Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

Volunteerism Alone Won't Save the Planet

(This appeared in Cascadia Times September. 17, 1998.)

by Andy Kerr

OREGON'S LIVING LANDSCAPE - Strategies and Opportunities to Conserve Biodiversity by the Oregon Biodiversity Project, published by Defenders of Wildlife, 218 pp. $29.95 (A companion CD ROM [PC only] containing data sets used in the statewide biodiversity analysis, plus visualization software is available for $10.00 by calling 503/697-3222).

STEWARDSHIP INCENTIVES - Conservation Strategies for Oregon's Working Landscape by Sara Vickerman, published by Defenders of Wildlife, 138 pp., $10.00

Reviewed by Andy Kerr

Full of interesting maps and color pictures, Oregon's Living Landscape gives a lively and interesting survey of the state's biodiversity. It classifies Oregon public lands using a 1-10 ranking scale, a 10 being the best. 8-10 comprises the "conservation network" and includes most Wilderness Areas and The Nature Conservancy Preserves. If private lands were classified, they'd generally rank in the 1-4 range.

The book depicts numerous "conservation opportunity areas" that have extremely imperiled (but savable or restorable) ecosystems that should be targeted for improved biodiversity management.

The "author" of Oregon's Living Landscape is the Oregon Biodiversity Project, a partnership of many, but primarily Defenders of Wildlife and The Nature Conservancy. The natural information is from The Nature Conservancy, while the policy recommendations emanate from the Western Office of Defenders of Wildlife which "emphasizes alternative approaches to environmental decision-making by facilitating partnerships among divergent interests seeking constructive solutions to environmental problems."

Besides Sara Vickerman of Defenders and a representative of TNC, the OBP steering committee also includes a representative from PacifiCorp (a conglomerate with pockets deep and fingers everywhere); a southern Oregon timber scion (more worldly than his father, he feels somewhat uncomfortable about clearcutting); and an eastern Oregon cattle rancher (who is looking for the fat-free hot fudge sundae equivalent to grazing on the public lands).

Stewardship Incentives outlines potential methods to improve private land management.

Vickerman has plotted a course that studiously avoids controversy and polarization. By eschewing controversy and embracing cooperation, she hopes to move management of Oregon's "working landscape" higher up the biodiversity protection scale. Though my professional experience, genetic (and cultural) predisposition and rational preference are all for political combat, I truly hope that Vickerman is right. But I fear she is not.

While she does call for increasing the conservation network, Vickerman sounds pessimistic about the chances of doing so. Oregon's Living Landscape laments controversy and polarization, though it does acknowledge that the only ecoregions with significant percentages (22%) in the conservation network are those affected by the President's (westside) Northwest Forest Plan, mandated after a decade of unprecedented polarization, controversy and strife. Those eastside forest and grassland ecoregions that haven't (yet) had their mother of all battles fare more poorly (5 and 3% respectively). Most pathetic is the Willamette Valley (0.7%), where most Oregonians live. Regrettably, the book omits estuarine and oceanic ecoregions.

Contrast the approach of incremental improvement on primarily private lands with that of The Wildlands Project. TWP asserts that to have functioning ecosystems, both across the landscape and over time, that we must re-wild 50% North America during the next century.

The role of volunteerism in conservation will always be limited until greed is repealed or usury is again a sin. As long as the enlightened landowner doesn't want the money, things may work for nature. But if the heirs didn't inherit the same values or develop cocaine addictions, watch out. In any case, the pool of enlightened landowners will always be small. Volunteerism must always complement, not substitute for, public debate, regulatory, legal and political action.

Like it or not, social change comes through social tension. Much of the increased "cooperation" by private landowners is motivated not be an enlightenment about biodiversity, but through a fear of government action that may affect economic exploitation. Governor John Kitzhaber was only able to obtain the support of Big Timber for his coho salmon plan because of the threat of the federal Endangered Species Act. Big Timber did not see the light; it felt the heat.

Vickerman proposes new positive incentives designed to reward good behavior, while only vaguely suggesting that the many existing negative incentives rewarding bad behavior be "fine-tuned." Many government subsidies are irritating to both Earth and taxpayer. Should environmentalists propose good incentives to counteract bad incentives, or should we first (or at least concurrently) work to end of ecologically perverse incentives?

Many of the management recommendations offered in Stewardship Incentives would place additional costs on the landowner without a concurrent financial benefit from the market. Vickerman proposes both financial incentives (read tax subsidies) to offset the costs and also suggests psychic benefits (landowner recognition, good feelings about stewardship, etc.) to help achieve biodiversity improvement.

Conservation doesn't pay in a capitalist system. One cannot have their forest (or grassland) and clearcut (or cow-bomb) it too.

In the case of public land cattle grazing and crop agriculture, it doesn't take long for existing ongoing subsidies to exceed the value of the land or activity being subsidized. Is it not better to acquire the land outright and upgrade the area into the conservation network? Should not the government spend funds as efficiently as TNC?

In the case of timber, Vickerman apparently forgets that we live in a capitalist economy and therefore money grows faster than trees. Doubling a timber rotation will yield more than twice the wood, but time is money. The only landowners who are adopting such strategies are otherwise bonded to the land and/or believe they have enough money already. One will never see a widely held publicly traded corporation voluntarily adopt sustainable forestry; fiduciary responsibilities to stockholders require otherwise.

There is a relationship between the necessary amount of conservation reserve lands and the stewardship on the remaining landscape. The Wildlands Project is pessimistic about private stewardship and seeks a conservation network of what would be 8s through 10s on one-half of the landscape (primarily on public lands-[again] to-be). Vickerman sees this as unattainable and optimistically labors in the vineyard of cooperation seeking to move those lower numbers higher. TNC at least recognizes greed, and simply buys land to remove it from market pressures.

As more scientific information about the perilous status of our ecosystems becomes known, it puts more pressure on environmentalists to succeed. Yet, we presently operate in political, social and economic systems that aren't ready to accept either the vision of The Wildlands Project or of Sara Vickerman. Let's hope they both change the world.