Thursday, April 19, 2018

How Does Conservation Lose?

A recent article by Todd Wilkinson in his Mountain Journal posits that "Conservation has lost its edge."  It's a compelling article woven around the ethos of longtime advocate Stewart Brandborg.  Wilkinson, like many western advocates for conservation, perceives a weakness in conservation, a willingness to have a small seat at a very big table.  To accept table scraps as their reward, served hours after the utility companies, extractive industries, and anti-conservation interests have carved up the white meat, the dark meat, and thrown the best bones to their most steadfast hounds.  Wilkinson's overall point, shared by many western advocates, is that conservation is failing because of dilution through moderation, tent-opening, and consensus building.  While that doesn't sound untrue, is it a primary cause of the conservation movement's failure to advance?   Wilkinson notes that Brandborg ran the Wilderness Society for 12 years, through the period when the Wilderness Act was enacted, but that now, 54 years later, we have lost our way.  Okay.   A lot of things have happened in 54 years.

It is tempting to look at a single-issue advocacy group like the NRA or Planned Parenthood and say, "See - they never accept compromise.  That's why they win, and it's why conservation loses."   But if you're looking for cures (and not just complaining), that answer is a placebo.   Conservationists fight, and mostly lose, all the time.  That's worth noting.

I'm reminded of a "dark green" environmental organization who had the chance to draft a pollution bill for the state government where Democrats hold the majority of the legislature and the Governor's office.  They toiled away on this draft bill for an insufferable 3 years, then once it was sponsored in the legislature, feared that their proposed language did not punish polluters harshly enough, and had the sponsor withdraw the bill.   A successful bill was drawn up by the polluting industry in the following legislative session, with far fewer controls, and was signed into law.  That is a conservation failure. 

I'm reminded of another "true believer" environmentalist who filed a foolhardy lawsuit against one of the nation's largest meat producers.   The case was weak, and the judge begged the environmentalists to enjoin in mediation.   Never! They said.  We're going to shut down this entire corporation! The environmentalists were trounced by the ag lawyers and were publicly scolded by the judge, and then forced to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover the ag lawyers' legal fees for the trial. That is a conservation failure. 

I'm reminded of another "true believer" dark green environmentalist organization who wanted so badly to kill a land development that they wrote an Op-Ed in the Washington Post accusing the land developer of all kinds of misdeeds.   The developer successfully sued the environmentalist for libel, requiring a payout higher than the Executive Director's annual salary.   It was celebrated by the environmentalists as a victory (the development was built, fully, with no input from the environmental community on reducing impacts).   That is a conservation failure. 

These examples serve to remind us that in our red-blooded desire for purity, we can make monumental errors that can set legal precedents, alienate our supporters, and annoy lawmakers through sheer ineptitude.   We can lose sight of really important things.   Todd Wilkinson and many conservation and environmental advocates would have us all demand purity - that purity of focus and outcome is necessary and not optional.    My retort would simply be that ideological purity is necessary in at least some landscapes and is mandatory to oppose at least some conflicting land uses, but where it is required, it is not sufficient by itself to achieve what we want to achieve in conservation.

When the case law is against your organization's stance, it is not sufficient to have mission purity.   When legal property rights, and a property owner, are against your organization's stance, "never compromising" will not get you where you want to go.  When you don't have the basic facts correct, "purity" will not cover up your imminent self-embarrassment.   Conservationists many times assume we are righteous and that the facts, science, and the rule of law will back us up.  That's a really poor assumption.

So, to Wilkinson's edict that conservation is failing due to over-collaboration and a lack of courage, he's right on a slim majority of counts.  But it is important to also count the many, many quixotically idealistic adventures of conservationists and environmentalists over the last 50 years - those among us quite content to be the Noble Losers.  Their purity is very tempting to replicate, for their hearts are strong and true.  But many of them do not know how to make conservation succeed.   And in fact, this is how conservation fails.

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