Where Science, Community, and Values Intersect

Where Science, Community, and Values Intersect

The success or failure of conservation across an area the size of Greater Yellowstone, or similar expanses anywhere in the world, ultimately rests with the people who live there. Yet more and more frequently the people on whom conservation will ultimately depend live not in cohesive communities, but separately and apart, without bonds of kinship and shared tradition holding them together. The loss of such social capital makes it ever harder for communities that value wild species and wild places to act on those values and provide a counterweight to powerful and entrenched political and economic interests whose values lie elsewhere.

Even where social capital is abundant, conservation has traditionally overlooked, intentionally or otherwise, the needs and values of the people who live near parks. Hence, a park becomes a challenge and an invitation to conflict. In almost all cases, however, the line that defines a park reflects human convenience rather than ecological necessity; the boundary will be illusory for creatures and often for humans, as well. The line remains a necessity, because in most places we now have no choice but to draw it and make a stand. But conservation does not have the troops to defend the parks if people decide not to value them. The sooner we reach the point where we no longer need to draw lines, or where we need to draw them only as a matter of administrative convenience, the more of Earth’s diversity we will be able to save.

While parks have always existed in dynamic physical landscapes, whether we recognized it or not, today they also exist within dynamic political and social landscapes. Successful conservation under those circumstances will require new appreciation for where science, community, and values intersect. They intersect when communities make value judgments about what to conserve and what to develop, with science as a guide to the consequences of their choices.

Engaging communities in decisions about the future of the land around them makes such evident sense that the power of the idea led some conservationists to get a bit overzealous in the early 1990s, deciding that community-based conservation was the only hope. The promise of the approach has not been realized, largely because simultaneously protecting animals and their habitats from some kinds of human use while allowing other uses has proven far more difficult than anyone imagined. The idea will not go away, however, because the people living on the edges of protected areas will not go away; in fact, there will be more of them. In some places, they form cohesive communities, and those communities can and should be more involved in conservation. In other places, community is far more elusive, and staking the future of conservation in those places on the hope that some common ground exists among hundreds or thousands of individuals with disparate values and desires is basically just wishful thinking.

The ethical and scientific foundations of national parks and the relationship of the parks to local communities should be subject to vigorous debate. In Las Cienegas both the community and conservation may be winners, but more often the creation of a park or protected area means someone wins and someone else loses. Who wins and who loses should be the subject of careful study. Unfortunately, nasty and unproductive debate often replaces sober analysis. Instead of engaging in a meaningful conversation about where and how to use or not use land, groups with vested interests in parks and protected areas have settled into what some conservation biologists call “a dialogue of the deaf.”

The debate should not be about parks per se, but rather about where parks will work; where they will not work; and the ecological, cultural, and political conditions that will make the difference. The answer to any question about setting aside land depends on what you are trying to protect, for how long, and where. Sometimes a small reserve will do the job just fine, so conservation planners need to consider wildlands on many scales, from the bog on the outskirts of town to a 10,000-square-mile reserve straddling the U.S.-Canada border, roomy enough for a population of grizzly bears that can thrive for centuries. Rather than searching in vain for universal rules for parks, we must learn all we can about each species, each landscape, each community. As Michael Soulé, a founder of conservation biology, told me, “The answer to every question in ecology is ‘It depends,’ or ‘I don’t know.’”

While no one concerned with conservation advocates eliminating national parks, the debate frequently reaches such a fever pitch that partisans call for everyone to choose sides—for parks or against them. The outcome of such a fight would be losses on all sides. Neither conservationists nor rural communities—whether in the rainforest or the American West or on the African savanna—have much economic or political power and would be far better off making common cause in defense of both biological and cultural diversity. Efforts to preserve one will sometimes mean diminishing the other, offering another incentive for taking a broad view that includes parks, industrial lands, and everything in between.

The challenge for conservation is to think big and think small—big enough to provide room for grizzly bears and elephants, but small enough hat human communities can play meaningful roles. Fundamental to any such effort is knowing what you are trying to conserve, knowing why you need to put that park or that bike trail or that housing development in one place and not another, and ultimately knowing what sort of a world we wish our descendants to inherit. The last is a question of ethics, but the first two are questions of science, for which we need a far more systematic approach to conservation than we have used so far. The answers will grow from thousands of breakfast table debates, a national and international dialogue.

Excerpted from Conservation for a New Generation, by Rick Knight and Courtney White, eds. Copyright © 2009 Island Press. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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