Getting it Right

In a previous post, I wrote about a recent trip to Tanzania with staff and board members of The Nature Conservancy of Michigan.  That post focused on fresh water conservation and the somewhat surprising similarities between conservation issues in our North American Great Lakes and the large bodies of fresh water in Africa, especially including Lake Tanganyika.  See Fish and Chimps.

During my brief travel in Africa, I was also struck by the similarities, and some differences, between Tanzania and Alaska.  Here are some thoughts on that topic:

The United Republic of Tanzania and the State of Alaska are not very different in size.  Tanzania is about the size of Texas and Colorado combined.  As I often like to point out, Alaska is slightly more than double the land area of Texas.  So Alaska is somewhat larger than Tanzania, but the two are in the same league based on size.

Moreover, while both geographies face ecological challenges from population growth and resource development, they both have very large ecosystems, at landscape scale, that are still intact and capable of sustaining historic levels of wildlife.

That said, the population of Tanzania is much larger than that of Alaska, about 50 million people compared to about 700,000, and it is growing rapidly – Tanzania has one of the highest birth rates in the world.  As a result, there is substantial and increasing pressure in Tanzania to clear forest areas and savannah grasslands for agricultural purposes.

Most land in Alaska is owned either by federal or state governments or by Alaska Native corporations that have community responsibilities; there is very little private, individual land ownership in the state.  Similarly, in Tanzania, all land is owned by the government; individuals and private interests can obtain 33-, 66- or 99-year leases, but they cannot own land outright.  As a result, traditional Nature Conservancy strategies that involve acquisitions of land or conservation easements on land are relatively ineffective in Alaska and Tanzania.  Conservation strategies need to be more focused on public policy and land use management.  This affords a good opportunity for TNC's science-based approach to conservation to shine.

In both areas, indigenous populations are understandably sensitive to a political history that has involved explicit and implicit forms of colonialism, including racism.  Accordingly, any approach to land use policy must be highly collaborative and community based.  An NGO like The Nature Conservancy must work in partnership with local and indigenous representatives.  Environmental justice issues need to be at the forefront of any conservation project.

This blog has often celebrated the great land migrations that occur in Alaska, especially that of the Porcupine caribou herd.  As the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service notes, this particular herd “migrates hundreds of miles from winter ranges located south of the Brooks Range in Alaska, and from areas in Yukon Territory, to its traditional calving grounds on the Arctic Refuge's coastal plain and foothills. …  Biologists have discovered, by using satellites to track caribou, that the herds actually travel much farther than the straight-line distance between summer and winter ranges would indicate. They move to and fro over a wide area, adding many miles to their journeys.  Porcupine Caribou herd animals, for example, have been observed to travel over 3000 miles per year.”

Similarly, in Tanzania, a great migration occurs on the Serengeti Plains straddling Tanzania and Kenya.  Instead of caribou, the primary animals on the move are wildebeest and zebras.  Every year, more than a million wildebeest, zebra and antelope migrate clockwise around the Serengeti/Masai Mara ecosystem.  We had the opportunity to observe what easily amounted to tens of thousands of these animals, especially wildebeest, on our recent trip, which included a few days in the Serengeti.

In addition, conservation in both Alaska and Tanzania needs to consider international political cooperation.  This is also like Michigan, which I wrote about in a previous post.  There, Great Lakes conservation needs to coordinate efforts among two national governments, seven states and several provinces.  In Tanzania, Lake Tanganyika lies on the western boundary of the country and is also bordered by Burundi, Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo, so international cooperation and joint policies are critical to conservation success. 

Effective conservation in Alaska needs to coordinate with Canada.  Consider the Tongass National Forest, which together with Canada's Great Bear, constitutes the largest temperate rainforest in the world, extending from southeast Alaska all the way to northern Washington.  

Or consider the arctic, where the Porcupine caribou do not stop for passport control as they migrate across the border.  Similarly, the Gwich'in, an indigenous people who rely on caribou for cultural, spiritual and subsistence values, span the border.  Gwich'in communities in both Canada and Alaska refer to the the birthing grounds of the Porcupine herd on the Coastal Plain of the Arctic Refuge as “Iizhik Gwats’an Gwandaii Goodlit,” or “the sacred place where life begins.” 

And the greatest threat to habitats in Alaska comes from global climate change, where circumpolar, and even more broadly international, policies and actions are needed.

Here are my two key observations about Alaska and Tanzania:

 First, both areas have large landscapes, teeming with wildlife, that are special in the world and deserving of our care and attention.

Second, in both places, these ecosystems are still largely intact; while they have challenges, it is not too late in either case to preserve them for our children and grandchildren – indeed, for all posterity.  

We have a unique opportunity to get it right the first time.