Conservation from a Conservative Viewpoint
"If you want more ducks, you need more duck hunters."
Teddy Roosevelt was possibly the first President to seriously address conservation as a national issue. He was a pragmatic conservationist, favoring use, but not abuse, of our natural resources. He played a significant role in the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service, intended to steward our public forests, along with the designation of five national parks and eighteen national monuments. Roosevelt's conservation views were very human-centric. The parks, monuments, and national forests he advocated for were intended to preserve nature and natural resources for people. He was not an overboard environmentalist, trying to protect nature by locking people out, but rather a conservationist, working to conserve nature and natural wonders for future generations. Roosevelt was a conservative in the true sense of the word, and a Republican.
Ideologically, I identify with Teddy Roosevelt in many ways, and I consider myself more conservative than liberal. Fiscally, I am a conservative to the max, having succeeded in life by achieving prosperity on relatively little income. In addition, I don't like government regulation, and I don't believe big government is effective at much of anything. I also think it is a mistake to protect nature by telling people they are not allowed to touch it or use it any more. Like Roosevelt, my conservation ideology is very human-centric. I believe that humanity must be part of the conservation equation. It is not because our species deserves special standing, but because any policy that excludes people is ultimately doomed to fail.
Teddy Roosevelt struggled with health issues as a child, especially asthma. He was often sick and therefore home-schooled, where he had the freedom to study natural history. To overcome his health problems, he developed a physically active and adventurous lifestyle and a love for hunting and camping.
Like Roosevelt, I struggled with health problems, especially asthma, as a child. I lived in an oxygen tent for several weeks as a baby. In elementary school, I often stayed home sick. I studied natural history in my own way, learning about edible and medicinal plants, as well as hauling old bones into the college for identification. The more time that I spent outdoors, the healthier I became, and I developed a love for hiking, camping, and adventuring. Wilderness survival skills became my primary focus as a teenager and young adult, and I spent thousands of hours out building shelters, harvesting wild foods, and stalking and observing wild game.
These types of skills are essential for survival, not so much to keep oneself alive, but to insure the survival of nature, wild places, and ultimately our civilization. We are rapidly creating a populace that is totally disconnected from nature. Even in rural areas, our young people don't necessarily go outside all that much to explore the fields and woods, or to climb mountains and camp at alpine lakes. And those who do get out on foot to explore the backcountry are instructed to practice "leave no-trace" camping, to "take only pictures, and leave only footprints." Nature is reduced to mere wallpaper. It is something to look at, but not to interact with, and frankly, that's boring.
Some people might like to find the parking lot empty at wilderness trailheads, but it saddens me. It saddens me because I know that wilderness protection of any kind only lasts as long as there are advocates to support it. The bottom line is that the fewer people there are hiking and camping in the woods, the fewer people there are to lobby for its continued protection. If we want to protect nature, first we have to assure people that it is okay to touch it and allow them the freedom to go thrashing and bashing through the woods, building shelters, cutting firewood, and killing stuff.
The most successful conservation efforts are typically driven by those who actually use nature. For example, groups like Ducks Unlimited are highly successful at funding and lobbying for programs to increase waterfowl habitat. Duck hunters might seem callous to groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (P.E.T.A.) for blasting the poor birds out of the sky with shotguns, but duck hunters actively work to increase the duck population. The bottom line is that, if you want more ducks, you need more duck hunters. Nothing could be worse for ducks than for PETA to be successful in convincing everyone to give up hunting and to stay home and surf the internet instead.
The greater risk of a detached populace is that people cannot manage or legislate resources they know nothing about. We are constantly extracting natural resources, such as water, wood, coal, wheat, and hamburgers from our farms and forests. How can people make informed management decisions that impact forest health or soil percolation, when they've never really gone outside? A degree from Harvard or Yale might look great on a resume, but it can be downright dangerous if it is not backed up with real-world experience. Can we really trust someone in a leadership position if they have never been beyond the lawn grass to explore the real world?
Like Teddy Roosevelt, I take a human-centric approach to conservation. The most important conservation work I do is teaching wilderness skills to kids, in part because they are the resource managers of the future. However, I also recognize the need to address conservation issues directly. I have been chased by bulldozers all my life, and I have grieved as special places were paved over for houses, churches, and shopping malls.
I am not anti-development. I have built several houses myself. But the U.S. population is projected to double, triple, or quadruple this century, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (mostly due to immigration and their first-generation offspring). It is not hard to do the math to see what is in store for places like Montana. If the world population increases by up to 50 percent, and other countries are too crowded already, then we get a steady increase in immigration. But the east and west coasts are already over populated, so where can we expect all those people to go? It is not unreasonable to imagine that a rural state like Montana could explode to ten times its current population. Right now is our last best chance to save what we love about the last best place.
That was my primary motivation in founding the Jefferson River Canoe Trail, to sustain the quality of life and open space that Montanans love, and to enhance and preserve the opportunity for Montanans to paddle, camp, and explore the same fascinating landscape that Lewis and Clark first documented on the Journey of Discovery two hundred years ago. Continued development is inevitable in the Jefferson River Valley and across Montana. We cannot stop development, but we don't need to trash all that we cherish, either. By finding ways to encourage development within existing communities, we can absorb a much larger population without houses sprawling across the countryside and without turning the Jefferson River into a rip-rapped channel lined with houses.
I think that Teddy Roosevelt would share my view if he were alive today, and I am certain he would be deeply disappointed to see what the Republican Party has become. In addition to his work as a conservationist, Roosevelt was a trust-buster who broke up corporations that had become so large as to abuse their power. Yet, in state and nationally, today's republicans have become puppets to big businesses, dismantling environmental protections at every turn, and some legislators have even proposed selling to the highest bidder the National Forests that Roosevelt helped create. Here in Montana, republican legislators have even worked to give corporations the power of eminent domain, to condemn individual private property for profit-making ventures. True conservatives like myself are left with the unappealing and unavoidable necessity of voting for democrats. I have not been able to vote for a republican yet.
Like Roosevelt, I am all in favor of a good park or monument to preserve our natural wonders for future generations. But as Bruce Babbit, President Clinton's Secretary of the Interior, noted in his book Cities in the Wilderness, the biggest conservation challenges are now on private lands, not on public lands. We cannot, however, legislate and regulate our way to sensible land-use planning. Nobody likes to be told what to do with their land, and least of all Montanans. Zoning isn't sustainable if it pisses off the constituency. I would like to see sensible development away from the Jefferson River and all of Montana's great rivers, but not at the cost of trampling over landowner rights. As Babbit emphasized, successful land management must come through partnerships between the private and public sectors and nongovernmental organizations.
As a conservation organization, it would be nice to wave a magic wand and protect the entire Jefferson River from development. I would love to buy up all the land along the river - or at least conservation easements on it - to protect it from future development. However, neither we nor anyone else has that kind of money or power. We must therefore work with the tools that we have.
It is tempting to reach for the big stick, to call for zoning and setbacks to protect the river. But I am not convinced that such an effort would be successful, and even if it were successful in pushing development back X number of feet, I'm not convinced that it would make a substantial difference. Many of the biggest eyesores are already constructed well away from the water, and up on a bluff where everyone else must look at them. As one who has been on both sides of the coin - builder and conservationist - I know that people are not necessarily aware of the impacts of their actions. Many a landowner has bulldozed Eden to build a house, only to recognize their mistake when it was too late. Some of the houses sprouting up along the Jefferson are in danger of being washed away by flood waters. Most are built too close to the river, where cold air settles in on winter nights, and mosquitoes reign supreme all summer. Just about all of them are eyesores that everyone else must endure.
Our organization has produced a Builder's Guide: Commonsense Do's and Don't for Building a Home along the Jefferson River to help educate potential builders. Our next step is public outreach, possibly in partnership with local realtors. Real estate agents serve in a unique position to shape conservation and to advise potential builders on the pros and cons of developing certain sites. While it is easy to demonize realtors as the source of the problem, selling off building sites for profit, it is also true that they live and work here for many of the same reasons we do. They certainly suffer the same loss we all do when inappropriate building sites are bulldozed for house construction. If it is not possible to form partnerships with local realtors, then we may have to take power into our own hands, and educate the public through photography contests that document the biggest eyesores along the river. Houses are often built along the river as a sign of social status. If we can make it socially unacceptable to build along the river, then maybe people would reconsider and build somewhere else. These novel approaches may or may not be successful, but we must try until we succeed.
As Roosevelt recognized, our land use decisions today will greatly impact the life of those who come after us. Here in Montana, quality of life and quality of environment are largely the same thing. It is up to us to pass along a high quality of environment to the future generations.
Read more. Check out the
Jefferson River Canoe Trail