- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 26, 2003

During the 20th century, the conservation movement in America focused primarily on keeping nature and people separate. And with considerable success: The nation’s parks and wilderness areas, all protected by stringent restrictions on human use, reflect this prevailing view of how humans should interact with nature.

But in the 21st century, the challenge facing environmentalists is precisely the opposite. Instead of figuring out how to keep people and nature apart, the question of the hour is how best to bring them together — in short, how to integrate human needs with the needs of the environment in a way that benefits both.

The leading exponent of this new approach to conservation is the Nature Conservancy. Over its history, the Conservancy has prided itself on developing conservation strategies that benefit human communities and ecosystems. With a healthy willingness to take risks in pursuit of real results, the Conservancy has reached out to many of the traditional foes of environmentalists — ranchers, farmers, corporations and rural communities, for example. As a result, the organization finds itself firmly planted in the “messy middle,” — an unenviable spot on the conservation spectrum located between fervent environmental hardliners on the left and the extreme private property rights crowd on the right. Meanwhile, with criticism and conspiracies theories being lobbed like grenades around it, the Conservancy quietly continues going about its conservation work.

Tellingly, the only people who benefit from attacking organizations operating from the middle, such as the Conservancy, are the obstructionists on both sides of the environmental debate, who seem to prefer inaction to action based on compromise.

For years, groups on the environmental left have employed confrontational, all-or-nothing litigatory tactics to block economic development projects and obfuscate decisions over resource use. This approach, which descends directly from old attitudes about separating people and nature, has had some success, but while battles are being won, the war over the future of our natural heritage is being lost.

The problem is that these groups are fighting the wrong battles. The conservation wars of the next century are going to focus not on pristine natural areas but instead in the arena of what some have called “working landscapes.” These are the places — all over the country and the world — where such human uses of the land as agriculture, livestock grazing, logging and mining currently coexist, however uneasily, with biologically important natural areas.

Wishing for these economic activities to simply go away is not an option. Nor is it an option to regulate them out of existence.

On the other side of the political continuum, the fringe right also needs to take a less doctrinaire approach to environmental issues. A clean, healthy environment serves everyone’s interest. Rather than automatically opposing any and all conservation measures, they should be looking for models that harness free-market principles to deliver positive results for conservation while enabling economic growth. Until this side of the spectrum can articulate its own coherent commitment to conservation, it will always be playing catch-up to the skilled activists on the other side.

Many elements of the corporate world are well ahead of the political community in grasping the importance of having a forward-oriented environmental policy. More and more companies are taking preemptive measures to address their potential environmental liabilities. Quite simply, it pays for business to get out ahead of environmental regulations and issues. This trend plays itself out in terms of changes in production practices, overcompliance with regulations and the creation of partnerships with environmental organizations.

Despite these signals of progress, a considerable gulf still separates the two sides, fueled by long-held suspicions and distrust. That’s where the Nature Conservancy and its moderate allies can make a tremendous difference. Time and again, the Conservancy’s non-confrontational, pragmatic approach has been able to bridge the gap between the extremes and arrive at workable compromises.

The Conservancy’s bridge-building skills will be needed more than ever in the future. If the old strategy of trying to keep people out of the woods isn’t working, how do we shift the terms of the debate to focus on the best ways of letting people in? And if not the Nature Conservancy, who else can lead this conversation?

The corporate sector absolutely must be part of that discussion, along with private landowners and other resource users. Government officials and environmentalists must be at the table, as well. And all sides must be willing to make concessions.

But it’s no longer a matter of choice. The struggle for our natural heritage will not be won on the extremes, but in the center. Wishing that things were otherwise is more than a little naive — and more than a little dangerous.

John C. Whitehead is a director of the Nature Conservancy.

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