I Know We Can Make It: Clinging To Conservation Progress In Hard Times

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We often think that the future of biodiversity conservation depends on efforts applied across large landscapes. And that makes sense, since it is at scale that many key ecological and evolutionary processes take place. Unfortunately, the current US presidential administration has dismissed science as a relevant field, which threatens landscape conservation cooperatives and ecoregion-based planning. The result may be multiple losses. Without federal guidance and support, the US might reduce identification of additional core conservation areas, network responsiveness to the changing climate, assessment of vulnerability to land-use change, or integration of social constraints with biodiversity and ecosystem-service goals.

With this kind of dismal forecast, it’s sometimes hard to remember that today’s innovations in cleantech-related industries didn’t even exist 10 years ago. Yes, we’re at a place in time in which we’re trying to anchor distributed energy sources into our power systems through efficient storage, aggregation, and management. Challenges are rife, however, for towns and states to meet renewable energy goals while also working alongside local and state conservation efforts. Think of it — the recent loss of treasured national monuments. The US withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords. The executive office avoidance of fossil fuel emissions reduction necessities.

Our national agenda right now seems to reject the vital work of all kinds of people who understand anthropogenic climate change and want to do what they can to protect the planet.

Rather than feeling as if we’re in a murky bog, however, conservationists can look to the last decades and the hundreds of successes we’ve accumulated. Conservation research and planning projects. Public outreach efforts. Environmental reports. Longitudinal data. New methodologies to integrate climate-change science into land and water protection plans.

Yes, there has been great progress, and we need to maintain hope.


Gus Seelig, executive director, Vermont Housing and Conservation Board (YHCB) suggested this frame of looking at conservation during his keynote speech at the 2018 RI Land & Water Conservation Summit. The lessons imparted at this conference, which has informed and educated regional conservationists for 15 years, can offer guidance to all persons interested in climate change and conservation advocacy.

“For those committed to conservation, the national agenda is a big issue,” Seelig admitted. “To believe in science now is to do something radical. Sometimes with common decency, we are radical. We can do some good things in hard times,” he affirmed, drawing on the community building lessons he’s gained through 30 years of conservation advocacy. “Perseverance. Keeping at it. Talking to folks.”

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The dual goals of YHCB are to create affordable housing for Vermonters while also conserving and protecting Vermont’s agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas, and recreational lands. All of these are of primary importance to every community’s economic vitality and quality of life. In part, these goals are achieved by the YHCB through the purchase of conservation easements on farmland that preserves Vermont’s working landscape — the open farm fields, woodlands, and farmsteads that comprise the third largest sector in the state’s economy and help attract the visitors that make tourism the largest economic sector.

In Vermont and elsewhere, conservation programs balance sustainable use with protecting critical ecosystems. Conservation models can create lasting change in how land, freshwater, and coastal marine ecosystems are managed. Healthy ecosystems offer food and clean water, supply medicines, and raw materials to support people and communities for generations to come.

With this backdrop, Seelig suggested that conservationists should continue to push efforts to:

  • Ensure farm and forest viability, such as creating science field sites for education;
  • Be stewards for water and soil quality;
  • Affirm resilience through renewable energy and changing farm configurations;
  • Consider passive housing architecture and net zero energy capable public housing;
  • Create options to purchase agricultural value-added easements;
  • Celebrate farm to plate programs that enhance diversified agriculture;
  • Increase discourse about food systems and hubs while increasing access to local foods;
  • Help legacy farmers to expand and reinvent their markets and products;
  • Promote linked, protected conservation spaces — open fields, forests, lake, trails; and,
  • Advocate for taxes for land purchases, which can attract national attention.

conservation“It’s been important for all of us to think about changes,” Sellig said. “I don’t think it’s ever been when we haven’t had to keep our shoulders to the stone. Each family has its own dynamics, and every conservation group has its own particular features.” Thus, recognizing and celebrating different conservation approaches strengthens all our efforts.

Spending money on land trusts and associated planning will “be tougher in coming years” due to “our national mood,” he allowed. However, partnerships with local officials who know that “it’s better to invest in smart growth not sprawl” will develop goodwill and speak to communities in ways that are persuasive.

“What difference might it have made if we had created solar incentives with the coal communities?” he mused. He implored conservationists to point to “multiple community needs,” as conservation in communities can be “excellent,” and, yet, “perpetuity is a long time. Perpetuity can be a national debate.”

Issues that have not been part of the national environmental discourse in the past several years may now need to be resuscitated, due to their constant pressing needs and importance:

  • Conservation commitment;
  • Building community capacity;
  • Investing in partnerships;
  • Assisting people who work the land;
  • Embracing multiple definitions of public open spaces;
  • Remembering that conservation is economic development;
  • Reframing land conservation as supporting health communities; and,
  • Maintaining flexible approaches to accomplishing important goals.

Cultivating Local Support Creates ‘Co-Conspirators in Goodwill’


With the right tools to use, conservationists can bring practical strategies to their communities. Grassroots conservation organizations play a central role in protecting waterways, open spaces, farms, and historic vistas. Yet each community-based conservation organization brings strengths and moves us forward toward common goals. Each depends on local advocates who understand the issues in their community and can cultivate local support for their work.”We need to engage with people with whom we disagree,” Sellig suggested. “Let’s be co-conspirators in goodwill.”

State economic development can see housing and conversation as companions, for example, which can infuse funding for conservation. Having a dedicated fund creates a starting place for additional donors. Philanthropic gifts are often matched with lots of local fundraising. State funds might augment national funds.

Partnerships make conservation possible. “Flexibility is essential,” Sellig smiled in a reminder to each of us of how patience empowers others.

Getting others involved is the beginning.

Photo by pbalcer on Foter.com / CC BY-SA/

Photo by bellemarematt on Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Substack: https://carolynfortuna.substack.com/.

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