The New Conservationists

Born in the late 1960s, the environmental movement grew to become one of the most potent political forces of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet today it is suffering its greatest crisis. It appears that the movement may be fragmenting into two distinctly different movements, one that focuses on preservation and central control and one that focuses on management and decentralization.

This would be a replay of history. From roughly 1890 to 1965, the conservation movement was the major political force shaping natural resource policy. Consisting of forest, wildlife, and other resource managers; biologists and other resource scientists; hunters, fishers, and other wildlife lovers; and a variety of other public land users, the conservation movement believed in wise use of natural resources. Scientific research in many fields supported the notion that natural resources benefitted from human management.

At the same time, a smaller preservation movement was sometimes an ally and sometimes an antagonist to the conservationists. Made up of hikers, wilderness lovers, and some national park supporters, the preservationists believed that some areas should be left unmanaged for anything except primitive recreation. Their slogan was "nature knows best" and they tended to believe that human management was generally harmful to natural resources.

The increasing awareness of pollution, pesticides, overpopulation, and endangered species in the late 1960s gave the preservationists a major boost and left the conservationists with a black eye for failing to anticipate and solve many environmental problems. Encouraged by a tolerance for different views within the environmental community, many conservation allies, including fish and wildlife groups, younger foresters and other professionals, and ecologists and other scientists, in effect defected to the preservationist view. Research in ecology, fisheries, soils, and other areas seemed to support the preservationist claim that "nature knows best."

The strengthened preservationists convinced Congress to set aside large areas of public lands as wilderness in the 1970s and early 1980s. The era climaxed in the early 1990s with the protection of millions of acres of Douglas-fir old-growth timber. Meanwhile, once highly respected conservation agencies such as the Forest Service were villified as land despoilers and seemed to lose their focus.

Two trends in the 1990s conspire to undo the preservationist dominance over the conservationists. First, recent research in ecology and conservation biology is challenging the nature-knows-best philosophy.

All of these findings point to the need for environmentalists to support various forms of management both inside and outside of parks and wilderness areas. But the second trend is that environmentalists with an extreme preservationist view have become intolerance of any dissension from that view. In the early 1990s, several environmental groups embarked on a campaign of environmental correctness that sharply criticized other groups that were willing to support even limited management of public lands and anything less than strict federal regulation of private lands.

One group, for example, promoted the idea of ending all timber cutting in the national forests--the "zero-cut option." Rather than go the standard route of lobbying Congress, this group focused on lobbying other environmental groups, demonizing any group that did not support its position. The tactic of attacking other environmentalists was used by an increasing number of groups in the early 1990s. A 1990 Greenpeace policy called for a "grassroots revolution against compromise and pragmatism."

This revolution has apparently succeeded. By 1996, numerous groups, including the Sierra Club and Oregon Natural Resources Council, had adopted the zero-cut policy and other extreme views. Such groups more or less excommunicated environmentalists, such as Michael Bean of the Environmental Defense Fund and members of the Quincy Library Group, who dared to negotiate with industry or managers.

The simplicity of the zero-cut, cattle-free, and other no-management messages allowed environmentalists to rally their ardent supporters and flood Congress with messages calling for central planning and prescriptive regulation. Yet many of the allies that the preservationists developed during the 1970s and 1980s, including biologists and other scientists, wildlife groups, and foresters, are not likely to support this extreme preservation view. The movement is once again fragmenting into its pre-1970 form of conservationists and preservationists.

The new conservationists are unlike the old ones in many ways. Many view commodity extraction as a tool, not a goal, of land management. Their aims, such as biodiversity, ecosystem health, and sustainability, are often nebulous compared with the firm output goals of the old conservationists. But they share with the old conservationists a belief, backed by the latest scientific research, in the need for managing land, even wilderness, rather than just leaving it alone.

Meanwhile, the new preservationists are much more ambitious than their predecessors. Where the old preservationists simply wanted to preserve a cross-section of parks and wilderness areas, the new ones want to close all federal lands to further development and to strictly regulate private land use.

This schism offers people who care about natural resources a clear choice.

It is difficult to predict which side will ultimately claim the name "environmentalist" that is so fiercely defended by the new preservationists. But people who care about the land and people who believe that central planning and federal micromanagement are inefficient and counterproductive can do much to support the new conservationists, under whatever name they go by, through funding, research, and publicity.
Note: In its original distribution, this issue was mistakenly numbers #27.
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