Missions and Niches, Part 3

In this Missions and Niches series, I have been writing about various approaches to conservation along what could be viewed as a sliding scale based on adversarial character, ranging from entirely consensual at one end to bitterly contested at the other.  I don’t wish to complicate the analysis, but you could also imagine a continuum that runs from private, market-based transactions to those that involve publicly owned assets and policy-oriented solutions.  

A traditional environmental action such as placing a conservation easement on farmland would fall at the consensual and private ends of the two spectrums, although even there the transaction might well be facilitated by a tax deduction provided by government.  Congressional debates about oil and gas development in the Arctic Refuge would tend toward the adversarial and public ends of the poles, although private financial interests are also at stake.

Another dimension is size – not only the number of acres involved, for example, but the scope of impact.  I would surmise that the size of impact is often correlated with public land use policy, because the resources involved are often at a large scale.  Take the Pebble mine, for example.  As the EPA noted in proposals released last week, the mine would involve digging almost as deep as the Grand Canyon and covering an area the size of Manhattan.  At the lowest end of the range of mine activities considered by the EPA, which would be a much smaller mine than what is actually contemplated, the agency concluded that development, construction and production activities could have unacceptable adverse effects both on the immediately affected fisheries and on those downstream as well.

Even without public lands being involved, however, the impacts of private activity can be enormous.  For example, in Nature’s Fortune, Mark Tercek and Jonathan Adams note that Dow Chemical has facilities that “consume vast amounts of water, so it owns large amounts of land along rivers and on coasts.  The company makes dozens of products that would be toxic or otherwise harmful to people, the environment, or both if accidentally spilled or released.  In short, Dow has an enormous environmental footprint.“

Historically, few people would think of Dow Chemical as a poster child for conservation.  But, given the size and strategic location of its landholdings, and the potential environmental consequences if things go wrong, maybe this thinking misses a key point and a real opportunity for conservation gains.  Perhaps working with companies like Dow to help them understand the science and make better decisions about their private land use is exactly what at least some conservation organizations should be doing.  Traditional environmentalists might shudder at the thought, but working with industrial corporations that have large environmental footprints may have benefits on a scale comparable to advocacy over public land use policy.

“For all its flaws, “ Mark Tercek writes, “capitalism has been an engine of innovation and improvement in the quality of life in many nations — and corporations are major drivers and shapers of today’s civilization. ...  In many of the places conservationists want to protect, the underlying threat is human demand for food, energy, space, and water.  Companies are the agents of this demand.  ...  How might these companies change their practices to achieve better environmental and business outcomes?  How might government create incentives for companies to invest in and protect nature rather than degrade it?”

Any NGO making a foray into partnering with industrial chemical or oil and gas companies needs to be clear-eyed about the objectives, rigorous in its science, and prepared to measure and evaluate results based on objective criteria.  Care also needs to be taken to avoid being co-opted or providing a green-washing cover for corporate self-interest.

But I would suggest that these are good and valid reasons to be cautious and dispassionate, not to reject the concept out of hand.

Furthermore, and this was the point of my second post in this series, it is important to recognize that not all conservation organizations need to follow the same path or occupy the same point on the multi-dimensional spectrums I described above.  As in many fields of human endeavor, variety is the spice of life.  How boring would it be, not to mention redundant and ultimately ineffective, if every organization took exactly the same approach to every environmental issue?

Some organizations, like Earthjustice and NRDC, will pursue highly adversarial litigation strategies.  Others, like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society and the Alaska Wilderness League, will promote policy initiatives using tactics ranging from public advocacy to outright lobbying.   And others, notably The Nature Conservancy, will promote collaborative, market-based solutions wherever possible, including developing rigorous science and working with corporate interests on large-scale projects when doing so can achieve important conservation goals.

On other occasions, TNC develops a knowledge base and uses it to advance public policy positions, again following a respectful and collaborative approach.  This has been the case, for example, with regard to the proposed development of the Pebble deposit in Bristol Bay which is worth a brief digression in light of the EPA's proposals put forward last week. 

As explained by Randy Hagenstein, TNC's state director for Alaska, the organization "first invested several years and several million dollars in better understanding the nature of the place: What areas are important for salmon? How are they connected? What role do water quality and flow play in salmon life cycles? What are the ways in which a large mine could change what salmon need to flourish?

"Based on this science, our Alaska Board of Trustees unanimously passed a resolution stating that a) large-scale mining currently presents an inappropriate risk to these globally significant salmon runs and b) that no activities should be permitted in these watersheds unless they meet a very high standard of development. We further outlined several criteria that should form the basis of that standard, including minimal impact to habitat and water flows, the use of technology to deal with acid mine drainage that had been proven effective at comparable sites and scales elsewhere, and mine closure that did not require perpetual active water treatment."

The proposals released by the EPA last week are broadly consistent with the policy approach outlined in the Alaska trustees' statement.

See the interview with Randy here.

There is room in the conservation community for many approaches, and all of them are important and necessary.  Let a thousand flowers bloom.

Read previous posts in this series:

Missions and Niches, Part 1

Missions and Niches, Part 2

For an excellent example of the science- and market-based projects at which The Nature Conservancy excels, see a description of its innovative work in Indonesia by clicking here.