Message from a Maverick for 21st century Conservation

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:07/01/2019

This is an article I originally wrote for the Weekly Standard, but the magazine went out of business before it could be published.

The modern environmental movement, often referred to as the third wave, was born in 1972 when President Nixon quoted Theodore Roosevelt in his March, 1972 presidential address to Congress: “At the dawn of the twentieth Century, almost as a voice in the wilderness he loved, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed an environmental ethic for America.” He said: “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use natural resources; but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or to rob by wasteful use the generations that come after us.” Nixon launched what became a regulatory onslaught of environmental legislation for Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species and myriad lesser initiatives, a full throated roar for the inclusion of environmental issues on center stage of our civil polity. Nixon’s initiative led to the establishment of the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and much more of our federal environmental infrastructure.

In quoting Roosevelt, Nixon was resurrecting the first wave of the environmental movement. Roosevelt’s right arm for conservation was Gifford Pinchot, founder of the US Forest Service, and he was the chief scribe of utilitarian conservation embodied in Roosevelt’s speech. His antipodal disciple of conservation was John Muir, the evangelical Scot who climbed trees amid Pacific storms and was the foremost apostle of wilderness and natural resource preservation. For a hundred years their philosophies represented the two competing currents of our national conservation stream.

In retrospect, it is worth plumbing the basic principles of conservation from Pinchot’s era, for they have faded into this mists of time for contemporary America. Pinchot wrote: “The first great fact about conservation is that it stands for development. In the second place conservation stands for the prevention of waste. The third principle is natural resources must be developed and preserved for the benefit of the many…” Pinchot proposed working landscapes of forest and farm management, a sustainable and responsible conservation in modern eco-parlance. His competitor, Muir, promulgated a competing vision, a visual canopy of public acquisition and the protection of parks and wilderness areas that came to dominate the post-World War II environmental agenda.

For the landscape side of the environmental equation, Muir emerged victorious in 1992 with the listing of the spotted owl by HW Bush’s Director of US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), John Turner, which put a capstone on decades of wilderness preservation for our western forests and signaled the death throes of these same forests on an altar of wildfires. The effect of Turner’s spotted owl decision was to shut down forest management across northwestern states, allowing fuel loads to accumulate to unprecedented levels.

Modern scholarship, particularly Charles Mann’s books 1491, and 1493, demonstrate that Amerindians used fire to manipulate “landscape scale” – to borrow a favorite environmental term for locking up public acquisitions – changes on massive levels before the onslaught of European diseases (small pox, measles and the like) decimated their populations. Today the forests in the West are going up in smoke – last year 58,083 wildfires reported, 8.8 million acres burned - at an unprecedented scale. The unfortunate irony is that the preservationist approach to the conservation of America’s forests is a leading cause of their destruction. They have made forest management impossible and as a result fuel loads have built for 40 plus years, causing the current firestorms across the West. These fires are caused by environmental fuel loading. According to the Congressional Research Service: “Every year since 2000, an average of 73,200 wildfires burned an average of 6.9 million acres. This figure is nearly double the average annual acreage burned in the 1990s (3.3 million acres), although a greater number of fires occurred annually (78,600 on average).” In a recent interview Michael Rains, former Deputy Chief of the Forest Service stated: “Allocating more money to fighting wildfires is not the answer. Nothing will change until the Forest Service and the public embrace the notion that aggressive forest management is the elixir for effective fire management.” Recall the Pinchot definition of conservation: “Develop and use natural resources, and do not recognize the right to waste them”. For half a century the environmental movement has been advocating the wasting of our western forests.

In the 1930s novelist Thomas Wolfe wrote: “I’m thinking about America…Sometimes it seems to me that America went off the track somewhere…” He is right, and environmentalism careened off the tracks of conservation sanity in the mid-1980s. In a prescient Sunday Washington Post columnist TR Reid wrote: “The growing awareness that public interest lobbyists-he was referring to the environmental lobby-were, at bottom, simply lobbyists with no fair claim to higher moral standing than other members of the species. That recognition has contributed to a decline in public interest in Congress.” Think Tom Steyer, who epitomizes environmental hypocrisy having made his fortune in dirty coal and now parades as an environmental Don Quixote, whose latest self-interested joust is to stop fracking in New Mexico. TR Reid was on the mark and environmental advocacy has continued to degenerate every year since his writing in 1985.

Western forest fires are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg of a century of conservation policy that as tilted to embrace John Muir’s land preservation proscriptions. Our public land infrastructure boasts a $35 billion backlog for operations and Maintenance. Secretary Zinke is the first Interior Secretary in a century to address the maintenance backlog of our dilapidated National Park Service. Our public lands are harbors for invasive species such as yellow star thistle. Ranchers maligned for the past 40 years by urban elites nestled in their cappuccino corners, are the keys to rangeland recovery. In the realm of endangered species recovery, entrepreneurial nonprofits like Ducks Unlimited, the Peregrine Fund and Pheasants Forever have proven to be far more effective and efficient than the federal US Fish and Wildlife Service in bringing about species recovery.

So where are we as we approach the third decade of the 21st century in terms of adopting a conservation vision for America? The environmental movement’s favorite apostle, Aldo Leopold in the 1930s wrote: “The geography of conservation is such that most of the best land will always be held privately for agricultural production. The bulk of responsibility for conservation thus necessarily devolves upon the private custodian, especially the farmer.” So let’s look at our nation’s geography. Today 71% of the lower 48 states remains in private ownership by 2.2 million ranchers and farmers and 10.7 million forest owners. Private landowners own 80% of endangered species habitat and 82% of our wetlands. In other words, a vastly disproportionate amount of our critical and ecologically important habitats are stewarded by private sector landowners. Unlike Pinchot’s era, today private forest owners are vastly better forest managers than the US Forest Service, which is shackled with byzantine environmental regulations: On the west coast Sierra Pacific Industries, Green Diamond, and Collins Pine are superior forest managers; in Southeastern states, Research Management Service, LLC is restoring long leaf pine on a scalable basis, and in Maine Seven Islands has demonstrated superior conservation and forest management for decades. Similarly, ranchers are the key to sage grouse recovery because the birds spend half their life cycle on the irrigated fields of private ranchers.

Our nation needs to go back to the vision of our founding fathers, Washington, Jefferson and Madison, who held that the farmers were the stewards of our national health and well-being. Muir’s vision of preservation and public ownership has proved to be demonstrably ineffective. It has preserved scenic vistas aplenty. Most federal lands are over 3000 feet and have conserved mountains and deserts, but they do not conserve ecologically important lands which even in the West remain in private hands because ownership is concentrated on watersheds. How does our nation take private land stewardship to a position of national prominence and recognition? My small foundation, the Land Conservation Assistance Network, LandCAN for short, has been building an education and implementation platform to assist landowners for over 17 years. We host all the federal conservation stewardship programs which are mostly clustered in US Department of Agriculture agencies – the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Farm Service Agency, US Forest Service, and the Partners for Wildlife program in the Interior Department’s USFWS. We host all 50 states’ programs that assist and advice landowners. We host all the non-advocacy nonprofits: every land trust and conservation district in the country, over 5000 listings of non-profit service providers, and we host over 30, 000 for-profit service providers raging from forest consultants to tax and estate lawyers. The thing about private landowners is most do not want federal or state bureaucrats telling them what to do with their land and they certainly do not want environmentalists dictating to their private property rights. LandCAN does no environmental advocacy; it is free and no log in required. The internet allows us to reach tens of thousands of individuals a month. George Patton once commented: “If everyone is thinking alike, then somebody isn’t thinking.” Environmentalists have been thinking alike for a century. It is time to go back to the founding fathers, and to Pinchot and Roosevelt and support private stewardship as a priority nationwide.