Expanding the conservation tent

As I wrote my recent article for High Country News, I felt torn. Like many conservationists, I value biodiversity and natural ecosystems for their own sake, regardless of any tangible benefit they provide to humanity. That’s the argument for saving nature that conservation icons going back more than 100 years have made to help protect America’s wilderness, parks, and wildlife –and the argument that has captivated millions of us for generations.

When so-called “new conservationists” began arguing for a shift in the conservation agenda towards projects that provide ecosystem services and economic benefits, traditional conservationists lashed out, fearing such approaches would only hasten the Earth’s demise. You can read about the debate — and how so much of conservation boils down to values – – in my January 19 article for High Country News.

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Photo from http://www.flickr.com/photos/craigalberthyatt/

In practice, conservation has always embraced both sets of values; that is, preserving wild places for their intrinsic, even sacred, value and restoring ecosystems for clean water, timber, or other services and products that benefit civilization. As I researched and wrote my article it became clear to me that, going forward, we can’t afford to choose just one set over the other. Surveys conducted on behalf of The Nature Conservancy show that intrinsic arguments work for many Democrats, but economic arguments for protecting nature appeal more to minorities, Independents and Republicans. I’m not suggesting this is about appealing to the far right. Rather, it’s about appealing to a broader demographic that reflects the new reality of a changing America.

Wishing everyone shared our personal values won’t save the planet.  Instead, perhaps the mantra for the 21st century should be “conservation for all.”

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