Not long ago I had the honor of sitting with members of several non-governmental organizations concerned with land conservation, specifically with purchasing easements to protect valuable habitat. This was not the sort of meeting that libertarians and republicans could find much of a problem with—we were discussing practical purchasing of land or development rights, not regulation or restriction (That said, I am sure that any such meeting will inspire some to think otherwise—and for that reason, I will leave the names out of it). Representatives of activist groups were conspicuously absent. The major thrust of the meeting was finding a way to coordinate dwindling and waning resources, of coordinating what are currently disconnected conservation efforts—could individual organizations create an impact greater than the sum their parts? That I was there was interesting in itself, since I am not primarily concerned with conservation easements. I was there because I spend time in the smaller communities helping them to express their voice; I was there to reflect the mood on the ground, and to identify what people felt were local priorities. This was a nuts and bolts group—concerned with listening to communities.
That it had not happened sooner is embarrassing in some ways, but the advent of this happening represents two major shifts. First, it represents the maturing of our region—an understanding that in this realm there are seriously threatened habitats and priorities for conservation that are widely shared. While there are always some people who want to protect the view from their living room window, this was a group of people who understood that there are both biological and cultural reasons for choosing one project over another. Second, it acutely codifies the changes in our economy: there are simply fewer dollars for conservation in the private and public sector. We all want to achieve lofty aims, and we can no longer attempt to do it on our own, we must collaborate. If priorities are shared it is easier to direct what are ever scarcer dollars.
It was not so long ago, however, that several of us were quietly at odds over the early drafts of Washington County Growth and Conservation Act. In a climate of hyper-development and mistrust several of us in the room had opposed that act for the amount of land that it would sell out of the public trust: 25,000 acres. I, among others, could rattle off statistics about the proportion of the land in relationship to the developed area of the County. To us it seemed that it was all development, and no conservation. For my own part, I pleaded that we plan for the future before we dispose of that much land. In the end it all seemed like a victory to me. The disposal was reduced to under 5000 acres, and the County sponsored Vision Dixie—a County wide planning process that laid the ground work for a lot of progress in the County.
Yet, in the face of a collapsing economy, the sale of 5000 acres may not even yield enough money to purchase inholdings in a National Conservation Area created in the bill—much less be able to fund any other conservation effort. While the designations of wilderness and “Wild and Scenic Rivers” made by the act are supremely important, I can see that the climate of mistrust that surrounded the earlier drafts obscured a more subtle possibility: that a well crafted bill could have facilitated the purchase of critical habitat and riparian areas in exchange for the sale of tracts of public land with lower conservation value. I do see the other side of the equation: alarm on the part of the general public at the potential development near their town in exchange for a piece of habitat they never see. That is a much more nuanced version of what many of us were reacting too.
It was a gap in my own imagination that I did not see the intricate relationship between habitat conservation and community planning. While we like to believe that good community planning leads to habitat conservation and vice versa, working on one side of the balance sheet and not the other inevitably obscures some inherent conflicts between local aims, and the larger biological and hydrological systems that surround us. Our communities disproportionately occupy lands of high conservation value: land adjacent to rivers and tributaries, lower grasslands that animals prefer as habitat. We all like to look up at unmarred hillsides and mountain tops, but we forget that animals like the more habitable low lands as much as we do, and that we often occupy or desire to occupy what is the best habitat.
It is in the flood planes and among the dry-washes doomed to be constrained by culverts that I feel the greatest pain—where I wish that we had the conservation dollars to buy multiple small scale easements in order to create a biological and hydrological infrastructure that laces through our communities and binds them together. Many people in small communities wish for something similar, except that they can not see a pathway to getting there. There are efforts afoot—a project to create a land bank in St. George specifically tasked with this sort of protection. It is something I whole heartedly support. At the same time, The natural infrastructure I am speaking about reaches far beyond one city, and even one County.
The next key step in my mind is a coordinated effort that looks at building the larger network of rivers, washes and streams—agricultural lands and flood planes—into something meaningful at the scale of the region. Whether in exchange for other developable land or for simple fee compensation, it is an effort we must undertake. Doing so will mean that citizens need to look beyond their front door and living room window. It will mean understanding that habitat is everywhere, especially beneath our own feet and in our own towns. If we work together to develop a broader vision—one that respects the needs of property owners while promoting real conservation, all of our communities will benefit.