Theories of change lie within the province of smart people who seek to shift large organizations to better places. Professionals build theories of change with the help of other professionals steeped in the methods of developing them. I am not a theory of change professional. But building and testing a hypothesis has been the focus of my life-long effort to conserve wildlife. So as to not to besmirch the integrity of more formal theories of change, lets call this effort theory of change lite. But I do not take this lightly. This biologist believes conservationists face challenges similar to those faced by those of the early 1900’s or the mid thirties. ( this paper is a wonderful and easily read history of wildlife conservation in the US). Then as now, Industrial exploitation of our natural resources impoverishes both rural people and wildlife. In our time, moneyed interests have successfully diminished the political power of conservationists with issues like gun rights and anti-hunting thus muting any significant political voice for wildlife. Moneyed interests have forced the public out of wildlife conservation work insisting all work be done by professionals so industry can trust the results. This righteous requirement was followed by vicious cuts to the budgets of conservation professionals preventing them from doing the work that might oppose industrial interests. With a free hand, Industrial scale farming, forestry and fishing have ruined rural economies by channeling most of the wealth into the hands of investors and the rich leaving most rural communities impoverished. Ironically their best prescription to overcome these losses is serving them through long-on-promise short-on-return ecotourism projects. What little conservation does take place is usually done at the end of a long history of abuse and with insufficient resources to restore the damaged system. All this while an intentionally disengaged and consequently disinterested public watches without alarm. How do we get free of this cycle that began in the 70’s and now reaches it apotheosis? I suggest 6 pathways.
- Free conservation from left-right politics
The people who love animals, whether birder or sportsmen must come together and take a more active leadership role. Citizen wildlife enthusiasts have always been at the heart of bold conservation, in fact it is the only way to create bold action. The great historical conservation movements of the early 1900’s and 1930’s are remembered by their leaders, Teddy Roosevelt, Gilford Pinchot, Ding Darling, Aldo Leopold. In fact these people gained power because the legions of conservationists were willing to support the cause with both political and economic power. Sportsmen, still vigorously support sport hunting and fishing, but allow the agencies they support to waste funding and power. They have also allowed themselves to become part of a right-wing segment more loyal to the NRA than to conservation. Birders on the other hand barely support the nonprofits that serve their interests forcing them to take only bit-parts in the nationwide drama over reversing the problems facing wildlife. Like sportsmen, birders diminish their power by taking on issues detrimental to the cause of conservation like feral cat protection, anti-hunting and anti-trapping. If ever they could put aside their political differences, the two groups together would form a truly powerful coalition of voters, that might stand up to well organized industrial exploitation of land and water resources. If only a small portion of the people who identify themselves as wildlife enthusiasts were to vote as a block, all wildlife in this country would have a long and prosperous future.
- Allow the people who love birds to pay for a system that protects them
Conservation has always depended on the good will of people who love animals. Hunters and fishermen knew this in the 30’s and worked together to create new funding systems like the Pittman Robertson Fish and Wildlife Recovery Act, that created the USFWS and state fish and wildlife agencies as we know them today. Why? Because it was the only way to take on industrial and political interest that only cared for short-term exploitation of fish and wildlife. The beauty of sportsmen’s system is that it still depends on the hunters and fishermen to maintain it and requires they play significant role. For example the NJ Division of Fish and Wildife is overseen by the Fish and Game Council, composed mostly of hunters and fishermen. Now we need the rest of conservationists to take their part. We need to tax our equipment and use this money to create a new system. Maybe not the same system created by hunters and fishermen nearly 75 years ago but perhaps one based more heavily on public-private partnership that embraces the important role of non-profit conservation groups and community action groups.
- Encourage projects within which government agencies take part but citizen groups, communities and non-profits lead.
Government involvement is a necessary part of conservation, but all too often agencies insist on a leadership role with their partners (if they include partners) and relegate citizens to peripheral roles or no role at all. Depending on government leadership in this day of declining budgets and extraordinary political interference, leaves wildlife victim to the interests of moneyed interests. Creating true public private partnerships can help overcome government mistrust and involve more citizens in the process. Allowing communities, especially rural commutnities, access to project funding would also help more citizens take part. There is of course a place for agency authority, the history of conservation is replete with the courageous actions of agencies fending off selfish or greedy local authorities or business interests. But they can only do this with our help. Now is a time for a fresh look at the respective roles of government, conservation groups and citizens. The majority of citizen conservationists and groups they support stand ready to help at a time when agencies can no longer count on increasing staff to meet the challenges they face. Project development and implementation should lean more heavily on the meaningful involvement of citizens in projects funded by state and federal authorities. These projects need not be delivered by government agencies but instead through coalitions of conservation groups that now populate the bayshore, the state and the surrounding region.
- Create new ways for the public to take part in conservation and pay for the privilege.
Many activities like, banding birds, animal rescue and tagging fish can create broad scientific platforms while engaging the public in a true experience with wildlife. In my career I have witnessed the misguided trend to exclude citizens, at first because industry would only credit data from agency scientists but now because the scientists themselves have no time for the care and feeding of volunteers. This is not the case in Europe, where guilds of experienced and trained volunteers do many jobs that in the US are done by paid professionals. Ironically US scientist argue ours is a more robust scientific program, yet the British Trust for Ornithology, which relies primarily on volunteers to collect data, claim databases that are among the best in the world, some populated with over 50 years of good data. Excluding people from doing field work robs them of a personal experience with wildlife thereby diminishing their zeal to protect wildlife. This personal experience is worth money to them and in other countries they pay for the privilege. Aren’t hunters and fishermen– who enjoy their sport, supply biologists with gobs of data, and pay for the privilege – doing the same thing? Why not expand the citizen force to include banding, rehabbing injured wildlife, fish taggers and other valuable conservation related activities.
- Create conservation solutions that embrace market forces
My experience, both within and outside of government, has helped me understand the importance of market forces in conservation. Profit incentives sound antithetical to conservation, but doesn’t profit now drive conservation, or the lack of it on Delaware Bay? It’s all semantics. The need for funding often determines the direction of most non-profits activities ( how else can they survive) and agencies ( especially now in the a time of diminishing budgets). The need for income colors the perspective of people living on the bay who really cannot be expected to embrace conservation if it only leads to job loss and economic hardship. Industries dispassionately determine the need for conservation based on costs and profit including the economic benefits of better public relations. Lets face it, we cannot extract economic considerations from the core issues of conservation. Embracing income and profit in conservation is nothing new. The foundation of protection in the great eras of conservation, the early 1900’s the mid 1930’s, rested on creating good income for farmers, fishermen, foresters and other people living in rural areas. How could it be anyway else? We need to consider the economic impact and embrace solutions that help create wealth. More importantly we need to embrace other aspects of hard-nosed business acumen in our work. Consider cost effectiveness. Too many conservation projects have meaningless monitoring components that tell nothing of the project effectiveness at achieving goals. For decades many state agency projects funded through sportsmen and taxpayer dollars produce ineffective outcomes or useless results doing nothing more than employing staff. Yet they persist. Many conservation group projects overlap or have identical goals because their members or funding sources demand their money be spent on current dazzling projects. This is no way to confront the growing hegemony of industry and politicians in their pocket. It doesn’t give the public confidence to see their hard earned money being squandered on useless but flashy projects, projects that are poorly monitored for success, or duplicative efforts by different groups. A more business like approach is needed. Short-term projects with long-term surveillance can prove effectiveness and guide subsequent projects. Competition and adaptive management can create much more impact for the current public and private funds now going into conservation. Better coordination amongst the many different groups is essential.
- Allow local citizens a role in deciding the character of conservation in their community
The collapse of wildlife populations on Delaware Bay and surrounding uplands followed similar paths, commercial interests trumped local interests. One would hope that agencies would prevent these preventable collapses but they don’t because industrial and political interests overwhelm or bypass scientifically based management. There are many reasons for this covered above, constituent groups pissing away political power by focusing on divisive issues, most prominent among them. But its also because local people have no say. Who are more likely to care about sustainable management, a international country that has no stake in the local economy, or the people who must earn a living in the local economy? We need to divest management decisions from industry controlled regional and national organizations and create local management initiatives like that established by Maine Lobstermen or Delaware Bay Oystermen. The latter have suffered from oyster diseases, but they do their best to insure a year after year surplus of oysters that can be harvested safely without destroying the population. Why? Because it is the only way to stay in business. Most people including Federal agencies and funding sources mistakenly believe money and programs flow downhill to local communities but they do not. In NJ money rarely even flows. State program consume most of the federal monies coming to them through Federal Aid programs, such as Pittman Robertson or State Wildlife Grants. When money does miraculously appears in a communities, it is with some idealogical handcuffs such forcing hunting on communities that distrust hunters, or small scale outreach programs heavy on agency dogma. Conservation groups would probably do the same ( but from a liberal perspective) if only their members truly supported them. More resources should go directly to energetic and forward thinking communities to help them focus on developing the capacity to develop smart conservation initiatives that can be replicated within their neighboring communities. With the impact of climate change becoming increasingly obvious, they are ready for the responsibility. These are modest initiatives this blogger has gleaned from communities throughout the western hemisphere from Coral Harbor, Canada to Punta Arenas, Chile, from Cape Cod Ma. to San Francisco Bay, CA. These places have few things in common, and their conservation of wildlife is as inconsistent as our own, but within each place lies a conservation innovation that does not rely on more government money or staff. Moreover in many places citizens seem at home in their natural places because they have more to say in its protection and management. How do these goals as up to a theory of change?