A winter landscape
Photo: Nellie Vin

A huge shift is occurring in the social consensus regarding the protection and productivity of natural resources.

The necessary transition from exploitation to sustainability, if successful, will result in a transformation of human purpose and expectations as momentous and far-reaching as the evolution of our species from hunter/gatherers to agriculturists. Balancing human accounts with Nature’s budget is every bit as essential to our survival as it may be difficult to fully realize.

The North American experience of the past several hundred years has clearly demonstrated the limited capacity of the land, air and waters to fulfill the constant demand of economic habits founded on an ever-advancing frontier, unmanaged growth, and constant profit. We are running out of the free and easy resources that supported and fueled this nation’s expansion, its excesses and its unparalleled power.

Looming scarcities, combined with factors such as climate change, population growth, the highest per capita consumption rates in the world, and the growing antagonism of many of the world’s less privileged peoples, are driving our country toward a future where Nature and most of the rest of the world’s inhabitants will be calling in our debits and demanding a new kind of economic and environmental justice from the United States.

And yet, there is very little attention being paid to the inevitability of this all-encompassing process, and to the reality that whether we, as a nation, participate in this shift voluntarily and with intent, or whether we are forced into it by far-flung reactions to new forms of poverty, subjugation and conflict, our survival as a people and as a nation is becoming an extremely critical issue.

Johnny Sundstrom, the author, on his family’s ranch in Oregon’s Coast Range.

Comments and positions espoused by the candidates for national office during this year’s election season have been nearly silent on the issues of natural resource management, agency budgeting, and the challenge of re-directing the focus of our assistance to the privately held, working lands of this country. When statements concerning the future of policy and management relating to so-called “environmental issues” are put forth, they are usually limited to a discussion of public lands use and preservation, farm subsidies, alternative energy or pollution caps.

The Republicans pledge to continue rolling back regulations they see as harmful to the marketplace. Democrats promise increased protection and set-asides.

The choice seems to be between more perks or more parks.

No candidate addressed the necessity of and opportunity for managing the nation’s land and water resources in the pursuit of production and protection in this era of global impacts, emerging national shortfalls and inter-locking dependencies. And none of them advanced a programmatic platform for resolving the polarization, litigation and gridlock that characterize our national land use and landscape debates.

It is past time to call for the question in this critical arena. A serious and substantive “conservation conversation” must be initiated to transcend the diatribes and pendulum swings of the past decades.

Landowners and managers must be accorded the respect and roles they deserve as stewards of our nation’s basic resources and most of the landscape, private and public.

Responsible agencies must seek out, create and implement clearer mandates for their activities.

The urban population of land-poor, but vote-rich consumers, must accept responsibility for the excessive impact of their livelihoods as they affect, define and limit the options that will be available for the future.

If we cannot develop dialogue and consensus in these matters, our hitherto rich and abundant natural bounties will waste away, dry up or disappear in the background as we continue to dally amidst futile exercises of confrontation and blame.

If our political leaders ignore or avoid the hard choices of balancing our transactions with nature through the restoration of a healthy resource base and an equalization of emphasis on harvest and habitat, there is little hope for any resolution of these divisive and destructive conflicts, and even an “ecological revolution” will be too little too late.

The key to this resolution of interests and objectives will lie in the private sector where individuals, families and corporations manage the value and embody the values of working lands’ assets and liabilities. The decisions they will make and the opportunities and threats that must be faced on a daily basis are the cornerstones of this fundamental recognition, and no amount of public land acquisition and lock-up will ultimately solve the growing crises of the planet’s health and society’s well-being.

Conservation and improved productivity, reinvestment instead of skyrocketing profits, and resource security now and in the future are today’s issues. Without the realization that even a high-tech consumer culture is based on the land, air and water it uses, and without a coherent approach to these matters, no president will succeed in redirecting the ship of state, and no Party will be much fun in a future of depletion and want.

Whether we are moved forward by choice or by necessity, our future and our impact on the world’s resources demand this great shift in consciousness from our nation and its leaders. Balancing our accounts with Nature requires that we adapt ourselves to its budget in order to protect its functional capacities and provide for the needs of generations.

Productivity and protection are both possible and essential. We are all the stewards of our homeland and the caretakers of our only habitat. Like justice and freedom, sustainability must become embodied among our nation’s hallowed ideals and the campaign to achieve it must engage us all.

Johnny Sundstrom lives in Deadwood, Oregon. He is the National Board member for Oregon for the National Association of Conservation Districts and is the founder of the Siuslaw Institute.

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