Posted by on Oct 12, 2013 in Food For Thought |

Expanding the Conservation Toolbox

I work in a forest.  From the forest’s 1,200 foot hilltop on the eastern edge of the northern Oregon Coast Range, I find the view to be equal parts inspiring and challenging.   I’m inspired by the Tualatin River’s headwaters flowing cold and clear, the remains of Wapato Lake’s wetlands in the mid distance, the colorful mosaic of working farm and forest lands, and the snowy peaks of five volcanoes punctuating the horizon.  It’s a remarkable landscape that my family has worked and lived in for five generations.  What I find challenging is the range of land uses woven together in the thirty miles between our hilltop lookout and the banks of the Willamette in downtown Portland – forestland blending to farmland leading to suburbs bulging against urban growth boundaries finally giving way, just beyond the transmission tower-spiked West Hills, to urban Portland.


The Oldest Task – The challenges of finding ways to successfully balance these varied land uses – and the needs and wants of the million plus humans living within my view – may have some unique and modern twists, but in other ways the core issues are as old as our species.  In 1938 Aldo Leopold summed it up in this way:

“We end, I think, at what might be called the standard paradox of the twentieth century: our tools are better than we are, and grow better faster than we do.  They suffice to crack the atom, to command the tides.  But they do not suffice for the oldest task in human history: to live on a piece of land without spoiling it.


Familiar Tools – In the same way that the builder relies on a range of tools to accomplish the task of building a house, Oregonians continue to develop, adapt, and rely on a variety of tools as we work to accomplish Leopold’s “oldest task”.    From my forested hilltop perch I am aware of the four main tools that are being actively used in the landscape around me.  Two of them are old and familiar – “the club” of government regulation and “the conscience” of  developing an ethically-based sense of responsibility for land stewardship.  Two are in many ways newer and less familiar – “the carrot” of encouraging good land stewardship through tangible incentives, and “the careful consumer” where buyers use the power of their purchasing dollar to positively shape the local landscape.  Because each used alone will not accomplish the task, we’re challenged to creatively interweave the unique utility and power these four tools.


The Club – In Oregon and beyond, the tool that is most relied on to help us use, without using up, is “the club” of government regulation.  Because most of us recognize and appreciate the positive role government regulation plays in shaping our state we accept and tolerate the ways in which it limits our freedom to do as we please.  At the same time, the recent letting of blood – and treasure – over Measures 37 and 49 remind us that there are limits to the use of government regulation to shape land use.


The Conscience –  Fortunately the power of force is not the only motivator of human action.  Because history proves that some of us can look beyond  the question of what we can and can’t do, to instead be motivated by considerations of what we should and shouldn’t do, some progress has been made, and continues to be made, using strategies driven by ethical responsibility. This strategy may be best articulated by Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic, summed up by his observation:

“We abuse land because we regard  it as a commodity belonging to us.  When we see it as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.”

 In his Land Ethic essay and elsewhere, Leopold made the case for the role of the development of an ecological conscience, or land ethic, as an essential strategy for accomplishing his “task”.  Responsibility lies with me, the individual, to maintain, or build, the conservation value of our lands, instead of responsibility lying beyond me, with government, to motivate me to do it. A simple example of how this approach has been used, arguably to good effect, is the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. Idealistic?  Definitely.  Effective?  Most would argue that it is, but, as with “the club”, not effective enough.


Our Progress – Many of our neighbors confidently assure me that we’re successfully using Oregon lands without using them up – and that current tools are adequate to accomplishing “the task”.  Unfortunately the evidence – from degraded waters to declining biodiversity to our impact on climate – persuades me that new approaches and new tools are needed.


Emerging Tools – An increasing number of Oregonians believe that in our post Measures 37/49 world we need to both use our pair of old tools more effectively, while also developing and using new tools.  Two emerging tools stand out as having the greatest potential.


The “Careful Consumer” – Oregonians are becoming increasingly aware of the power of their votes – not only those cast at the ballot box (now mailbox) – but those cast each time we open our pocket books to buy.  From the sage brush steppe ranches of Country Natural Beef ranchers, to Farm Alliance and organic certified growers on fertile Willamette bottomland, to Forest Stewardship Council certified forests in the misty Coast Range, we’re seeing the tangible consequences of buyers choosing to do business with growers whose practices they want to support.  Paired with this is a growing awareness amongst growers that emerging markets can help us more profitably develop higher conservation value working lands – while maintaining or improving economic viability.  Breathing new life into Leopold’s 1928 observation that forest conservation depends as much on the intelligent consumption of lumber as on the intelligent production,  with the help of new initiatives such as the Farmer-Chef Partnership and the Build Local Alliance, land conservation in Oregon is being advanced through direct cooperation between local growers and buyers.




The Carrot – A second emerging tool is the use of incentives – “carrots” – to shape land use choices.  To begin to answer the question of whether incentives can positively shape Oregon land use, we need look no further than our own history and such programs as the Farm Bill’s Conservation Reserve Program that pay farmers for conservation choices or the role that tax relief plays in trying to keep farmers, ranchers, and foresters in the business of viably growing.  Proposed new programs ask whether we should be making fuller use of incentives.  Examples include payments for a wide range of ecosystem services, including creation of new wetlands, sale of the right to develop, storing of carbon, or cooling waters by planting improved riparian buffers.



The strength of my enthusiasm for “carrot” approaches is seriously tempered by an unresolved concern .  I’m enthusiastic because I have seen the effectiveness of incentives and because I believe our circumstances demand new approaches – particularly ones that say “yes” –  instead of the too familiar “no” to landowners.  I am concerned about the potential for “carrot” approaches to undercut the all important role of “the conscience”.  The power of most “carrot” approaches comes from turning land functions into commodities to be bought and sold, inevitably creating landowner expectations that they should be paid – and externally motivated – to manage at a conservation standard higher than the legal minimum.  This is in direct opposition to the power of “the conscience” to internally motivate the landowner to conserve because it is part of the basic responsibility that comes with land ownership. With the conscience serving as the foundation of all of the tools – the choice to create clubs, carrots, and careful consumption – it seems essential that we redouble our commitment to engendering an Oregon land ethic in tandem with thoughtfully finding ways to have the carrot help us get where we need to go.



In Conclusion – At the same time that it is important to investigate tools – old and emerging – and their potential utility and liabilities, it also seems important to recognize that tools alone do not build a fine house – the builder does.  The highest quality tool is useless unless it is in the hands of a thoughtful person who uses it, in combination with other tools, with skill and care.  Though I don’t know whether we’ll summon the will, creativity, and cooperative spirit needed to accomplish “the task”, I am confident that progress requires two essential ingredients:

  1. Developing and creatively using new tools, and
  2. Finding ways to get beyond the crude, destructive      styles of interaction that characterized the 37-49 battles, to learn to      work civilly and effectively together – with good tools in skilled hands –      toward a shared goal of a better Oregon.


In the end, perhaps the key to constructive land use in Oregon lies not so much in clever strategies or political power, but in our ability to learn in the ways suggested by Ernst Haas:


“Learning is not sudden enlightenment or even incremental insight.  It is the establishment of shared meaning among parties that may be active antagonists but that find themselves condemned by their interdependence to negotiate better solutions than they had created in earlier attempts” .