jobs, shorebirds and a sunny day on a South Carolina beach
The noonday sun bathed us with early but welcome warmth while we sat behind a dune on Deveaux Bank, SC. A gentle breeze kept us cool while we waited for the tide to rise and shrink the island where three thousand red knots roosted. The Atlantic ocean sprawled in all directions, the Islands of Seabrook and Kiawah within sight a few miles off. Inevitably the tide would force the knots onto the intertidal flat before us, where we had set a cannon net several hours earlier.
The crew setting the net was a mixed bag of characters such as, photographer/author, an English micro biologist, three biologists from the USFWS, including Melissa Bimbi, the southern lead on the listing of the red knot. The project leader Felicia Sanders brought several of her colleagues, Janet, Nick Kelly Jennifer. We all sat patiently praying for the birds to land in the area of the net and for the tide to push them high enough to be caught.
One of the volunteers, John Fisk, and I fell into a conversation about conservation. Retired from his practice as a surgeon, John now chairs a SC organization of master naturalists that do work on everything from turtles to eagles. We shared enthusiasm for the work of volunteers and the need to make it grow, but our talk drifted to the contentious subject of politics and environmentalism. The question was– are conservationists wary of economic development and thus out of step with nearly all Americans? As John put it, “Are conservationist allergic to jobs creation”
It’s one of the most relevant questions facing conservationist these days. Our country is still reeling from the twin blows of war and nearly collapsed banking system. Too many people have lost their jobs or are work part time and want to be full time. For most, concern for wildlife is a distant one compared to making ends meet, educating children and the threat of more economic shocks.
The concerns of conservationists seem irrelevant to the struggle that many people face and yet it is central to most people who live in wild areas, the exact area that is a concern to conservationists.Rural poverty is widespread across the country and no more apparent in the inland areas of South Carolina. Ride through the flatwoods and the widespread poverty would shock most good people. Economists will argue about the cause, but it is not from a lack of wealth. Most of these rural landscapes support a mint in natural resources: farm products, forest products, fisheries. Unfortunately for people who live in these places the wealth goes mostly to large corporations. What wealth the companies confer on rural people, most often comes in the form of low wage jobs. Even this ends up in the mitts of large corporations like Walmart, Dollar Store, and McDonalds. They cluster in the outskirts of most rural towns after shuttering most of the local businesses that once provided decent salaries for the local residents. The towns look like the one in the Back To the Future movies, the grim future town that had to be corrected by the hero played by Michael J. Fox. Unfortunately, there is no time machine to fix real life rural towns as they slowly desolve into the overexploited landscape.
Conservationists see all this and more. For decades, the leaders of large companies have walked r
oughshod over our nation’s productive farmlands, forests and seas. Calls for reducing the impact of regulations to allow even greater destruction are common in Washington and our states. In the name of economic recovery, corporations want to take away milestones like the endangered species act, clean water act, and clean air act. No wonder conservationists distrust the motives of business titans.
This may be true, but rural people need help from conservationists as much as rural wildlife and the welfare of both depend on each other. The question should not be, can conservationists create jobs, but how can they create jobs based on sustainable resource use. John and I left our conversation on that note, how do conservationist create good paying jobs that support sustainable resource use. This is our most important endeavor in this time of economic instability.
Fortunately we had to cut short our deliberations on economics after all we were there to catch shorebirds. The tide rose, birds came and we sprung into action. After a few problems we caught over two hundred knots and faced a full afternoon‘s work ahead of us.