Life in the North Country 4 – Conservation in the Northern Prairie

Duck Factory

Heavy rain dogged us as we crossed the vast wet prairie of Manitoba and Eastern Saskatchewan.  After leaving Thunder Bay, Ontario, we pulled our small trailer through the western-most edge of the boreal forest and on into the vast northern prairie.  Unfortunately there’s not much prairie remaining in either in the US or Canada, because most falls under the plow and is planted in monotonous fields of grain including canola for the oil, soy, winter wheat and grasses for winter animal feeding.  The darken skies drenched this pancake-flat land, the rain finding it way into a network of isolated wetlands collectively known as the prairie potholes.


Biologists call them a duck factory.  Glaciers finished gouging out these potholes 10,000 years ago, leaving behind depressions that over thousands of years turned into the perfect habitat to breed waterfowl, shorebirds and waterbirds. Amazingly 50% of the continent’s migratory duck population – including the most iconic of waterfowl: pintails, shovelers, gadwalls, blue winged teal and two of my childhood favorites redheads and canvasbacks – emerge from these productive wetlands every year.  Along with shorebird species like the Wilson Phalarope and American Avocet and 40 species of waterbirds, these pothole wetlands pump out million’s of waterfowl and form the foundation habitat for North American waterfowl hunting – a $1.8 billion enterprise.

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Farmers perennially hope to cash in on these vacant and economically useless lands with ditching to dry them out so as to plow whenever possible.  This ever-present threat forged one of the greatest conservation  achievements of the modern era – the development of a formal coalition of conservation agencies and groups call a Joint Venture.  The name, which describes business ventures where parties agree to develop, for a finite time, a new entity, aptly describes this conservation counterpart.  In 1989 the USFWS designated five areas where conservation agencies and groups joined with farmers, local politicos and other important interests toachieve objective targets to restore or protect wildlife habitats.  The first JV’s  began as on-the-ground application of the newly minted National Waterfowl Management Plan and the recently funded North American Wetlands Conservation Act passed by Congress in1989 .  Waterfowl hunters, led by groups like Ducks Unlimited (DU), the International Association of Fish and Wildife Agencies (IAFWA) and The Wildlife Management Institute provided the political force to insure congress worked hard to create both the legal and financial framework.  Much of the wild America is now part of a Joint Venture.usjv

The  Prairie pothole JV  was one of the original Joint Ventures.  By working closely with farmers, local business and political interests, the PPJV became so successful its management board  boasting in the early 2000’s it was protecting land ahead of schedule.  This success of this and other joint ventures resulted in an explosion in funding and the number of new joint ventures.  New species groups were added in 2005 so the PPJV morphed into “all bird” Joint Venture with the \ additional planning goals for shorebirds and land birds.  I was involved in this transformation, being one of many co-authors of the first national shorebird plan.  It was a time of great enthusiasm.


Waterfowl numbers increasing as a direct result of the implementation of Joint Ventures in 1989 and the political power of sportsmen

Another Age in Conservation

Though only 10 years ago, that was another age in conservation. The prospects for ducks in the prairie potholes have diminished and the fact that they are diminished say much to conservationists across the continent.  Not long after the country embarked on all those new joint ventures and almost exactly when the 50 state’s joined in with “Action Plans”, the bottom dropped out of conservation funding.

We all know the story because it occurs in every part of our social existence. Extraordinary pressure to reduce the size of government created by the outsized influence of the Barons of Industry, including those commanding agriculture, forest products and mining, dried up funding for conservation. Meanwhile conservation agencies , especially state agencies, fell under extraordinary political influence to relax land use regulations while abridging the power of local governments to resist short-sighted exploitation schemes –schemes that promise the world but end with exploited communities paying a big price in the quality of their citizen’s lives.

This is also not news to anyone familiar with the most recent transformation of North American agriculture.  Where once farmers saw limits and some generosity to wildlife — an entire Farm Bill Program known a the Conservation Reserve Program provided funds to farmers to keep plowable but environmentally important lands unplowed– now see the land only for the production of food and profit. In fact congress recently cut funds in the new Farm Bill for CRP while easing the restrictions on destructive uses .  This retreat almost doesn’t matter because the soaring prices of commodities would have lured farmers away from protection anyway.

In the US the impact was especially severe. A 2013 paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin reports  “it (becomes) apparent that the PPJV is unlikely to reach stated conservation goals unless there is more money, better cooperation and stricter regulations”.   Not only is the plan unlikely to reach it goals, its successes are also endangered.  “We are going to lose this land if we don’t do something” said DU CEO Dale Hall.

star tribune wetland destruction

Farmers have always focused on profit so the current march to further mechanization and increased reliance on chemical comes naturally.  Todays version of more productive farming portends much greater change for wildlife.  It includes the use of genetically altered grains that can withstand direct application of a deadly herbicide called  glyphosate and marketed by Monsanto Corportation as Round Up.  This controversial chemical is known to most people as a potent killer of crab grass and other pesky garden intruders.  It’s main value, however, comes to farmers .  Round Up ready crops don’t need mechanical cultivation because the herbicide kills all plants except those genetically engineered by giant corporations like Monsanto, Dow Chemical and Dupont. The list of Round Up ready crops is long and growing and it now includes over 95% of North America’s corn, wheat and soy, our most important crops.

Although it saves farmers a large part of the work one used to call farming, it also pushes farmers further into the arms of the world’s corporate behemoths.  For unlike standard strains, with which the farmer can set aside a small portion of each year’s harvest for the planting of next years crop, farmers must pay for seed every seed every year.  This  corporate hegemony is so complete that the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of Monsanto, when a farmer tried to use seed corn grown from a Round Up ready crop for his own use the following year.


In defense of the chemicals, they do cut down tractor time.  Where once it took a farm family all its time to farm hundreds of acres, now they can farm thousands of acres.  More intense, more mechanized, more at an industrial scale, the newest version of large-scale farming sweeping this land devastates wildlife. Big tractors, chemical sprayers and combines require fields devoid of pesky obstacles like unproductive wildlife habitat. Duck Unlimited estimates that habitat for an estimated 110,000 pairs of ducks have been lost between 1997 – 2010.   Here’s a quote from the Prairie conservation page of the USFWS ” grassland conversion (from wetland and grassland to crops) in the corn belt have not been seen since the 1920’s and 30’s”.  The US is fast losing conserved prairie potholes from this mechanized onslaught, potentially undoing historic wildlife habitat protection efforts. But is it the same here in Canada’s prairie provinces, Manitoba, Saskatchean and Alberta?

IMG_7537As we wound our way on the Trans Canada Highway we saw plenty of evidence to the contrary.  For hundreds of miles we encountered lush potholes ringed with fencing that kept livestock out.  While thwarted cows stared on enviously, ducks lived apparently productive lives within good vegetative cover. relatively free from predation.  You could read signs from the roadside procliaming this work a result of volunteers from Duck Unliminted Canada   These intrepid volunteer conservationists not only pay for the fencing but also the farmers to stop them from plowing to the waterline.  From the roadside, it appeared that unlike Americans,  Canadians were still up to the job of conservation.

Unfortunately we saw only a veneer of conservation.  Behind these well crafted habitats was ubiquitous devastation spreading like a contagion.  The evidence was no further than DU Canada’s website where they documented large scale habitat change caused by farmers converting prairie potholes to cultivated land.  It appears ducks suffer throughout the North American landscape both US and Canada.

wetland loss manitoba

These maps from Duck Unlimited Canada document the lost of prairie potholes from 1968 to 2005 as a result of farmland drainage ditching


Even though this devastation comes from the hands of farmers – one should not blame them.  Even out in this desolate land, where ducks are easier to find than people, the cold hand of the new Gilded Class touches all. Few of us realize the pressure created by corporate interests placed on farmers hoping to remain farmers. Throughout our travels through the North American prairie lands from Manitoba to Alberta and back again from Montana to Wisconsin we found a landscape littered with the wreckage of failed farms. The immensity of the remaining farms suggests wealth. As we pulled our little trailer through the vast and lonely landscape howerver we saw only modest homes.  I was incredulous.

Mandy and I know something of the wealth that can come from these farms because of our minuscule farm in NJ.  We are not farmers and our land would more properly and derisively called a “farmette”.  But we do plant  6 acres, with Round Up ready crops and understand the value of productive farmland.  Scaleing up costs and profits to thousands of acres, we could easily imagine these farmers as wealthy.  In fact they are not.

Manitoba’s farm’s are like farms across North America and they tell an all to familiar story.  From 2005 to 2011 the number of farms fell by 17% while the size increased by 14%.  One would expect the fewer farmer got wealthier but they didn’t.  On average yearly net income of a farming is only about $49,000 and it has changed mostly as a consequence of variation in market price with only a modest increase in the period. The math is depressing.  For example if a farmer plants 1000 acres in wheat, he might expect 45 bushel/acre in a good year.  In the same good year he might earn $8 a bushel although in reality a good year farming means bad prices because of the abundance.  At first blush you would cheer – the farmer made $300,000.  But take out expenses of around $250 and acre and you would frown with a net gain of only $50,000 – and that in an impossibly good year.  Most farmers have to work second jobs to stay farmers.


Meanwhile they are literally up to thier necks in toxicant and debt.  According to one report Round-Up is so widely used that it occurs in most air and water samples.  Understanding the impact of a land awash in chemicals is constantly thwarted by the corporations making the deadly chemical and the politicians serving them.  Still Round Up is known to kill many species of aquatic life so its not a huge leap of faith to assume farmers and thier families are taking big risks. And the risks aren’t ameliorated by financial security.  Farm debt is at high levels and the bigger the farm the bigger the debt.  Fully 78% of farm debt is concentrated in the biggest farms.  In other words the people doing most of the work and taking most of the risk, are barely making a decent middle class existence while the bottom line for corporations like Monsanto keeps getting better and better.  In 2013 alone, Monsanto profits rose 20%.
farm debt canada

Even Sportsmen Can’t Stop The Barons of Industry

As a conservationist I recognize something more alarming than the barons of Industry and their politicians draining wealth from the land and its people — after all I live in New Jersey.  Here short-sighted exploitation of our natural resources comes and goes like the tide.   Our land is the Rodney Dangerfield of wildlife habitat.  Most “natural” places have been abused so many different times, a biologist would find it hard to know what is natural?     Looking back over the last hundred years of conservation you can see a similar push and pull between the greedy and the people who love wildlife.  But practical people, like the people driving the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture, usually find a way to work together and do the best for both wild animals and humans.

puck cartoon

1889 Puck magazine cartoon describing the recurring exploitation of robber barons

The conservationists’ greatest fear comes not because we’ve lost duck habitat to industrial-level farming.  It comes because one of the most powerful groups of conservationists in our nation’s history cannot, or won’t, stop it.  It was duck hunters that brought on one of the most important advances in conservation – creating the first Duck Stamp in 1936 when the country was still mired in the depths of the greatest economic downturn in modern history. That one action precipitating a chain of actions that shape modern conservation.  Not long ago a joint venture of duck hunters and like-minded farmers had the power to defend ducks, now they cannot match the industrial overreach that characterizes farming today. Like a strong winter chill that freezes this vast northern landscape, the barons of industry creating the new gilded age, suck the life from both the land and the families that were once proud stewards of the land.

This means a lot.  Non-hunting outdoors people often treat hunters and fishermen with disdain – afterall how can you help an animal by killing it?  It defies common sense.   Yet sportsmen pay for the privilege to pursue their sport – unlike kayakers, hikers, birders and most egregiously photographers, who often make money from the sale of their wildlife photographs. Sportsmen buy licenses, pay taxes and support government agencies that battle the ever-present corporate interest to destroy land and wildlife.  From their collective voting and financial power sportsmen have created an edifice of conservation that has until recently created a firewall of protection

Now the firewall has been breached and wildlife are like the children of the late 19th century who find themselves no more than pawns in service to the gilded class.  Those of us in the trenches of this fight, wildlife and land management professionals, see the collapse of conservation as we drive to work hoping it’s better elsewhere. We see it growing more ominous every year hoping that the people who love wildlife can organize and resist the industrial rape of our land.  But even the most hopeful can’t ignore the fact that when sportsmen can’t stop the juggernaut of greed that sweeps our land, little hope remains.


1930’s era cartoon by political cartoonist and conservationist Ding Darling


Life in the North Country 3 – Belle Epoch in the Boreal Forest

Hoping for the Best in Thunder Bay, Ontario

A rear wheel squeak whipped up worry as we drove through the boreal Forest wilderness of western Ontario.  Pulling a 2500 pound trailer puts a strain on an old truck so the noise could be a small thing or huge thing.  It  turned out to be nothing.  But we had to learn that, to find out our rear brakes were dangerously thin.  We prudently had them fixed in Cardone Bros shop located on the north side of Thunder Bay, Ontario.

So we spent the day in this city of 106,000 people located squarely in the center of vast forest of northern Minnesota and  western Ontario..  The city stands tall in this low country – literally.  As you drive into this gritty but welcoming working class community, old giant grain elevators tower forlornly over the less than prosperous downtown.   Not all still operate, another sad testament of the most recent recession.  Grain from the Canadian heartland has found other ways to market, leaving Thunder Bay another reminder of a more prosperous past.

thunder bay grain elevator postcard 1910

A 1910 postcard of Thunder Bay Grain Elevators ( the town was called Port Arthur at the time). The economy of Thunder Bay then and now is dominating by processing of forest products and grain transport. Although these markets are giving way to mining, the port is still one of the larger grain ports in the world.

This was according to our mechanic and a prominent town entrepreneur,  Todd Cordone.  With his brother Ted, they own a car repair shop, used car lot and the cab concession for the city, which employs over a hundred cabbies. Although the town looks a bit worn,  their businesses thrive and the future promise more. This is so because as Todd described  “ New mines will be opening soon.  They call them the ring of fire, four new chromium mines in one area a few hundred km north of the city.  Their are others,   one just north is making palladium” .  He answered the dumb look I gave him in response “ its used in making catalytic converters”.  He said that along with the reopening of the currently defunct  skyscraper-sized grain elevator, the town should become prosperous once again.


Belle Epoch in the Boreal Forest

I am skeptical.  In 35 years of wildlife conservation conducted across the western hemisphere I have seen few communities come up on the winning end of industrial development of natural or mineral resources.  Perhaps it was different in the past when unions were strong and protected workers from the abuses of industrial power.   Perhaps it is that way now in Canada because it does not suffer the onslaught of Ayn Rand take-no-prisoner capitalism that sweeps my own country.  But in the US, now, rural communities surrounded by agricultural, forest or mineral wealth often look like someone pulled the plug on their economy and its just a matter of time until the last person leaves and shuts off the lights for good.   Ask the rural town people in the heart of the oil boom in North Dakota –the latest in the boom town America — has life gotten better?

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The rub here is that towns like Thunder Bay should be wealthy now.  Its home base for millions of acres of forest land, mostly managed for timber. Millions of trees come to the town every year to be processed for industrial use.  The industry brings in about $3 billion annually and employs 15,000 workers.  Unfortunately for Thunder Bay, most of that comes from pulp wood forestry to supply the town’s paper plants.  Forests managed for pulp wood are the forestry equivalent of managing farms for feed corn or managing fisheries for omega 3 oils.  It is a low profit, high volume resource use, that employs machinery to fullest extent in order to cut jobs to a few as possible while paying the smallest wages possible.

Take Georgia Pacific, one of the largest companies operating in Thunder Bay and owned by the infamous Koch Brothers.   The CEO makes over $400 million each year and although the CEO/employee pay ratio are unavailable, because it is a privately held company,  the  industry averages about 300 to 1.  Most Americans think CEO’S make a fraction of that ( about 30 to 1).   The CEO makes , what many economist believe this outrageous fortune, because he does not serve the employees of Georgia Pacific nor the citizens of Thunder Bay Ontario.  He earns it because he serves the financial industry and the Koch Brothers whose ploughs the enormous profits generated by exploiting rural people and natural resources into thier own interests including dominating the right’s political machine.  The Koch brothers essentially bought the state government of Kansas and plays a huge role in the petroleum free-for-all taken place in North Dakota.  They fight unions, environmental regulations, health care and progressive tax codes.  Go to the Georgia Pacific website and you will walk away thinking they stand for good paying jobs built on a sustainable use of the forest.  But that only for public relations and it’s not a serious part of the business model.  Thus we have impoverished rural communities in the midst of vast natural wealth.

ceo geogia pacific

This histogram shows the yearly compensation of the CEO of Geogia Pacific , one of the 8 companies turning the Boreal Forest into profit. The company is owned by the infamous Koch Industries a privately held company so CEO pay / employee pay ratio are not available. International Paper whose CEO earns about the same as Georgia Pacific’s CEO comes in at a ratio of 320 to 1


Conservationists rarely deal in economic theory but to understand the destruction of natural resources one must.  The plunder of the boreal forest is just one other expression of the  problem of productivity described by Thomas Picketty in  his now famous 2014 book  Capital in the 21st Century.   Paul Krugman, the nobel prize winning Princton economist and NY times columnist described Capital in the 21st Century as a “magnificent, sweeping meditation on inequality ”  and goes on to say  “This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics.”.

The interests of the land and the people who in rural communities rarely break the surface of scholarly economics, and Dr. Picketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, does no different.  But in  his sweeping assessment of modern economic theory  he nevertheless  describes all that is going on in Thunder Bay.  The CEO’s of the companies that drain the wealth from the surrounding landscape feel little for the impact on the town or the land, their only concern is to generate profit for the company and the people that own the company.  And they care only for the accumulation of great wealth.  It leaves most people meager livelihoods  that is arguably higher in Canada than in the US, but still Canada’s poverty rate is  high and in Ontario growing. I’m sure everyone in Thunder Bay with a resource related job is thankful but knows it depends not only  on hard work and intelligence  but on the whims of Wall Street and barons of industry.

Picketty describes these barons as creating a Belle Epoch, a second gilded age.  The first was the sad period in US history when the Robber Barons, like JP Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, ruled the economic world unleashing unpardonable excesses: child labor, 16 hour work days, 7 day work weeks, unsafe work conditions that maimed and killed leaving families bereft and penniless.  They  destroyed America’s resources as though they were the hand of God and the land and wildlife were necessary victims of their holy march to wealth the world had never known.  It spurred one of America’s great class battles that was waged first by President Teddy ( the trust buster) and finally by Franklin  Roosevelt.  Together they tamed the barons which led to ever rising income for the middle class and the start modern conservation.


Robber Barons Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt – respectable names today- built their wealth on unregulated destruction of land and communities. The worst of their excesses were curbed by the President Theodore Roosevelt in his days as a “Trust Buster”.

Belle Epoch began in the 1980’s when the hand of government began tipping the balance to serve the people of great wealth under both Republican and Democratic Presidents and Legislatures.  The middle class’s share of our national productivity shrunk as most of the wealth from increased productivity went to the upper 1% of Americans. Capital in the 21st Century goes against existing economic theory and predicts that as wealth concentrates it becomes less productive, people benefit less and our economic capacity declines.  Dr Picketty’s historical analysis shows trickle down economics is a farce, once wealth concentrates in the elite it moves on to its descendants.  Plutocracies emerge, economies fail.

The pulp industries of Thunder Bay are just one tentacle of this giant industrial beast that  Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone once described, as “a giant vampire squid that sucks the blood from anything that makes money”.   Sucking the blood from forests by companies like Georgia Pacific means cutting waste and increasing efficiency.  In this case it means avoid paying decent salaries and leave nothing for wildlife.  GP specializes in short rotation forests, essentially converting them into crops that can be harvested in 20 years  instead of 100.  Old forests create better and more diversified wildlife habitat but the welfare of wildlife  is worthless to this industry.  Old forest help communities by creating diversified wood products economies, but the welfare of the human community is also worthless to the industry.  Mechanization reduces the need for people and the competition for fewer jobs drives down wages to as low as compliant governments allow.  Decent wages are worthless to industry.  All that matters is profit and shareholders return.  Forests around Thunder Bay are like the people in a company town – indentured to the industry that supports them.

Value Lost Forever

Ultimately the new barons of industry that are chewing up the Boreal Forest are like the selfish child who comes to the dinner table to eat all the goodies before everyone else arrives.   While the forest industry cashes in the forest value, all other values are  sublimated. .  For example scientists are concerned that the plunder of the Boreal Forest will destroy one of the worlds most important carbon sinks – carbon stored in trees and peat instead of becoming more greenhouse gases in our carbon soaked atmosphere.  This is of enormous value to the world yet it will be lost before it is properly valued and appropriately saved.


The extent of the boreal forest roughly parallels the southern edge of the high organic carbon mass shown in red. It also includes the Canadian Arctic tundra.

This blog regrets the loss to the people of Thunder Bay.  Enormous natural wealth is being taken from them with a  political slight of hand – give us all we want despite the communal and environmental costs or you will not work at all.   This is happening throughout our land.  Every year there are fewer farmers, fishermen, foresters, the people who support themselves and their families  from  natural wealth,  and a correspondingly greater proportion of natural wealth ends up in the hands of fewer more powerful and politically connected people.

All this ran through my mind as Todd Cordone waxed rhapsodic about a post Ring of Fire Thunder Bay.  He probably didn’t know that after threats of withdrawal from the project, the Ring of Fire mining interests extracted a billion dollar give away from the Ontario Provincial Government who demanded the Federal Government follow suit.   Implied in the financial support was political support for a controversial road that at least one conservation group described as an environmental disaster and a crushing blow for First Nation people who have their own ideas of how to manage thier  land.   The First Nation people see it exactly for what it is.  Chief Peter Moonias of the Neskantaga People says ” This is about the First Nation in Northern Ontario standing up against an American mining bully, hell bent on making a road and a mine no matter what First Nations say”  In other words a province with growing inequality and poverty is going to foot the bill for an environmentally destructive project with questionable value to the people who live there, and will ultimately enrich the great industrial machine of  Belle Epoch.  And so the cycle begins anew.


Life in the North Country 2 – life in the north country

Traveling across the wilderness of North America in an old ford ranger and 14 foot travel trailer, one soon learns the downside of being alone.  Mandy and I left our home in Greenwich a few days ago aiming for Algonquin Park in northern Ontario where we would hop on the Trans-Canada highway all the way to British Columbia.   Along the way we will travel through endless forest of Ontario and eastern Manitoba, than endless prairie of Saskatchewan and Alberta.  Once in the Rockies we plan to head south into the US and back.

forest and marsh

Although we’ve braved more remote areas,  Southampton Island in the Arctic or Tierra del Fuego in Chile,  we weren’t pulling a 3000 pound trailer behind a lovable but vulnerable pickup (192,000 miles at the start).   I feel like behind the trailer I’m tugging a load of anxiety as we gradually fall off the grid.  We lost cell phone contact a hundred miles ago and the uncertainty we face floods my mind with worry.

Is the metal on metal noise that wasn’t there at the start of our journey getting louder?  The infernal scrapping sounds like fingernails on a chalkboard, it threatens like a razor sharp knife blade as we sink deeper into the boreal wilderness of Algonquin National Park, a state-size wilderness known for it fishing and wolves. What if we breakdown?,  How can you call AAA when there is no cell service and AAA is a foreign here as Tim Hortons is in NJ.  Do we flag down a helpful Canadian, who will no doubt think twice about stopping once recognizing our Jersey plates.  I would.

ZombiePlateNothing to do but soldier on.

When did it happen that we are almost never out of contact.  It once was the norm, but slowly normal morphed into constant connection.  Even in the Arctic we took a sat phone and an EPIRP giving us at least the illusory bridge to civilazation.   In rural and desperately poor northern Brazil cell phone service was unexpectedly ubiquitous, one can always top a hill or hold the phone to the sky and get a few bars.   In New Jersey no call zones achieve notoriety – like the infamous dead spot between exit 7a and 8 on the NJ Turnpike.

Not many people in New Jersey know the feeling of being out of contact, in fact most of the east coast rarely experiences digital isolation.  In the northern Canadian forest there is no TV, no internet, no cell phone. Is it irresponsible to be this far out of contact?  This is the question that glares at me as we slowly make out way across this seemingly perpetual forest.  One can pretend to be safe but no one is immune to the inconveniences and dangers of the wild north.



sleeping giantWe planed to spend a few days in Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, a  massive  forested rock on Lake Superior along which lies Canada’s newest Marine Sanctuary.  We choose the more scenic route along the northern shore of this immense lake,  eschewing the 500 km ride that cuts through the nearly unpopulated forest about 200 km north of the lake.  After 10 hours of driving from Algonquin and with only 3 hours left to Sleeping Giant we stopped to top off the gas tank, before tackling the last 400 km drive.

At the tank a trucker asks “ Which way you heading?”   “West” I cautiously offered.  He said “Well, your not going to make it, I just came back because the bridge at Schreiver is out and they won’t be able to repair it for a week”.  I stared silently for a second sizing up the man, looking for signs of a prank.   It’s not that unlikely giving the propensity for rural Canadians to toy with someone with NJ written all over him and his truck.  Mid-fifties, grey hair buzz cut and a gut more typical of an American,  he looked the type.  He said with an unlikely note of humor in his eye “ your gonna have to drive back 150 km to White River, than 200km north to route 11 just to start west again, and watch out for moose and logging trucks, their crazy” (the drivers , not the moose).

Suitably alarmed I checked his story with three other people.  All wore vaguely pissed off looks when asked about the bridge.  They said they had no warning and drove over 300km  to the dead end Sheiver Bridge to be told they had to drive back to White River.  This would be like telling someone to turn around after driving the length of the NJ Turnpike and start over.  For us it meant taking a detour that would be the equivalent of going to from Philadelphia to Cape May through NYC.

One person, a pear shaped man wearing a sleeveless tea shirt and a warm hearted  grin, first confirmed the difficulty ahead and said “  I had to drive  300 km back and forth, I was just here 4 hours ago”.  Disgusted on his behave, I offered meekly that at least he was in good humor to which he said “ What can you do about it?”.  So it is with life in the north country.



Life in the North Country 1 – Our 10,000 mile hunt for big game

Mandy and I spent July traveling across Canada on the trans-Canada Highway and returning off the interstates through the  northern US. Our ultimate destination was the northern Rockies, and our goal was to see all the marquee big game animals that live in northern US and Canada: moose, caribou, elk, big horn sheep, mountain goats, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, american bison and any predators that would show themselves  wolf, grizzly, mountain lion, wolverine.  We intended to hunt big game minus the kill!



A small mountain goat herd rests in the fading light in Jasper National Park, Alberta, Canada (photo larry niles)

Along the way we came to know more about the people and wildlife of mostly rural communities.  City folks rarely appreciate that both are unique expressions of the land in which they live, deserving of great respect for the natural adversities that shape life in rural communities especially those in which winter temperatures can plummet to -40 F.   We also found both in an epic struggle as an almost palpable dark force sweeps the lands irrevocably transforming rural life for both.



In both countries we witnessed the inexorable hand of industrialization reach into nearly all aspects of rural life. Farmers for example, are practically stampeding to purchase gargantuan machines and consolidating fields to suit them.  It’s a plague for wildlife who find themselves increasingly isolated into relatively small areas of public land nobly devoted to them but still facing winter in a landscape cleansed of wintering habitat.  It’s described as an advance because it takes less people to grow more crops, but the graveyard of old dilapidated and abandoned farm compounds that is today’s agricultural landscape, tells a much different story.  Neither does the shabby and rapidly depopulating towns, desperately clinging to economic survival with gambling, dollar stores and box stores.

dead barn

Sadly for the people living in rural north, industrial scale agriculture is only the tip of the global economic iceberg.  The real industrials giants of the north, forestry, mining, oil and gas companies consume rural wealth,  funnel it away to distant financial markets and do their best to evade any responsibility for the devastation left behind.  Each commands the natural landscape from which they extract nearly every cent leaving little for wildlife, rural people or the next generation.  Giving the mass exodus of young from these rural areas few will be left to mourn the loss

north dakota

An oil pump deep in the heart of rural North Dakota. North Dakota near Theodore Roosevelt National Park.


dead town

On the other hand our most lasting memories from our 10000 mile trip pulling a 14 ft travel trailer with a small pickup were boreal forests that reach into Arctic tundra,  jagged wild mountains forever protected by national wilderness and park designations, rough cut badlands praire and throughout it all the kindness of generous, hard working people all tempered with the gradual recognition that a growing and reckless land use plagues their land.







Be A Voice for Wildlife

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” 
― Dwight D. Eisenhower

“If you don’t know where you are going,
you’ll end up someplace else.” 
― Yogi Berra


How would a new theory of change work on Delaware Bay?   Two posts ago, I outlined 6 new strategies for achieving restoration of Delaware Bay ecosystem.  They are not technical proposals- I call for no new research or new funds for existing conservation projects. Its not a call for new staff either.  It’s a theory composed of six rough cut strategies drawn more from common sense and personal experience than a specific conservation policy or technical source.  Moreover my proposing these strategies is not an esoteric exercise.   Much of the work that I lead or take part in leading on the bay and other places falls within them.


Improving Conservation on Delaware Bay and other small places

  1. Free conservation from left-right politics and recreate a new conservation constituency.  
  2. Allow people who love birds to pay for a system that protects all birds and their habitats and is controlled by birders 
  3. Encourage projects within which government agencies take part but citizen groups, communities and non-profits lead.
  4. Create new ways for the public to take meaningful roles in conservation and pay for the privilege.
  5. Create conservation solutions that embrace market forces
  6. Allow local citizens a direct role in deciding the character of conservation in their community


As with any project plan, we must always start with the primary goal.  My version is to create a naturally functioning ecosystem that provides sustainable benefits for both wildlife and the rural residents of Delaware Bay.  This goal combines the interests of both wildlife and rural residents on the basis that no well functioning conservation effort is possible without the dedication of rural citizens populating the land to be conserved.

Next we should choose the method  for reaching that lofty goal.  These come from the six strategies.  First among these  is to unite the interests of rural residents, sportsmen and the people who love birds to put aside left-right differences that divide us and drain our political power.

People who care about birds ( arguably 1 out of 6 people in NJ) and sportsmen (1 out of 12) should lead the development of a new and non-idealogical coalition.  Without idealogical bias, they have the best chance of convincing other outdoor users, hikers, kayakers, photographers to finally take responsibility for their use.  Together they could take the first step towards commanding the political system: compel all outdoor-users to join a conservation group of thier choice, demand taxes and permits on outdoor equipment,  and insist that all the disparate conservation groups organize into one voting block speaking for the interest of wildlife and wild lands.   When I give presentations to conservation groups and people ask what can they do I answer without hesitation — go out and get 10 people to join your conservation group.  1 out of 6 people love wildlife, they only need to be convinced to join in the voice to conserve them.


wildlife watchers in NJ

birders in NJ

These tables from the USFWS 2011 Survey of hunting fishing and wildlife related recreation, shows results for wildlife enthusiasts and more specifically people who care for birds, just in NJ. To put it into context, the state has about 8.8 million citizens but only 5.3 million registered voters. What would happen if 1/2 of the people who love birds organized into a voting block. What if those people joined with the 750,000 anglers ( who are organized because they buy licenses) or the 110,000 hunters ( also organized ) into one block that insisted agencies protect and paid a modest tax or fee to make it happen?


Imagine the power of a electoral block that would include 1 our of every 6 voters?  That voice could command it’s own power and money and one of the first uses should be to rededicate the moribund institutions that guide conservation.  Groups like the NJ Fish and Game Council.

An anachronism, as its name suggests, the Council was created at the time when all states were creating similar councils after the 1935 passage of the Pittman Robertson Act.  The Act authorized taxes on guns and ammunition and led to state hunting licenses and other permit fees. Early conservationists new better than shower corrupted politicians with a largess of cash and power.  Instead they gave state fish and wildlife agencies freedom from political interference by developing councils that hired Fish and Game Agency Directors instead of governors and kept money in accounts separate from the state treasury.  This allowed wildlife professionals the chance to run the agencies and prevent politicians from using the position as a electoral award and politically influencing hunting and fishing seasons.  An independent council insured sportsmen money was well spent.

Unfortuntely many of the councils, like NJ’s see their role as narrowly defined to game animals and rarely resist the agencies political needs.  Why should they when hunters and fishermen are footing the bill and gun company lobbies and thier foundations shower the agencies and sportsmen groups with goodies like state-of-the-art gun ranges  that ultimately help them (gun industry) sell more guns and ammo.  

Figure 1. Pittman-Robertson Receipts and Distributions, FY1991-FY2013 ($ in millions)

excise tax on guns graph

This graph represents the money received by USFWS for distribution to states from 11% tax on all guns and ammo. This fund, originally from the Pittman-Robertson Act of 1937, was pivotal in the long standing battle to protect wildlife. Now its not enough because most wildlife fall outside the realm of this money – it is primary dedicated to game animals. Moreover it unites hunters and give them the most powerful voice in conservation. Birders could push for a similar tax on their equipment and it would upend the world of conservation.


But these compromised agency watchdogs could be re-instituted with new funding and a wider constituency. Once organized and properly represented,  conservationists could take aim at any number of problems.  Foremost among them is forcing agencies to manage wildlife responsibly,  repairing damaged lands and restoring depleted fish and wildlife populations.  Conservationists should re-invigorate their own role by insisting work be done by guilds of trained volunteers.  Its standard practice in Europe, it should be here.

A good example of this here in NJ is the Delaware Bay Shorebird Project.  On both sides of the bay teams trained volunteers lead by paid professionals capture and band thousands of shorebirds as they migrate to their Arctic breeding areas.   If we tried to pay everyone, the project would not happen.   If the project didn’t happen we would have lost the bedrock of protection on Delaware Bay.  So volunteers play an essential role in conservation and it could be happening in every area of important work.

birder banding shorebirds

Volunteers can do the work of staff if they are given the training and support they need to do the work. In most other countries, it is guilds of volunteers that do much of the work being done by paid staff in the US. There are many reasons for this, the most important is that in the U industry has forced agencies to distrust data collected by unpaid staff. Not coincidentally industry also lobbies to cut budgets of paid staff. It’s time to resist this and get citizens back into the work of protecting wildlife – for fun.

Staff could be creating efficient pathways for wildlife enthusiasts to take part in trapping and handling, monitoring, habitat management and  saving staff for the hard parts – project management, analysis of data and report writing.  The consequence of sharing the load is that experienced, trained and motivated volunteers become ramparts for the animals they love.  Ramparts upon which agencies and groups can defend wildlife and wild land. This has already happened for bald eagles and shorebirds on Delaware bay, it could happen for all wildlife and fisheries on the bay, and become the basis upon which similar protection occurs in other landscapes.

We need to get more action for the money spent. Conservationists can demand public-private partnerships that force agencies to play support roles in projects driven by conservation groups and volunteers.  A conservation movement devoid of partisan overlays can push for market driven adaptive management solutions that turn failure into success with steady progress, transparency and good science.  Public-private partnerships are more efficient and successful at delivering action and product from government funds.  Its true in all other areas of social welfare, why not conservation?

Keep in mind it not all about money, despite the desperate pleas of agencies and groups. Wildlife work is incredibly inefficient.  For example, in 2011 my colleague Christina Frank and I investigated the outcome of all land management projects devoted to wildlife habitat restoration in the last 15 years on both sides of the bay.  These projects added up to millions in funding and with only a few exceptions either ended in failure, or never ended.   This is sadly typical.  Moreover don’t believe it only about more staff.  In my lifetime for example agencies have systematically prevented citizens from taking substantive roles in wildlife management and research.  They do this at the behest of corporate interests who claim volunteers create bad science.  Instead industry insists on paid staff do routine jobs, than force agencies to cut funds with their war against good government.  Instead of good science the result is no science and no good direction.

Its vital that people who love the wildlife of Delaware Bay, sportsmen, birders, photographers find common cause with the people who live on Delaware Bay.   It is this blogs opinion that good conservation is impossible without the support of local people.  That depends in part on how it materially benefits them, so we must all work towards conservation that allows local jobs in the harvest and use of wildlife and habitat resources.  Conservationists can find common cause with local people by insisting on sustainable recourse use and partnering with them to create a powerful voice that combines the welfare of wildlife, wild land and the rural economies.  It our only chance to counter the ever growing influence of corporate money.

This is my theory of change for Delaware Bay.