sustainable land use

a working landscape on Delaware bay


Last week Lisa Garrison of the Hudson River Foundation, and a life-long resident of the Cohansey River watershed, hosted a group of officers of the Dodge, Penn  and The Southern NJ Community Foundations for a tour of the Delaware Bayshore.  The group explored the area including a trip down the Cohansey, with bald eagles at nearly every bend in the River.  They were asked to explore the concept of sustainable conservation through the creation of a working landscape, or an ecologically intact landscape that provide strong jobs for its residents.

Bald Eagle on Cohansey River

The range of opinion concerning working landscapes varies widely, but the emphasis on productive farms and ranches grows as you go further west.  Vermont’s smart growth plan emphasizes the protection of the natural integrity of the landscape while maintaining a productive rural economy.  Colorado has a working landscape organization that acknowledges the importance of ecosystem protection but mostly as additional revenue for farmers and ranchers.  In a brief internet search I found useful information from a variety of states and the impression that the predominate use of the phrase “working landscape” is used as verbal bulwark against the perceived economically-deadening effects of preservation.

Generally the concept, that a working landscape must provide both good jobs and sustainable system of conservation,  appears to be absent from natural resource policy in the northeast states.  A deeper search might prove otherwise, but I think it’s also fair to say that the clash of those who wish to preserve a landscape and those who wish to exploit it has drowned out any reasonable discussion.  Can we have sustainable conservation and good jobs?  Is it possible to reframe the typical land use debate –“protection vs jobs” — by avoiding the polarizing issues of preservation and development?

The Brickhouse farm on the Cohansey River. The main house was built in 1736.

That was the focus of our tour of the Delaware Bayshore.  I have written a number of times on thecollapse of the Bay’s fisheries and the gradual drift of agriculture to low profit margin crops leaving the rural countryside impoverished.  Add this to the area’s collapse of manufacturing, and the current economic recession that has left many construction workers out of work, and you’ll find the Delaware Bayshore and the Cohansey rivershed in economic tatters.   The decline was decades in the making and the residents have grown accustomed to the truly ironic situation, a moribund economy in a rich land.  The politicians of the area seek development as the answer, but it’s like a gambler doubling down so as not to face his already devastating losses.  More people will not solve this problem, more investment in the sustainable conservation of this land will.  So the key question for the Foundations and government agencys — can the conservation of Delaware Bayshore be refashioned to include the economic welfare of the people who live there?

Many years ago, I attended a conference where Dr Tom Cade of the Peregrine Fund was the plenary speaker.   I was a young biologist filled with pride to be working with Bald Eagles, Peregrine Falcons and the migratory hawks of Cape May (the subject of PhD dissertation).  Dr. Cade spoke of the unstoppable march of development in the east and suggested that the only way to save the places that provide essential habitat for raptors was to create conservation “zoos” or whole landscapes that would be devoted to the preservation of animals and plants.  It was not a unique idea, and in many ways we can see the expression of this sentiment in the work of many conservation groups.   The Delaware Bay landscape eventually became a protected landscape with more public and private lands devoted to conservation and tighter land use regulations (CAFRA, Wetlands Protection, Pinelands, etc.) than anywhere else in the state .

Fishing boats at Greenwich Boatworks on the Cohansey River

But now — several decades later — I wonder about about Dr. Cades remarks.  Did he consider the impact of this protection on the people who populate the eco-zoos?  Can conservation be sustainable if we ignore the welfare of the people that live in an important landscape like the Delaware bay?   The answers to these questions are clear — we must revitalize this landscape by invigorating the natural resource economy for the benefit of the people who live here.   The foundations can play a pivotal role in this revitalization.