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High Country News -- July 22, 1996 (Vol. 28, No. 13)

Keep it on the ground

Dear HCN,

I read with interest your issue featuring community-based approaches to conservation (HCN, 5/13/96). Mike McCloskey's essay illustrates the concerns of many since, in his view, locally based conservation would disempower the heavily urban constituencies of the Sierra Club, and by extension, other national environmental organizations.

That concern is perhaps the most compelling reason why environmental groups such as the Sierra Club should participate in local conservation initiatives. Up to now, environmentalists have been much more successful in defining the limits of development than in addressing what may be the key issue for environmentalists today: how development can be sustained economically, socially and environmentally.

The Ford Foundation, for some time now, has supported organizations and individuals who seek locally based solutions to the complex set of issues and challenges regarding conservation and management of natural resources. In much of the world where the foundation works, locally based approaches to conservation have served local people well; indigenous peoples in local communities have become the protectors and stewards of wild land from which traditionally they had been excluded.

Here in this country, federal lands are frequently a battleground where industries that seek to extract resources struggle for advantage over environmentalists who seek to preserve the land and its ecosystems. Often emotional, nearly always polarized, these debates play out with local communities caught in the middle, powerless as outside interests and experts make decisions regarding lands and resources on which community livelihoods depend. The emergence of locally based conservation in this country is a hopeful sign that new, positive relationships between human communities and their landscapes can be achieved to work toward mutually reinforcing environmental and development goals.

Jeffrey T. Olson New York, New York

The writer is a program officer at the Ford Foundation.

Postscripts from a Californian

Dear HCN,

Regarding the Quincy Library Group efforts described in HCN May 13, there are consequences to the Clinton administration's well-meaning decision to provide the promised $4.7 million to fund the library group's agreement. The funding was taken off the top of an already impoverished Region 5 resources budget. Range management programs which have never had adequate funding are now left without any field personnel in many areas. We have gained little if one important program collapses to support another.

One important statement by Quincy Library Group member Mike Jackson that "the forest is no longer a cash cow" fails to be understood by many forest residents. The U.S. Forest Service has often tried to provide everything to everybody - often to the detriment of the forest and its many resources.

And here's more information on the June 10 "Operation Bullsling" you reported, which removed feral cattle from the Ishi Wilderness. The Ishi was designated wilderness in recognition of its Native American historical values and unique California foothill ecosystem. The cattle were degrading the few watercourses and trampling archaeological sites. Since destroying the animals within the wilderness was not a feasible option for the Lassen National Forest, air-lifting the cows seemed worth the money.

Joan Benner Shaver Lake, California

Joan Benner is an employee of Sierra National Forest. Her opinions are her own, however.

Winning hearts and minds through local action

Dear HCN,

Sierra Club leader Michael McCloskey was correct when he told his board that community collaboration processes "have the effect of transferring influence to the very communities where we are least organized and potent." He went on to note that local environmentalists often lack experience, training, skills and money. (See HCN, 5/13/96.)

So what is the correct response? Opposition to "local control"? No! Instead, the Sierra Club, other national groups and foundations need to focus more of their resources on supporting those local environmental activists. The Sierra Club prides itself on being one of the few truly grassroots national environmental organizations, but too few of its members' dollars end up in the hands of the club's state chapters and local groups. I still belong to the club because we have a substantial and growing grassroots component, but it's simply insufficient.

I dropped my membership in Natural Resources Defense Council, despite their excellent publication, The Amicus Journal, and their solid record of accomplishment. They sent out information about their "new grassroots programs," but I did not believe them.

Opponents of "local control" correctly attack a long history of abuse of land and communities. How much of that abuse was from local people who callously disregarded the needs of the land and communities? How much came from simple, correctable ignorance? And what of the role of colonialism? Wasn't it the big corporations and financiers from "back East" who dealt many - perhaps most - of the serious blows to our ecosystems?

"Local folks" - human individuals - can learn and change because they have multiple values, including morals, ethics, religion, community, family and profit. In contrast, big corporations have only one value. Experience in my community has shown that the most serious threats have come from big interests from outside. Not that we locals do no harm, but it appears here that people with old, local roots have wreaked much less of the harm, and can change. I learned that with rancher Ken Spann, logger Buck Bailey, and motorcyclist Morrill Griffith, I can negotiate and even influence. With AMAX and Louisiana Pacific, I can only fight.

This extends to the government. I don't understand why my colleagues in Denver and Boulder place their hopes for good management with the Forest Service. I can think of only a few examples of wise decisions from that agency in the past 16 years of the Gunnison National Forest. The agency responds primarily to commands from D.C. And who controls D.C.? Big money. Money has a much smaller role in local elections.

The environmental movement has put too many of its eggs into the national basket, following power to Washington, D.C. Congress members are not elected in Washington, D.C. They are elected "back home," so lobbying is at best a secondary tactic. National laws and actions are critical, but require state and local implementation. It's a question of balance, and I believe in local influence, not local control.

So we in Gunnison County have devoted more attention to our county government. It's been a long, tough task with limited success. Our commissioners still inadequately protect wetlands, still spend unwisely, still can't get over their allegiance to the ideology of private property. But they have positively evolved, along with our local populace. We are gradually winning the hearts and minds of our people, and the county is slowly reflecting that change. Meanwhile, the Forest Service, well, they still serve up clearcuts to multinationals like Stone Container, despite local governments' opposition to big logging.

Opponents of "local control" seem to hope that the urban majority will eventually trounce the rural minority. But that has not worked and lacks compassion. The urban-dominance strategy legitimately provokes fear among rural people, for it implies that social forces will finally deny them their traditional occupations and pastimes. When the vision of the environmental leadership is simply to kick the commodity interests off the land, then we offer no economic hope to millions of people.

Gary Sprung Crested Butte, Colorado

The writer is president of the High Country Citizens' Alliance.