Our State Senator Andrew Roraback passed along a fascinating article written by Theodore Roosevelt IV - the gr-grandson of T-Rex himself - that takes fellow environmentalists to task for the way our movement in the United States tends to alienate and work in opposition to much of rural America. Roosevelt has an impressive record as an environmentalist and advocate for conserving wild lands. He is a board member of the World Resources Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Wilderness Society, as well as the University of Wyoming's Institute for Environmental and Natural Resources. Despite these credentials, he lays environmentalism's failure to transcend party politics on our own doorstep, noting that
"Environmentalists are looking at a hard-pressed rural America and asking "What can you give us?" instead of standing with rural people in their view shed to understand their problems and build strong, durable alliances that are partisanship-proof."
Now what is more remarkable is that TR IV did not express these sentiments in Range Magazine (much as they would have loved to print it) or as an op-ed piece in a conservative paper. Instead, his Winter 2005 article is published on-line at the website of Patagonia, the outfitter of choice for many in the environmentalist demographic which Roosevelt critiques.
Roosevelt begins by debunking the myth that the environment is not a core issue for voters:
"Many commentators accurately observed that the important issues in Bush country were moral values and leadership in the war on terror. Rarely is the environment mentioned. I believe, however, that the environment contributed to the president's win, particularly in the public lands–dominated intermountain West, as well as in Alaska and the resource-dependent communities of the Pacific Northwest and South. Yet, poll after poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans, despite the blue/red divide, want a healthy natural environment. So how can this be?
The difference lies in how we get there. Even in red states, voters will support pro-environment candidates on the local and state levels...Rural Americans feel that the national environmental movement does not understand and is not sympathetic to their economic dependence on natural resources, and is furthermore dismissive and condescending toward their views, lifestyles and economic hardships. Unfortunately, they base this view on a history of environmental callousness toward their communities, marked by national campaigns that by their lights demonize rural people, overlook issues of social justice, and utilize half-truths and misinformation."
A history of promises not kept has plagued international development efforts just as much as it impacts the relationships between resource users and those who seek to modify their behaviors through policy and law in this country. The values and attitudes of rural people and those from outside their communities can and regrettably do come in conflict, yet I believe this argues for a different style and approach to both development and conservation that is accountable to those who live on the land, informed by, and incorporating understanding of the regional and even global impacts of decisions taken locally. That is the approach that guides my conservation work in northwest Connecticut and that is the approach that Roosevelt calls for more environmentalists to adopt when working with rural communities and local interests.
It should be noted that Roosevelt, the managing director of Lehman Brothers, is leading the financing deal for the controversial $700-million, 130-turbine, 468-megawatt Cape Wind project at Horseshoe Shoal, in Nantucket Sound. The opposition to this project also comes from local residents, although not the rural, struggling communities that Roosevelt champions. It is worth considering how being respectful of and responsive to local values and attitudes is different from endorsing NIMBY, which proponents of Cape Wind believe is the main source of opposition to their project.
It would be a mistake to conclude that rural people are united in all opinions or even that these are not sometimes just as insular and parochial as those held in wealthier communities. No community has a single mind, as anyone who has been to a New England Town Meeting knows firsthand! However, those who practice community-based conservation recognize that those who live closest to the resource are capable of making informed, sustainable land use decisions and should be active participants in conservation decision-making. I do not suggest that the first time a new and challenging proposal is presented to a local community, its members will see its wisdom and move for adoption. The history of large predator re-introduction efforts in the Rocky Mountain West is a prime example to the contrary. Ideas conceived without local input - and inconsistent with locally-held values and attitudes - are rightly viewed with skepticism. It takes hard work to build consensus and support from the ground up, and facilitation and listening skills that are not currently a requirement of being a competent naturalist or agency regulator.
"The good news is that most of the national environmental organizations acknowledge that they are not well-liked in rural America; this acknowledgment is an important first step. Many of the leaders in the environmental movement to whom I have spoken, however, feel that the problem lies with rural communities, that they don't, in their words, "self-identify" as environmentalists. In my experience, rural communities would find this infuriating and extremely condescending; they regard themselves as first order stewards, despite the fact that they receive little recognition for the ecological services they provide without remuneration. But environmental NGOs have concluded that all they have to do in response is massage their message: change "who the messengers are" and adjust their language camouflage, while continuing on-the-ground policies and national campaigns that alienate rural constituents."
Readers of Walking the Berkshires know that I cut my eye teeth as a conservationist working with rural Africans in challenging environmental and social conditions. These were people who had been pushed to the very margins of subsistence and displaced to make way for white-owned commercial farms under apartheid and game reserves from whose resources they were excluded. The success of community-based natural resource management approaches in Namibia and elsewhere in Southern Africa can and should inform new ways of working jointly with rural American communities to solve problems they self-identify and develop environmental solutions that local people can support.
I also spent much of the summer of 1989 as a long-haired backpacker, hitch-hiking through the old growth lands of the Pacific Northwest during the height of the Spotted Owl controversy. I remember one rain-soaked night in Forks Washington when the only "clean, well lighted place" was a logger bar with "one log" trailers parked outside. The sign above the bar said "wood and paper products no longer available - wipe your *ss with a spotted owl." There were bitter, defensive and fearful men and women in that bar, subject to outside forces that were larger than their communities. The sawmills were closing, the single industry that sustained the regional economy was neither sustainable nor able to proceed as it had before the owl was listed as Endangered. They were alienated from the resource that had sustained them and the owl was a scapegoat. And as I have said here before, anytime the issue is cast as either a human being or rare species, the humans under threat do not side with the critters.
TR IV concludes:
"If environmentalists agree that many of the people's elected representatives from the conservative wing of the Republican Party have not been good for environmental policy, then I would urge that we pay better and more respectful attention to the party's base: the concerns of rural communities and the reasons that they feel alienated from the environmental movement. They may still vote for Republicans on national security and moral values issues, but they might then also insist that their representatives vote for the environment – when a vote for the environment is also a vote for their communities.
It is time for the environmental community to take a hard, critical look at ourselves with regard to our treatment of rural people and our resultant standing in those communities. This is important, not just from a political perspective, but from an ecological and humanistic one. If we continue our business-as-usual approach or pursue inauthentic remedies, we will continue to alienate a large, vulnerable and critical sector of the American electorate."
I believe that conservation should be a mainstream, bi-partisan value, rather than "a personal virtue" as our Vice President has said, or a political wedge driven between us. A fair number of the readers of Walking the Berkshires came to it from "right of center" blogs that linked to some of my posts and saw common ground there regardless of where we may differ politically. Opinion polls in very conservative rural communities time and again show that everyone, regardless of how they self-identify, values clean air and water and wants a nice place to live. Nearly 80% of the open space bond initiatives put to local voters nationwide in 2003 were approved. We face difficult challenges, including customary land and water access rights and how to manage public and private lands sustainably when they are in multiple ownerships and jurisdictions, but it is in all of our interests to find a way to do so effectively and fairly.