Nature Noted

Notes on a changing Nature

Location: Bellville, Texas, United States

I never would have predicted this one

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hil

There have been a few tidbits put out about the Land Trust Rally.... and the ones I have seen have been very positive. A letter posted on the landtrust listserv about the discussion with the IRS commissioner and staffers. The upshot... the IRS is no longer "out to get" trusts, and understands that conservation easements are not just tax scams. It appears the intensive education efforts by both trusts AND the IRS have paid off. Both sides now understand what the other is trying to do, and both are now working towards a common goal. That's a big positive.
Another good insight comes from Dan Barringer over at Crow's Nest Preserve for his notes on the Rally. Particular thanks for the link to the keynote address by William Cronan, who is the Frederick Jackson Turner
& Vilas Research Professor of History, Geography, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Cronan also focuses on the idea of working toward a common goal, Cronan talks about the idea that land trusts protect more than just the wild places of the world..
"But today I want to argue that the natural places we protect need also to be described and understood as cultural landscapes. In the United States , we typically arrange these along a continuum as follows:
City > Suburb > Working Landscapes > Wilderness
One of the reasons I'm proud to be on the board of the Trust for Public Land is TPL's great insight, which it embodies as well as any organization I know, that if we fail to protect nature in all of these cultural landscapes, we will fail to protect nature in any of them. TPL has always had the wisdom to recognize that none of these is more important than any of the others. It seems to me that this insight is shared by the land trust movement in general, and expresses one of our most important core values.
Why do I say this? Because the protection of nature is a cultural project, not just a biological one.Whether we protect deep wilderness or an inner city community garden, from a human cultural point of view we are protecting a human symbol of nature. These symbols are crucial in reminding us of the nature that is all around of us, crucial in reconnecting us to the natural world, crucial in helping us raise children to care for the world that sustains us all.
And let's not forget: these cultural landscapes, from wilderness through working landscapes to the inner city, are equally crucial to sustaining the national political consensus that protecting land and environment is among our most vital commitments as a nation.
So what I want to offer you as we prepare to depart is that land trusts are in the business not just of conserving lands, not just of protecting ecosystems and ecological services, not just of preserving biodiversity...but of conserving the human values those lands embody.
These values are the reason why our society has created technical tools like conservation easements and special tax treatments for agricultural and undeveloped lands: we have declared a public commitment to the public good that is served by such tools.

Cronan quotes John Winthrop's Puritan idea of America as the "Citty upon a Hill" to argue what a community united in God and common purpose can achieve. And Cronan stresses that it is only by being united that we can achieve our common goal.
"Why is it important for all of us involved in land conservation to remember that the work we do is about affirming core American values?
I have many answers to this question, but today I will simply point to the troubling loss of bipartisanship that has come to characterize our national political life vis-à-vis conservation and environmental protection since the heady days of the 1970s when it seemed that everyone was eager to call themselves an "environmentalist." By some measures, the percentage of Americans who willingly attach that label to themselves has dropped below 20%, even though a very large majority of Americans still say that they strongly support environmental protection.
For most of the twentieth century, both of our national political parties, Democrats and Republicans alike, strongly supported conservation and environmental protection, albeit with different emphases and different policy strategies. Most of our greatest conservation achievements, from the founding of the national parks to the passage of the 1964 Wilderness Act to the flood of legislation that now provides most of our legal framework for environmental protection at the national level, was passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.
We too often forget that most of our key federal statutes for environmental protection date from the Nixon Administration, and were passed with large majorities because of fierce competition between a Republican White House and a Democratic Congress over which was more committed to environmental protection.
That competition essentially came to an end in the 1980s, and the consequences have not been good for the environment, for our national politics, or for our core values as a nation.
The history of these changes is far too complicated for me to narrate today, but I can easily summarize one obvious cause.
The late twentieth century saw a conservative reaction against the state in defense of American ideas of liberty.
It is vital to remember that this American suspicion of state power goes back to the Revolution itself, which was anti-statist and libertarian in many important ways. Our Constitution and Bill of Rights both reflect deep anxieties about the potential tyranny of state power.
The conservative reaction against environmentalism in 1980s arguably flowed from this source. It represented not a failure to love the land, but a fear that the environmental laws and regulations of the 1970s at least potentially represented a new form of state tyranny.
The collapse of bipartisan support for environmentalism (which to my mind is among the greatest losses to our national politics in the past quarter century) was primarily a reaction not against nature, not against the environment, not against the American land, but against centralized government power and its feared abuse.
I do not intend to take a position today regarding the conservative reaction against state power as expressed in environmental law, nor do I want to criticize the Republican Party for moving away from its longstanding tradition of environmental protection.
Instead, I want to express regret that the two parties no longer compete nearly as much as they once did over their commitment to environmental protection.
We all suffer from this change in our politics.
In my view, it is little short of a national disaster for the environment to look as if it is somehow a one-party issue.
It is also very far indeed from being an accurate reflection of core American values: all Americans love their land.

We do love our land, and we all want a bright future. Working together is the only way to get there.


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