recommendation to the national board before its September 2007 meeting. Let's hope that TU can retain the qualities that have made it a unique and successful blend of grassroots activists + big time modern organization.

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