- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 5, 2002

Dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, the conservation of our natural resources has been one of America's richest traditions. We arguably have done more than any nation on Earth to care for our land and its abundant wildlife. Our vast system of parks and wildlife refuges is the envy of the world. We have made enormous progress cleaning up our air and water.

Unfortunately, environmentalism in the past three decades has featured conflict more than consensus. Environmental discussions triggered passionate antagonism. In political and media debates, environmentalists and businesses exaggerated their differences and demonized their opponents.

As we begin the 21st century, America must move away from conservation by conflict and tap into the greatest conservation resource we have, the American people who live, work on, and love the land people like Jim Bill Anderson.

As a rancher who grazes cattle on a 49,000-acre ranch near the Canadian River in the Texas Panhandle, Mr. Anderson is in a business that has been a target for attacks from environmentalists. Like many ranchers, however, he has a deep love and knowledge of the land and its wildlife. He wants to make a living, but he also wants to conserve the land for future generations.

Over the last decade, Mr. Anderson voluntarily has paid to fence off environmentally sensitive areas of his ranch, and last year he split the cost of finishing the project with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The fencing has made his land more productive for both his cattle and for wildlife, including the lesser prairie-chicken, a species that is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act. "I'm now getting eco-tourists who pay to come see the prairie chickens," he proudly reports.

Mr. Anderson is just one of a vast army of citizens who recognize that environmental stewardship is part of their responsibility as citizens and who quietly conserve wildlife and their habitat on their property. In fact, under one program begun in 1987 by the Reagan administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service has worked with 27,000 landowners like Mr. Anderson to voluntarily restore 1.5 million acres of wildlife habitat and 4,200 miles of streams across the country.

The future of environmental protection is to energize this army of citizen-conservationists and to give local communities, organizations and landowners the tools to cooperate on conservation projects. It's time to put cooperation ahead of conflict. As part of his 2003 budget, President Bush is committing $160 million to this conservation concept by providing cost-share grants for projects like Mr. Anderson's fences. The centerpiece will be the Cooperative Conservation Initiative, a $100 million program to give landowner, land-user groups, environmental organizations, communities, state and local governments and business the resources to undertake conservation projects that advance the health of the land and benefit people.

Half of the Cooperative Conservation Initiative funding, or $50 million, will be distributed to states to fund cost-share grants for innovative conservation projects. This will allow them to work within their communities to come up with innovative solutions to our conservation challenges. The other half will be used by the National Park Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Bureau of Land Management to fund cost-share grants to citizens for partnership-based land enhancement and problem-solving projects.

The president also is proposing $60 million for two initiatives begun in last year's budget to conserve wildlife habitat. The Landowner Incentive Program provides funds to states, tribes, and territories to make cost-share grants to landowners who voluntarily participate in the protection of habitat for endangered, threatened or other at-risk species on private or Tribal lands. The Private Stewardship Grant Program directly assists individuals or groups involved in the voluntary conservation of wildlife habitat on private lands.

Successful conservation must be a partnership between the American people and their government. When we have been successful, it has been because citizens recognized conservation is a responsibility of citizenship, and the government recognized that the citizens who live on the land often know more than anyone about the land and how to conserve it.

Somewhere along the way, we got the idea that regulation and litigation were the best tools for conservation. It's time to get back to partnership. We need to tap into the ingenuity of the American people and their passion for the beauty and health of our land.

Gale Norton is secretary of the interior.

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