Life in the North Country 3 – hoping against hope in thunder bay

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.

fp1122_ring_of_fire_c_ab1I 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?

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.


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.







A theory of Change for Delaware Bay 2 A Voice for Change

“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.

A Theory of Change for Delaware Bay 1 Starting Small

Today’s conservationists have grown used to their inadequate power to protect wildlife in the historic battle against moneyed interests.   In this blog’s opinion, we lost it not long after the successful environmental battles of the 70’s by draining it into largely useless battles over hunting, trapping, protecting feral cats and other left-right confrontations that will rile people for decades, maybe centuries.  Besides being unproductive and irresolvable, the power vacuum allows industry the prerogative to decide the fate of most wildlife because agencies and groups lack sufficient authority to play meaningful roles in decisions affecting wildlife and habitat.  With all due respect to their hard work and commitment, they remain bit players in the national battle over the consumption of our natural resources.

anti-hunters 6-21-2011

The conflict over hunting and trapping has forced conservationists into a left and right confrontation characteristic of our country. In this case well meaning people who care for wildlife aid industrial control over wildlife and wild lands – to their demise.


It was not always this way.  Several times in this country’s recent history, conservationists have exerted their influence and gave leaders the power to create a better place for wildlife.  Theodore Roosevelt did it in the late 19th century and early 20th by protecting some of most treasured places in our nation, Yosemite and Yellowstone NP for example and planting the seeds of modern wildlife management, professional forestry and modern farming.  Franklin Roosevelt did it in the depths of the Great Depression by dramatically expanding refuges for wildlife and creating what is now the greatest wildlife agency in the world – the US Fish and Wildlife Service.  He also signed the PittmanRobertson act which underwrote the start of most state wildlife agencies ( as we know them today).  Richard Nixon did it by signing the Endangered Species Act which spawned epic power for species that previously had no voice in the halls of power.

grand canyon (1)

Theodore Roosevelt went on a spending spree once given the power to designate wild lands for protection including the Grand Canyon. (photo by L Niles)

We relate these great conservation achievements to the leaders pushing them through the political system, but in fact they were the consequence of a vocal public, who gave leaders power to represent their interests ( and paid hard earned money for permits and taxes to finance the protection).  Even though these federal and state agencies remain bastions of hope for wildlife, they have lost significant bureaucratic and electoral power because today’s conservationists choose to be divided and thus politically neutered.  One might also conclude they are too self interested to care.

But what if each of us declared that this time is one of the great periods of conservation, what would it look like?  Can we replicate earlier success at stopping the industrial scale cleansing of our nation wildlife in all but public lands, like so many unwanted aliens in a wasteland of factory farms, forests and waters?

I say yes because its not as difficult as it seems.  In many places it’s a simple choice followed by unswerving intent.  This is possible in any part of our lives and we all know how that goes.  Losing weight is simply a choice in the end, eat healthy and you lose weight.  Simple, and yet not so simple.  Often it comes down to making a step, than another and hope for the best.

It’s why I don’t pretend better conservation can come at a large scale.  The industrial control of state and federal political systems has grown so pervasive, challenging it would be a herculean effort without a massively mobilized public.  But we can take a step by caring for the landscapes we call home, or at least the landscape we love to call home.

At a smaller scale it’s possible because the wildlife of most land and water systems can be restored.  It’s the beauty inherent in every wild system: let it rest, give it love, in the form of restoration and most of the time it will come back.  The reader might point to the many lands that are so drained of life, they could be never more than  sad reminders of our inhumanity to other life for generations.  But even in these seemingly hopeless cases decisive action can restore life.  Take a look at the west branch of the Susquehanna River.

Flowing out of the Appalachian Plateau of Pennsylvania, it runs red with the acid waste seeping from coal mines abandoned decades ago, some centuries old. The river ran red 40 years ago when, as a graduate student at Penn State, I searched fruitlessly for life as I walked the tragically dead waterway. The cost to the river towns is immeasurable.  The red river robs every town of a lucrative tourist economy, a productive fishery and very likely healthy lives for long-term residents.  One simple choice, cleaning the mine waters would turn all this around, and it can be done sometimes with surprisingly simple solutions.  But it took a voice, Trout Unlimited to partner with government, The Pennsylvania Fish Commission, to create a new cooperative project that is now 10 years into healing the river and restoring fish populations.  If the cooperative effort can continue, the river will run clear, be populated by brook trout, attract people as tourists, increase waterside property values and the rural economy will prosper. One simple but difficult choice that can only happen when a determined and public voice speaks for the animals with no voice and makes a simple choice to make things better.


The West Branch of the Susquehanna River drains so many sources of acid mine drainage it and many of its tributaries run red. Here on the South Branch of Bear Run, PA Trout Unlimited in partnership with PA Fish Commission, restored this damaged stream into a trout producing stream ( see left picture ) Photos from Restoration of West Branch of Susquehanna River. Drainage






Thus my commitment to Delaware Bay; it is both home and the landscape I love most in this world.  The reader may reasonably be discouraged by the minor scale of restoring a small place compared to the continent-wide resource rape now underway.   But if the people who care for one place show success than it will inspire others to seek the same in their own place.  Disparate voices can become one voice, powerful enough to demand the attention of the politicians now so devoted to the river of money flowing from corporate America.

next: Conserving Delaware Bay