Can conservationists restore impoverished rural landscapes?
Can conservationists restore impoverished rural wildlife and human landscapes? This was the question that came to me over and over again as I drove through the rural coastal plain of the southeastern US. I have not seen these areas since I was a young man struggling to support a young family. Ultimately, we moved our family to New Jersey but left behind a land that ultimately fell into a deep and pernicious decline that paralleled the corporate takeover of these rural economies.
The small town economies collapsed because of competition from chain retail stores, while large-scale farm and forestry operations siphoned off most of the land’s wealth with genetically engineered plants, chemicals, and heavy machinery. Money flows not to the communities, where most of the jobs created are low-wage, but to investors and a few wealthy businessmen or landowners. Wildlife fare no better as the land uses are so intense that nearly all the natural wealth goes to the product that makes some people rich. It is a remarkable testament to the pervasiveness of corporate American’s reach into the even the smallest corners of this famously remote place.
Do our natural lands exist for the sake of a few landowners and investors or should the wealth be shared with more diverse and sustainable uses that can create decent paying jobs and don’t drain the land of all its life? Without conservationists in the pictures the answer is clear — so why is this not the case now?
The first reason is conservationists don’t fully recognize their own power. Imagine the 87.5 million people who identify themselves as wildlife enthusiasts voting in the same direction. Do you think politicians will take notice? Do you think corporations would continue their dopey ad campaigns telling us they care when in fact they are draining rural areas dry of their wealth and leaving animals and people impoverished?
The second reason why good conservation, embedded in sustainable resource use, is the exception, not the rule is we have allowed the conservation public to be broken up into left and right groups – sportsmen on the right, birders on the left, Republicans take sportsmen for granted and the Democrats take birders for granted, with both parties providing no substantive actions to solve the problems of rural people and wildlife. The effect is that partisan conservation groups often nullify each other or work on completely separate problems and our issues remain at the bottom of the political pile.
But a potent political force needs direction, which is the third reason why we have destructive forces afoot in our rural lands — our nation’s policies promote it. Perhaps the best example of this is our farm policy. Attached is a nearly impenetrable flow chart of the destructive forces created by the current Farm Bill published in a project created by the Urban Design Lab of Columbia and the MIT Collaborative Initiative. By subsidizing just five crops we have unleashed huge industries that take away farms from families, encourage the transport of vegetables from foreign lands, create an obesity epidemic that is the primary reason for our overburdened health care system, degrade our agricultural lands with chemicals and overuse, and have pressed into service natural lands that are not suited to good agriculture.
The same perverse incentives that created this Rube Goldberg agriculture system, with its unintended nation-destroying consequences, are running amok in our land use planning, forestry products, and fisheries systems.
Why? Because one of the groups of people who could help balance this dialogue are missing in action. The people who love wildlife, birdwatchers, bird feeders and, yes, hunters and fishermen should recognize there are enough of us to dominate the politics of this state and every other state. It’s time to speak up and create new ways to pay for a better system.