Alienate Rural Communities with Good Intentions
In the previous post I suggest rural communities suffer existential threats, property taxes high among them but great potential exist for renewal. How do we respond to their need?
Perched precariously on the banks of the Cohansey River and within sight of the Delaware Bay shipping channels, my hometown of Greenwich, New Jersey was established in the late 17th century by Dutch traders. Subsequently, the English overran the Dutch and by the mid 1700s, the town thrived as the main port of entry for all of the productive South Jersey farming communities. In 1775, insurgent patriots dumped tea into the town’s harbor, an act of courageous defiance completely overshadowed by the more well known and equally heroic Boston Tea Party. Greenwich Quakers used the town as one of many termini of the Underground Railroad that freed African-Americans fleeing slavery in the South.
Our bucolic town still has two Quaker meetinghouses, a stretch given a total population numbering fewer than 800 citizens. The town has no public employees, so volunteers take on most roles conducted by paid staff in larger communities. Property tax rates threaten the centuries-old rural lifestyle of this community, standing at five times that of the wealthy communities of the Atlantic Coast. Curiously, Greenwichers pronounce the town’s name as GREEN-witch, ostensibly to identify outsiders who almost always imperiously insist on the English pronunciation GREN-itch.
Two years ago, we initiated an effort to get town support for an innocuous state plan for the protection of wildlife. It was a requirement of a well meaning but relatively modest sustainability effort funded by one of the state’s major foundations. The town’s progressives of mostly educated professionals and seniors (including this blogger) pushed the wildlife planning measure. The town’s more working class Tea Party faction opposed it. Of all things, they saw it as a backdoor effort by the United Nations to take over local property rights. After an acrimonious meeting, the towns’ environmental commission tabled the measure because of the group’s objections. The controversy was over a few lines in the state’s wildlife plan describing New Jersey Fish & Wildlife’s hope to require deer management plans (lingo for deer hunting) for all landowners receiving agricultural or forestry property tax assessments.
This conflict had no basis in reason, but it also had no purpose. The state fish and wildlife folks have no staff to do individual deer plans and no real hope of altering tax break legislation. Additionally, the state wildlife action plan within which the deer plan was described never received full funding, and was consequently never fully implemented despite the enormous effort taken to complete it. I know this because I led the creation of the first version while heading the state’s Endangered and Nongame Species Program.
This experience in my small hometown on the bayshore illustrates the ruinous effect of the political conflict that nestles almost unseen within most conservation efforts. First, the state wildlife plan and sustainability program are inherently a “big government” or group approach that leaves only perfunctory authority to the community. Arguably, this is an inherently liberal approach that runs counter to the political interests of this mostly rural and politically right-leaning population (as is the case with most important wildlife landscapes). This unacknowledged partisan policy approach rankles rural folk and creates destructive countercurrents. These policy initiatives presume government agencies, philanthropies, and conservation groups must anchor solutions to long-standing conservation problems – despite evidence to the contrary.
Moreover, the state wildlife plan highlights another aspect of a “big government” approach that conflicts with right-leaning, market-driven approaches. The plan’s overseers have yet to collect sufficient data to determine the plan’s effectiveness and efficiency. So no one, not even the overseers, know anything of the plan’s progress towards achieving stated goals, or even whether or not the plan has failed altogether.
This is not an easy task. Funders almost religiously avoid funding comprehensive surveillance of their own funded work, opting for easier efforts. For example, characterizing a bird protection effort by estimating the number of glossy brochures that end up in the hands of the public. This may not really characterize success if the brochure ends up on a car floor or in a back pocket unread.
Yet data describing a project’s accomplishments or the lack thereof allows for steady improvement, which with patience, could lead to success after initial failure. Knowing the details of a project often tells you how to make it better in the future. Arguably this method can be seen as a more business-oriented approach that is often overlooked by zealous left-leaning conservationists.
The Sustainability program, unlike the State Wildlife Plan, does a noble job of providing a substantive role for citizens. In our town it led to improvements, like the installation of energy saving lighting in our town’s school. But like the Wildlife Plan, it merely overlays a common solution that doesn’t quite solve the problems facing any one rural community. To be fair, it is not meant to, because it’s a plan to improve sustainability across the state. Thus, rural people cannot design solutions suited to the town’s problems. They must overlay statewide solutions if they want to use philanthropic funds to implement them.
So in the end, the overreaction of our local right wing may have been a tad paranoid. After all, how hard would it be to notice an international intervention in a town of 719 souls? But one can say that the right wing had one very reasonable point: the solutions we were proposing to the environmental commission reflect a partisan bias, and the citizens have a right to oppose its political implications.
But what can be done? The tea baggers eschew these environmental groups and liberal philanthropy-driven efforts, but as with the rest of their national agenda, they won’t develop alternative solutions that reflect their ideology. It’s as though they have no conservation policy, except to be against liberal policies. Sound familiar? How many national social issues face a similar ideological standoff?
But when did conservation become a partisan battleground? Perhaps this is the greatest threat to conservation; our once strong voice has been fractured into right and left interest groups with virtually no power to alter the steady march of industry in the greedy consumption of our natural wealth. If so, then perhaps what conservationists need more than money or staff is a conservation policy devoid of partisan overlays.
We need a new theory of change for rural Delaware Bay.