Editor’s Note: Janet Lebson wrote this excellent column and shared it with me. I asked if she would let me use it as a guest post on Dispatches. She agreed. Enjoy.
Our Natural Assets by Janet Lebson
I’ve been told that in the past, a few daring visionaries have tried to consolidate all federal conservation agencies into one cabinet-level department.
A “Department of Natural Resources”—that would certainly make sense, right?
Too much sense, apparently. Here are just a couple of the most glaring peculiarities that exist today. Inland fisheries are tended for under the Interior Department while saltwater fish come under Commerce (and don’t even ask about the poor anadromous ones). Three of the four major public lands networks come under Interior (national parks, wildlife refuges, and BLM lands) while the fourth falls under Agriculture (national forests).
Not surprisingly, this fragmentation inhibits public-private partnerships, leads to inconsistent policy (and practice), and makes agencies susceptible to turfiness and conflicting “cultures” (for example, Commerce has long been criticized for cowing to commercial fishing interests, and Agriculture for viewing national forests like crops.)
Yes, those brave souls dared to imagine that our country’s overall conservation effort would be more successful if it was better integrated and coordinated. Shocking!
I think there’s a more insidious side effect of a fragmented conservation community—and I’m including the private sector along with government.
We’re not being effective ambassadors for the broader values of conservation. I’m talking about how much America’s natural resources have to do with our health and well being, our prosperity, and our stature around the world.
What I see coming out of agencies and non-profit groups every day is a lot of promotions that convey only the values that are directly relevant to their mission.
There’s nothing wrong with being specific—but what’s not there is what I’m concerned about. What’s missing is the big picture.
We end up with the equivalent of a lot of really wonderful pieces of a puzzle scattered about a room.
The whole world has been totally transformed by globalization, yet we’re still communicating in “neighborhoods.”
Ultimately, we become a cacophony to people who only have time for soundbites.
Here at home, everything from 9/11 to the soaring costs of Medicare has completely shifted the context of government, yet the conservation community has not evolved to define a forcefully relevant identity against this new backdrop.
I’m afraid the consequences will eventually disrupt the legacy of conservation that has long fortified America’s growth and prosperity, not to mention our quality of life.
That would be cause for concern at any time, but particularly when our nation is experiencing new areas of weakness, every existing pillar of strength takes on added importance.
When I try to take a big step back and a world view, I’m struck by the notion that our rich and diverse natural resources are a huge part of what makes America America!
Our natural assets—and the investments we’ve made to protect and sustain them—are unsurpassed throughout the world.
How vital a nation would we be (economically and culturally) without our mighty rivers, teeming wetlands, grand mountain ranges, rich grasslands, bounteous coasts, and majestic forests—and all the different fish and wildlife they host?
I’m reminded of what F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in The Great Gatsby, how “the old island here…flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world.” The America our forbears first encountered must indeed have been “something commensurate to [our] capacity for wonder.”
That amazing spectacle may be marred, yet America is still a world leader in keeping a sustainable balance between preserving our resources and using them recreationally and commercially—the ultimate goal of conservation.
We’ve got vast networks of public lands, a variety of pollution controls, special programs for fragile wetlands and waterways, unique sources of conservation funding, exceptional protections for imperiled wildlife, and a citizenry with a pretty remarkable environmental consciousness.
What’s lost in piecemeal approaches and details is what’s really at stake if we don’t continue our unprecedented commitment to conservation. We can’t afford to keep advocating for it in the same old ways. We need to take into account the bigger picture and the long view—or conservation might be perceived as something expendable during hard times.
Considering how difficult it was to create a Department of Homeland Security, I doubt a new conservation department will come around anytime soon. In truth, it would only be a start anyway.
Meanwhile, I’m going to hold out hope that some daring visionaries in the conservation community will blaze a new trail of unity so we can be more effective in our advocacy over the long haul.