By Shawn Perich
When the Minnesota Legislature staggered to a sorry finish of the 2015 Session last month, the state’s environment and natural resources were in worse shape than when the session began. Some work was left unfinished (the Legacy funding bill wasn’t passed) and other work was, well, appalling (the 25-year-old MPCA Citizen Board was abolished). Like high school hoodlums, our duly elected knew their shoddy performance would receive an incomplete or failing grade. Veto pen in hand, Governor Dayton scolded the Legislature and called them back for a special session to complete the work they should have finished in the first place.
On the national level, Congress performs no better, kowtowing to the wishes of Big Ag and Big Oil at the expense of America’s landscape and publicly held natural resources. While the Obama Administration has made some strides, such as the recent EPA Clean Water Rule firming up protection for streams, headwaters and wetlands, the President himself seems to be largely blind to what is green, wild and wonderful about the nation he governs. It is fair to say our nation’s environment has diminished during his two terms.
The lack of political will and leadership to what is right for our lands and natural resources may nearly overwhelm with despair conservationists and others who appreciate the natural world. It is hard to think positive thoughts about the future if you are a pheasant hunter who watched millions of acres of CRP grassland habitat disappear beneath the plows during the past decade. The same is true for anyone who has watched energy production gobble up the landscape with oil fracking, corn for ethanol, massive windfarms and more. Add in the looming threat of climate change and even the most ardent conservationists may throw up their hands and say, “What difference can we possibly make?”
The answer is: Enough of a difference to keep up the fight. Recently, I happened upon a video of Shane Mahoney speaking at a Pheasants Forever gathering in 2014. Mahoney, a Newfoundland wildlife biologist who frequently lectures on conservation issues, said that although conservationists now face the colossi of industrial agriculture and energy development, the challenge is no greater than what faced the early conservationists more than a century ago.
Back then, North America’s landscape and native wildlife were ravaged and decimated by wholly unregulated harvest and development. Forests were fields of stumps. Industrial waste was dumped directly into waterways. Now common wildlife—white-tailed deer, wild turkey, pronghorn, Canada geese, bighorn sheep and other species—were extirpated from most of their original range. Unregulated market harvest of fish and game was a way of life.
It was an era of titans of industry and political bosses, none of whom were interested in much other than the bottom line. Somehow, the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and a handful of other nature-minded, forward thinking leaders were able to halt the destruction and turn a corner toward progress. To them we owe our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges; federal lands that became the cornerstone of re-greening America.
Mahoney says it could not have been but for the few who believed in conservation who overcame the many that were profiting from the destruction of land, water and wildlife. He points out that Teddy Roosevelt was the last President to have a passion for the outdoors and conservation. Without his bold leadership, the seeds of conservation may not have sprouted. From those bold beginnings, countless other people, never more than tiny fraction of the whole population, nurtured the frail seedlings which became healthy forests, clean waters and an abundance of fish and wildlife. In that context, the challenges conservationists face today are simply a continuation of what has always been so.
Mahoney told his audience we need leadership, but the leaders who can make a difference in today’s world aren’t likely to attend conservation banquets. No one in the current field of presidential wannabes from either party is likely to move the conservation of America’s lands and wildlife to the front burner or to even develop a relevant set of talking points. The same is true of the members of Congress and state legislatures. In fact, most of the above likely know less about the topic than the average reader of this column.
Since our elected leadership is at least somewhat a reflection of America’s populace, perhaps, as Mahoney also suggests, conservationists need to develop a broad-based social movement that reaches out to mainstream Americans. This may be easier to accomplish in this era of social media, but it begs a question: Does mainstream America really care? Most Americans don’t take wildlife and wild places for granted. Instead, they are oblivious to them. This won’t change by getting them to “like” a Facebook page.
Obliviousness isn’t new. Clearly, it was a challenge for the first conservationists, who were among the very few to realize America had become a plundered and ravaged landscape. Somehow they persevered and successfully brought about change. Perhaps today’s conservationists can do the same. It won’t be easy. Conservationists get little traction with politicians who are antagonistic or indifferent to the plight of America’s lands and wildlife. In fact, even some conservation and environmental organizations are so mired in ideologies and partisan politics that they are unable to pull together for the common good. As for average Americans, too many view the world around them from the screen of their smart phone.
The opposition is formidable, but perhaps no more formidable than the robber barons of a century ago. The big difference is now they are taking away everything we’ve gained over the last 100 years. If we wish to pass on to future generations the wild America we’ve enjoyed, then we must rise to the present challenges to conservation…by whatever means necessary.