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See the Forest of Cooperation for the Trees

Fort Worth Star-Telegram
BY JOE NICK PATOSKI
May 19, 2003

The first shot marking a new phase in the great American environmental war was fired last week -- in Fort Worth, of all places. But hardly anyone heard it.

A two-day writers workshop titled "Beyond Command and Control" -- sponsored by Environmental Defense and the Sand County Foundation of Madison, Wis., and hosted by Ramona Bass -- was largely ignored by the Texas media, other than the five outdoors writers who attended the conference and me.

It's understandable. On the surface of it, there isn't much newsworthy about 40 people getting together to hash over land use, endangered species, law and human interaction with nature, topped off by a tour of the Texas Wild! exhibit at the Fort Worth Zoo led by Bass.

But the mere fact that landowners and greens were engaging in dialogue to develop consensus about land, water, wildlife and the environment rather than yelling at one another other was not just news -- it was downright earthshaking.

Ten years ago, the Endangered Species Act, which originally was intended to identify, protect and save rare birds, fish, animals and insects, was having precisely the opposite effect.

Landowners who had endangered species on their property were being punished with onerous rules, regulations and restrictions rather than being recognized for harboring unique plants and animals.

Many Texas landowners felt so threatened by the heavy-handed enforcement of the act that they summarily denied federal and state biologists access to their property out of fear that endangered species would be found and some bureaucrat would step in to tell them how they could or couldn't manage their own land. Some went so far as to kill rare birds and destroy their habitat.

Similarly, whenever a green organization such as Environmental Defense saw a problem, the first reaction was to "Sue the bastards," as Fred Krupp, Environmental Defense's president, explained at the workshop.

Those attitudes defined the old rules of engagement. Today, it's a far different story.

Environmental Defense, having recognized the pitfalls of wielding a heavy hammer to instigate change, has taken the lead in developing "Safe Harbor" agreements that reward landowners for having endangered species rather than penalizing them.

Several landowners, including Dr. Rickey Fain from Glen Rose and Bob Long of Bastrop, testified how such agreements and cooperative efforts among landowners, environmentalists and regulators have worked to protect endangered species including the black-capped vireo and the Houston toad.

That mirrors the philosophy articulated by Aldo Leopold, the Wisconsin conservationist who inspired the creation of the Sand County Foundation by championing personal responsibility and individual stewardship as the most effective means of preserving and protecting the environment.

A news conference was held during the workshop to announce Environmental Defense's $1 million investment in a partnership with the Sand County Foundation to create the Leopold Stewardship Fund.

The money is already being spread among 14 landowner groups dealing with endangered species across the country.

Landowner incentives ring especially loud and clear in Texas, which is home to more animal species than any other state in the nation, and which happens to be 97 percent privately owned.

The sometimes not-so-subtle message tucked into the $40 million Texas Wild! recreation of the state's regions and its wildlife is that private property owners are conservationists, too, and despite the doom-and-gloom message that humans are destroying the environment, there's plenty of reason to have hope.

The message reflects the beliefs of Bass and her husband, a former commissioner of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department.

The Basses own tens of thousands of acres. My family owns less than 10.

Ramona Bass and her husband are avid hunters. I prefer observing wildlife to shooting at it.

But when it comes to describing the flight of a caracara, knowing why side oats grama is good and guinea grass is bad, and appreciating the subtle beauty of the South Texas brush country, we are equals in our passion.

We both recognize that it is in the best interest of Texas and Texans to care about land, water and wildlife -- especially in the current climate of budget cuts and an administration that has been less than enthusiastic when it comes to environmental matters.

In the long run, Congress and the Legislature are not the places to seek answers. If you own it, it's yours to take care of, no matter how big or how small the parcel of land.

The responsibility of stewardship goes hand in glove with property rights. Cooperation trumps confrontation -- especially when the natural world we all live in is at stake.

To pull it all off also will take a leader much like Lady Bird Johnson, who helped beautify America with wildflowers.

Are you listening, Mrs. Bass?

[Fort Worth Star-Telegram]


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