Friday, February 21, 2014

"Taking Action" in Conservation Means Offering Up Your Talent

How are you going to moan about the results
if you didn't show up to talk at the table?
It was late on a Monday night.  I sat in a stiff folding chair, in a partially restored historic home where someone had fired up the wood stove about five minutes before the meeting started.    Two hours into the meeting, my toes were getting numb, and I'm not sure the wood stove had made a hill of beans difference.   Around me sat a core of "fresh food for the poor" anarchist shareholders from Baltimore Free Farm, a local nonprofit that, among other things, teaches poor people how to grow their own fresh food and be less dependent upon The System, whether that be food stamps or the grocery store's frozen meal section.

At nearly 40, I was the oldest person in the room by a lot of years.  The conversation was startling and inspiring - talk of ledger balances, cash flows, receipts for grants, concerns that shareholder labor was not being billed to the correct grant for some activities.  An organized "stack" of commentors, each recognized in order.  Mutual respect for other people, which was shown several times as vocal proponents of a certain tactic or strategy heard that they did not have support, and as a result withdrew their proposal.   A hearty discussion over whether a new community should first engage the community at large, or the community members who had championed the project into existence.   This, my friends, is what the nuts and bolts of change look like.

While visiting an active habitat restoration site being
managed by a conservation non-profit, I realized that
I had my bidder number and raffle tickets in my coat
pocket from the previous night's banquet auction - a
different organization entirely.  The point remains -
Those raffle ticket dollars go somewhere.
They do something.
I recently have read several great articles about re-engaging sportsmen in conservation.  Sportsmen are, and will always remain, the last defense of the resource - and to negotiating trade-offs related to that resource.  Most notable was Todd Tanner's "Insidious: Let's Stop Our Losing Streak," (Hatch) with Tom Sadler's "The Coin of the Realm is Action" (Middle River Dispatches) coming in at a close second.  Both of those talented writers correctly state that the costs of the last 40 years of continued inaction by sportsmen - largely (in my opinion) as a result in our belief that "the environmental agencies will do the right thing,"  has started to send us into a negative feedback loop of habitat conservation, or more precisely, a "Death Spiral."

Duck Populations vs. Duck Stamp Sales: Hunting
Heritage on a Steady Decline (Vrtiska et al., 2013)

Want to talk duck stamps? The program is at a near standstill because even though duck hunters march to Washington annually to beg for the stamp (a tax) to be increased on themselves, Republican lawmakers have been unwilling to be on the record supporting the increase in any tax.   Want to talk clean water?  The Clean Water Act, administered by the US EPA, has been to the US Supreme Court 7 times.  EPA has lost 6 of those decisions.  In some regions, EPA watershed cleanup staff (directed to get into streams and wetlands and remove/abate pollution through restoration) are verbally threatened by their coworkers in the EPA regulatory program (whose jobs are complicated by the watershed cleanups).

But what lacks in both of those articles is kind of funny - what is this "action" for which the authors pine?   To be fair, both mention things like paying attention, calling the media, calling your elected officials, and things like that.   Those are all good things.  But they've amounted to almost nothing in the last 40 years.   And very few of us are adept enough at the workings of environmental law to be able to keep up with the near constant changes in legislation and trickle-down impacts of environmental litigation.  I'm certainly not.   Just last week, I found out that one of my coworkers had sealed the deal on the cleanup of the state's largest tire reading it in the newspaper.  I had no idea it was even close to being signed!  My point - it's hard to keep up, especially on complex court cases involving river rights, or on complex legislation like the Farm Bill.

As a life long conservationist (and in some circles referred as a dreaded "paid conservationist), I love to see organizations functioning well.   The older I get, the more disillusioned I become with our environmental regulatory structure and its innate tendency to say, "Oh what the hell, it's 5pm" when a watershed is dying or a coal waste pond is belching toxic slurry into five cities' water supply, or when poachers are illegally harvesting game from the public woods or waters and selling those animals (or their parts) across state lines. I am fed up that these agencies take our hard earned tax dollars, ask us, the sportsman community, to defer to their expertise, and then prefer to either fail to take action or to enter into sweetheart compromises with those whose actions are impacting the future of our natural resources.   I am fed up.

While I work in these issues 40-60 hours per week, there are other parts of my life where I have been mired in complainer-dom.  Mainly, the failure of our City (despite ridiculously high taxes we pay) as a human institution.  The City I live in is largely a failure, spurned on by the politics of complacency (and single party rule) decade after decade.   I've been solid bellyaching about the City for a year or more, and was finally convinced by a colleague to get off my ass and get involved.  I found the Baltimore Free Farm, and it was great to tell them, "I'm someone who can find a way to work around the channels.  I know how funding works, how project planning works.  If you want my help, I can help you accomplish things."   It'll be interesting in the next few months to see how they want to use me.   But I'll leave it to their judgment.  For me, for now, I'm not just complaining.  I will work to be part of the solution for the things I find to be most objectionable.

That's what I hope you do today as well.   The conservation organization that you claim to "love" - where you send a $35 check each year (likely around 00.5% of your gross income - and yet still tax deductible) - yeah, that organization.  I want you to look up their local person and call them.  I want you to offer them your help with what it is you know how to do.  Internet programming? Event planning?  Contractor bidding?

None of this is as sexy as walking through a stream during a TU stream cleanup and picking up some trash - this is true.  But at the end of your trash cleanup day, nothing else has changed.  More trash is on the way, and the politicians are happy that someone came out to pick up the trash for free, rather than billing the state.

I think you can do more, and I think you should do more.  Not for the organizations I support, but the ones you support.  Support them with all your might.  Believe in their vision.  Give them a tool to help them succeed, whether it's your gift of gab when talking to elected officials or your ability to fix their perpetually broken email system.


walt said...

Although I could probably argue the point made in the second to final paragraph here, you state an important issue. It's vital that we help make a change by donating some time on the local level. As for stream cleaning, our local TU chapter has made an impact on local consciousness by cleaning up several illegal landfills near trout water. Some of the illegal dumping may be going over to different ravines, but at least the culprits are aware that what they're doing is wrong, and some of them are getting tagged.

Kirk Mantay said...

You're right, I unfairly described local "feel good" efforts like stream cleanups to further my main argument. You only picked up on one of the ways my statement was "not bulletproof" (the possibility of identifying an important polluter). The other one is engagement (which is, sort of, the point of this blog post). How will people know what your favorite organization is about unless they show up for some 2 hour event like a stream cleanup, meet some great folks, have some free coffee and donuts, and then go back home. Some will forget about it. Some will remember, but do nothing. But under a few, you'll light a fire. That's justification enough for feel-good events with minimal "habitat" value. Thanks for calling me out, that was a fair shot.

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