Take Back Conservation


In my 35 years as a conservationist, I have never beheld such a bleak and dreary situation as I see today. The evidence for my dismay falls into three categories: the state of Nature, the power of anticonservationists, and appeasement and weakness within the conservation and environmental movements. None of this is reason for shrugging our shoulders and giving up, however. The bleakness we face is all the more reason to stand tall for our values and to not flinch in the good fight. But it is important for us to understand the parts and pieces of our predicament, so we might find ways to do better.

The State of Nature

I’ve just authored a book, Rewilding North America (Island Press, 2004; see book review in this issue [of the International Journal of Wilderness]), which goes into considerable detail describing and analyzing the Seven Ecological Wounds that drive the Sixth Great Extinction, which is the fundamental fact and problem in the world today. Around the world, direct killing of wildlife, habitat destruction, habitat fragmentation, loss of ecological processes, invasion by exotic species and diseases, ecosystem pollution, and catastrophic climate change are worsening. We six-and-a-half-billion too-clever apes are solely to blame (Lovejoy 1980; Wilson 1992; Leakey and Lewin 1995). Duke University ecologist Stuart Pimm (2001) has shown in careful detail how humans are now taking 42% of Earth’s net primary productivity (NPP). As we add half again as many people in the next few decades, how much NPP will we be gobbling up? How much will be left for the other several million species with which we share Earth? Despite impressive successes here and there, the overall state of Nature continues to decline. This is simple reality, despite the scolding we hear not to be doom-and-gloomers.

Power of the Anticonservationists

In the United States, the federal government has become the sworn enemy of conservation. Not only have the corporate toadies running the presidency and Congress stopped any progress for the conservation and restoration of Nature, they are dedicated to overthrowing the 20th century’s legacy of conservation and environmental policy and programs. They are unabashedly trying to go back to the unfettered, uncaring era of the robber barons in the late 19th century. This revolution is both philosophical and practical (Pope and Rauber 2004). Bad as this is, the radical right is also dedicated to shredding science, particularly biology, and time-traveling back to before the Enlightenment.

While the United States is an extraordinary political case, elsewhere some of the supposedly most civilized nations on the planet, such as Canada, Norway, and Japan, are again waging 19th-century crusades against wild Nature: frontier-forest mining, slaughter of troublesome animals (such as seals, wolves, bears), and commercial whaling, just for starters. Japanese, European, Chinese, and American businesses are looting the last wild places for timber, pulp, wildlife, minerals, and oil, opening up such places to further habitat destruction and bushmeat hunting by local people.

Although the radical-right control of the U.S. presidency and Congress was gained by a very small margin in 2004 (no mandate), it is backed by powerful and popular forces and by a shocking descent into prescientific irrationality by large sections of the public.

Appeasement and Weakness in the Conservation and Environmental Movements

Efforts to protect wild Nature and to clean up pollution face internal subversion from the right and left that leads to deep compromises not only on policies but also on fundamental principles. We can stuff these calls to back off into several boxes, including sustainable development, resourcism, Nature deconstruction, politically correct progressivism, and anthropocentric environmentalism—which I combine under the umbrella of enviro-resourcism.

First, some brief definitions: conservation or Nature conservation is the movement to protect and restore wildlands and wildlife (Nature for its own sake); resourcism or resource conservation is the resource-extraction ideology of multiple-use/sustained yield as practiced by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies around the world (Nature for people); environmentalism is the campaign to clean up pollution for human health and make cities livable (the ”built” environment for people). When they turn their attention to Nature, environmentalists can be either conservationists or resourcists. I call those environmentalists with a resourcist approach to wild Nature enviro-resourcists.

Internationally since the 1980s, conservation efforts to protect wildlands and habitat by means of national parks, game reserves, and other protected areas have been undermined as financial-aid agencies, and even some top international conservation groups have shifted to promoting so-called sustainable development and community-based conservation over protected areas. Dutch botanist Marius Jacobs warned the IUCN against this approach in 1983 but went unheeded (Jacobs 1983). Although these approaches are sometimes sound conservation tactics, in practice they have elbowed Nature into second place (Oates 1999; Terborgh 1999; Soulè 2000/2001). This establishment undercutting of Nature conservation has been aided by the leftist passion of some anthropologists and other social engineers to reject protected areas in favor of indigenous extractive reserves and land redistribution for peasants. Shockingly, criticism of protected areas rides high in the pages even of Conservation Biology (Terborgh 2005), and sustainable development gains more and more adherents in resource management graduate schools and large “conservation” organizations. In some circles “conservation” is seen as a poverty alleviation tool, not as a way to protect wild species and habitats. Some members of the academic left have become deconstructors of Nature, denying that it independently exists, proclaiming that we invent it; therefore there is no reason to protect it (Soulè and Lease 1995; Vale 2002). Right-wing advocates of resource extraction glom onto the arguments of the wilderness deconstructionists (Whitlock and Knox 2002).

Pressured from the left and right during the last 25 years, conservation and environmental organizations worldwide have moved away from forthright calls for zero population growth, even though human overpopulation is the underlying cause of all conservation and environmental problems (Kolankiewicz and Beck 2001; Ryerson 1998/1999). We hear a growing drumbeat that there is a dearth of births and that developed nations face economic collapse because of fewer young people (Longman 2004). Conservationists and environmentalists stand silent in the face of this cornucopian madness. Similarly, the conservation and environmental movements in general shy away from acknowledging the reality of human-caused mass extinction. If we don’t even clearly state the problem, how can we do anything about it?

We can also see a shift in the United States from conservation to resourcism among several prominent and influential entities. Once the preeminent conserver of biological diversity, The Nature Conservancy (TNC) has been steadily moving to a resourcist approach. They talk now of “working timberlands and ranches,” a fancy euphemism for logging and livestock grazing, and insist that their employees talk about people instead of Nature (Weigel 2004). Nonetheless, TNC also continues to protect priceless hotspots of biodiversity.

I am particularly concerned about the strengthening whip hand enviroresourcists hold over the conservation movement. Enviro-resourcists are generally progressive-movement professionals who believe that conservation should be about people, not Nature. They are found among staff and board members of grant makers, consulting and training groups that help conservation groups with “organizational effectiveness,” media consultants watering down the messages of conservation groups, new leaders and staff members of conservation groups motivated by ambition and lacking a gut feeling for wilderness, and in the ranks of anthropologists and other social scientists working for poverty alleviation. With a crowbar of financial support and organizational control, enviro-resourcists break into conservation groups and push them, including grassroots wilderness groups, into enviro-resourcism in these ways: (1) downplay Nature-forits-own-sake values in favor of economic and other anthropocentric values as the reason for conservation; (2) replace strict protected areas, such as wilderness areas and national parks, with sustainable development, ecosystem management, “working” ranches, and extractive reserves; (3) “retire Cassandra” or downplay doom-andgloom in favor of smiley-face optimism; (4) negotiate with other “stakeholders,” including anticonservationists, for “win-win” compromises for land management; (5) get measurable results, including the designation of new wilderness areas and other protected areas, even if they represent a net loss of wildness, and then proclaim unvarnished victory—Canadians seem particularly good at this (Paquet 2005); and (6) emphasize the health of the organization over its mission. Not all enviro-resourcists push all of these approaches.

Such enviro-resourcists are aided and abetted internationally on the political right by international funding institutions such as the World Bank and corporations, and by United Nations agencies.

Several bright young men have gained a disturbing amount of attention with their recent speeches about the “death” of environmentalism. Insofar as they consider Nature protection at all, they demand that conservationists drop their priorities to focus on social justice and other anthropocentric progressive causes. Overall, they call on environmental organizations to essentially go out of business and just become part of the progressive wing within the Democratic Party (Werbach 2004; Shellenberger and Nordhaus 2004). In the United States, the overwhelming identification of environmentalism with the progressive movement and the Democratic Party is a key reason that it lacks credibility with much of the American public.

Just as there has been a worrisome shift in attitudes among large segments of the public, so have there been troubling changes among members of the conservation public. To be blunt, many of the employees and activists with conservation groups are ignorant of our history and have not read the classic books of conservation. There is a stunning lack of intellectual curiosity in the movement. On the whole, staff and leaders of radical-right groups both read and think more than do conservationists and environmentalists (interestingly, most of the criticism of an earlier version of this paper was directed at this claim). As far as outdoor recreation goes, young people, who once would have been hikers and backpackers, now seek thrills on mountain bikes and thus cut themselves off from experiencing true wilderness and from having self-interest in protecting roadless areas. I don’t see kids out messing around in little wild patches; they’re inside, plugged in to a virtual reality.

Take Back the Conservation Movement

These are trends. Of course there are exceptions. There are true-blue conservationists in all of the outfits I mentioned above, including land- and wildlife-managing agencies. And I’m limited by available space from backing up my warnings and assertions. Dwelling on the exceptions, though, keeps us from doing something about the real problems. I’m not doing “nuance” here. This sober, unapologetic cataloging of the array of problems Nature conservationists face is, however, the first step in developing a more effective strategy for Nature lovers to take back the conservation movement, which I believe is essential for halting or at least lessening the destruction of wild Nature. Other steps include the following:

  • Recognize the differences between resourcism, environmentalism, and conservation. Seeing the protection and restoration of wildlife and wildlands as a separate conservation movement will eliminate confusion and allow Nature lovers to focus on our priorities.
  • Overcome the “environmentalist stereotype.” In the United States, environmentalists and conservationists are stereotyped as part of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, urban, politically correct, vegan, and antihunting. Whether or not certain conservationists fit into this stereotype is irrelevant. The stereotype discourages many who would otherwise support conservation measures from supporting conservation groups. Similar “greenie” stereotypes plague conservationists outside the United States.
  • Proudly proclaim the basic values of Nature conservation. Don’t be shy about saying, “I love wilderness and big cats!” Our distinguishing field mark is that we cannot live without wild things, that we try to protect snow leopards, whales, ivory-billed woodpeckers, and their habitats for their own sakes, not for specific benefits to humans. Celebrating the intrinsic value of all life-forms and the magnificent process that has brought all this diversity into being is the bedrock of the conservation mind (Leopold 1949; Ehrenfeld 1981; Naess 1986; Foreman 1991). So long as we do not hide our fidelity to the intrinsic value of other species, it is acceptable to use utilitarian arguments in favor of protected areas and other conservation measures. We should also encourage sustainable use of resources in areas that are no longer wild.
  • Recognize that the outstanding problem is human-caused mass extinction, and its driving cause is the human population explosion, revved up by rising affluence, technology, and globalization. Although many organizations at all levels work to protect and restore threatened and endangered species, few forthrightly talk about the human-caused Sixth Great Extinction. Indeed, were a poll taken, I doubt that most members of conservation groups would show awareness of mass extinction or rate it as the highest priority. The retreat of resourcist, environmental, and conservation groups from calling for population stabilization as we did 30 years ago is perhaps the most astonishing and shameful deed in our history. Conservationists need to be seized by how growing human populations cause the loss of species and the degradation of habitats (Crist 2003).
  • Be strong and unwavering in protecting and restoring wild Nature. Nearly everyone wants to be a player, to rub shoulders with the rich and powerful. The cost of doing so, however, is to water down your views, to hide your emotions and outrage, and to wink at self-serving resource industries playing good guys at international conservation conferences. Conservationists need not be rude, but we do need to be honest and forthright.
  • Defend strict protected areas as “the most valuable weapon in our conservation arsenal” (Soulè and Wilcox 1980). Conservation biologists and conservation activists have long seen protected areas, the stricter the better, as the centerpiece of conservation (Nash 1967; Noss et al. 1999). Many now embrace the “rewilding” approach to protected area design: restoration of missing carnivores and other ecologically effective species; protection of large roadless core protected areas; and identifying and protecting important linkages for the movement of wildlife and natural ecological processes (Soulè and Noss 1998; Foreman et al. 2000; Ray et al. 2005).
  • Strategically redirect conservation funding to build a powerful movement for the long run (Lavigne and Orr 2004). Over the last 40 years, the radical right has directed hundreds of millions of dollars into funding think tanks, training young activists, supporting leaders and organizations for the long term, and underwriting books and lectures. Resource extraction industries and ideological opponents of public lands and conservation have been mainstays of that funding. The radical right has been disciplined about thinking and acting for the long term; we have failed in part because we do not have a long-term strategy to which we stick. Conservation funders are often fickle and fund short-term projects with measurable results. They have not built the movement by backing ideas, leaders, books, lectures, and so on.
  • Encourage intellectualism within the conservation movement. Sad to say, the opponents of conservation have been better funded to build an intellectual basis for doing away with land and wildlife protection. Numerous hard-right think tanks with good funding have developed new ideas and strategic plans to kneecap conservation, and they have taught their “children” well. Conservation funders have ignored think tanks and the intellectual needs of the conservation movement. Young conservation staffers are generally not well-read and are unfamiliar with the lore and history of conservation. It is a priority to give them the intellectual grounding to be better leaders.
  • Reach out to the political mainstream, including moderate Republicans and their counterparts in other countries. Conservation will fail if it confines itself to the left. By only modestly strengthening our support among moderate Republicans or their counterparts elsewhere, close votes in Congress and parliaments could go our way. For example, in the fall of 2005, a handful of brave House Republican moderates killed plans for oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Conservationists need to fold our ideas and projects into the language of traditional conservatism: prudence, piety, posterity, responsibility, and antimaterialism (Bliese 2001).
  • Proclaim and work for a vision that is bold, practically achievable, scientifically credible, and hopeful. Ask the public if we have the generosity of spirit, the greatness of heart to share Earth with other species and wild places. A movement is not made strong simply by opposing its foes. Conservation needs a big, bold, hopeful vision that can grab people in their hearts, an overarching vision into which all our efforts can fit. Continental-scale rewilding networks, such as the North American Wildlands Network, can do this (Soulè and Noss 1998; Soulè and Terborgh 1999; Foreman 2004).

These are just a few of the steps conservationists need to climb if we are to take back our movement from enviro-resourcists and to boldly tackle the forces of ecological destruction.

In December of 1776, the American Revolution was in its darkest hour. In response, Tom Paine wrote his first “Crisis” paper:

These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.

General Washington had the paper read to his miserable, disheartened troops in their frozen winter camps. There was no surrender. Years of hard battle lay ahead but victory was gained (Fast 1945).

We need Tom Paine conservationists in our dark hour. Let us not apologize for loving wild Nature, for caring about other species, for speaking the truth. Reach out to others. Make deals when they are good deals. But let us not be frightened and browbeaten into appeasement. Let us instead offer a bold, hopeful vision for how wilderness and civilization can live together, and be unyielding in defending and restoring wild Nature and standing up for the idea and reality of wilderness areas and other protected areas.


Adapted from the Introduction to Foreman’s Myth(s) of the Environmental Movement forthcoming in 2006. Myth(s) will develop these thoughts and others in greater detail. Thanks to Rewilding Institute Fellows for comments on this paper.


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