Conservation is an ecosystem

To protect what needs protecting, repair our ties with one another.

 

In June 1934, as gritty clouds of dust boiled up from the Great Plains and darkened skies across the continent, University of Wisconsin professor Aldo Leopold addressed a crowd at the university’s new arboretum. Leopold was deeply disturbed by what would come to be known as the Dust Bowl — a disaster he had foreseen as a young forester in the Southwest — and the usually restrained wildlife ecologist was in a bitter mood. 

“There is a feeble minority called conservationists, who are indignant about something,” he wrote in an essay adapted from his address. “They are beginning to realize that their task involves the reorganization of society, rather than the passage of some fish and game laws.”

Leopold’s caustic assessment is, in many ways, as true now as it was then. In the 1960s and 1970s, U.S. conservationists secured federal protections for land, air, water and endangered species, still some of the most powerful environmental laws in the world. But if conservationists are to protect ecosystems, the conservation movement itself must start acting more like an ecosystem, operating at many interconnected levels. Even as it advocates for laws and regulations capable of restraining corporate power and easing the effects of climate change, it must work to reorganize society — to support people and communities in living sustainably within ecosystems and alongside other species.

This special issue of High Country News is about the conservationists reorganizing our region on behalf of all species. Conservation’s future will not be singular, so it’s fitting that this issue brings together many voices. You’ll read about rural community organizers working to revive economies and ecosystems, and activists helping to protect habitat corridors on the U.S.-Mexico border and in the Northern Rockies. You’ll meet conservation scholars and practitioners who envision more effective, inclusive futures for federal environmental laws and land-management agencies. You’ll hear from hunters, birdwatchers, artisans, lawyers and scientists, and from foresters- and firefighters-in-training. And you’ll follow the journeys of butterflies, jaguars and a fictional character or two.

Michelle Nijhuis, acting co-editor and issue guest editor

The people in this issue live in disparate places and face a variety of challenges, but all of them have found that Leopold was on to something. The great task of protecting and repairing ecosystems requires law and science, history and art, and brain and muscle — sometimes all at once. It also demands something even more fundamental: that we repair our ties with one another.  

We welcome reader letters. Michelle Nijhuis is an acting co-editor at High Country News. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.  

High Country News Classifieds
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