Hands-on environmentalism

Hands-on environmentalism

Landowners, environmentalists, and policymakers worked together to preserve a bear's habitat.
Brent Haglund
People and bear (Robert Neubecker)
Illustration of people and bear by Robert Neubecker


As president of the Sand County Foundation, a conservation group inspired by the naturalist Aldo Leopold, I help people engage in hands-on environmentalism. One of my favorite success stories involves the Louisiana black bear and the unlikely partnership that devised a plan to expand its habitat. The Black Bear Conservation Committee in Baton Rouge models participatory environmentalism—responsible stewardship of the land that brings landowners, conservationists, environmentalists, and policymakers together—and it created a wonderful outcome for a threatened animal instead of the fight an Endangered Species Act designation often inspires. It’s a model that embodies our Unitarian Universalist principles, too.

In the late 1980s, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service served notice that it would likely put the Louisiana black bear on its endangered species list. Years of hunting and habitat destruction had taken their toll on the bear, a shy and genetically distinct creature that requires huge areas in which to roam and hunt. As best as anyone could tell at the time, there were only a few hundred Louisiana black bears left alive in the Mississippi River lowlands of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas.

Unfortunately, an Endangered Species Act listing can provoke fear among landowners who believe that the species uses their land. But a group of private conservationists in the Mississippi River Delta helped to put that fear aside.

They wanted to save the bear, but they knew a listing under the Endangered Species Act could mean an end to property rights as they knew them. Eager to avoid a repeat of the spotted owl fiasco in the Pacific Northwest, which pitted loggers against bureaucrats and environmentalists, Louisiana farmers, timber companies, environmentalists, and regulators resolved to talk about solutions. Because 90 percent of the bear’s forested habitat rested in private hands, a private-public partnership was not only possible; it was essential.

What emerged in 1990 was the Black Bear Conservation Committee, a somewhat unlikely collection of citizens who embraced a cooperative management approach that turned the typical lose-lose story of an Endangered Species designation into a win-win story for landowners and, most importantly, the bear.

“It was tenuous, at best, when we got started,” said Paul Davidson, the BBCC’s executive director and a former Louisiana Sierra Club president. “But we were able to pull a lot of people to the table who wouldn’t be there otherwise. That’s because they were all committed to saving bears, for starters, but it was also clear to them that the only way to do so was to come up with a plan that would be amenable to landowners.”

Paper companies with vast holdings in the region’s lowlands hardwood forests were threatening to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service if they put the bear on the endangered species list—and the national Sierra Club was pledging legal action if they didn’t. It was within that contentious context that the Black Bear Conservation Committee began to build consensus, piece by piece, relying on solid science, good intentions, and some creative use of government incentives and existing law.

A biologist with the Fish and Wildlife Service in Jackson, Mississippi, helped to break the logjam by pointing out that Section 4(d) of the Endangered Species Act could allow timber companies to continue normal selective harvesting of their lands, so long as they did not cut larger trees with cavities that could serve as bear dens. The timber companies readily agreed, and the provision was written into the Fish and Wildlife Service’s eventual listing of the bear.

“That kept the timber companies at the table,” said Davidson, whose Louisiana drawl picks up an excited pace when he talks about the progress cooperation has created. “It created an atmosphere that was positive, and it has endured.”

Davidson credits “very progressive biologists” at Anderson-Tully Co., International Paper, and Temple-Inland Corp. for making it clear they were hoping to do what was best for the bear. The companies contributed money for scientific studies of the bear and accelerated their own conservation work, which was already so successful that their lands hosted a wide variety of migratory songbirds.

The next breakthrough came from an unlikely source: the 1990 Farm Bill. Re written every five years or so, federal farm bills are a complicated maze of subsidies and marketing orders. This measure, however, offered a Wetlands Reserve Program that converted the bear from a nuisance to an asset.

The program provided cash incentives for the owners of marginal or nonproductive farmland to put the former wetlands, which farmers felt obliged to plow and plant, back into trees. This program, designed to take a million acres of agricultural land out of production to stabilize commodity prices, had the unintended effect of becoming a conservation program, reforesting bottom lands and creating habitat for bears and other depleted species.

Armed with highlighter pens and yard after yard of highly detailed maps, members of the BBCC set out to help those farmers apply to the Wetlands Reserve Program. The committee figured out which lands were in black bear “priority areas” and which were not. They mapped out corridors to link unconnected habitats.

The result: About 350,000 acres of Mississippi River lowlands in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas have been planted in a mix of hardwood trees since 1990, creating new roaming grounds for the Louisiana black bear. Except for selective cutting, these lands must be kept forested in perpetuity.

“The bear became an asset to the average landowner,” Davidson said.

No one knows for sure how many Louisiana black bears there are today, because they shun human contact and rarely attack livestock. Davidson estimates 400 to 500 live in Louisiana alone. “I think we’ve probably had more bears today in Louisiana than we’ve had in a hundred years,” he said.

Ask Davidson to describe the core reasons for the success of the BBCC and he won’t dwell on money or regulatory flexibility for long. He will talk a lot about participatory democracy, however.

“We, as citizens, have sort of backed off and allowed government to take control. Government in a democracy is not designed to rule like that. It’s designed to be a partner,” he said. “Communities are supposed to take care of themselves, with the assistance of government.”

The BBCC aspires to seat everyone at the table. “That’s probably the main reason we don’t have anybody throwing rocks at us, because they’re all at the table,” Davidson said. “None of this is about ‘good people’ and ‘bad people.’ It’s all about people working together.”

Three other pieces of advice for community conservation groups:

  • Base things on science. “I would much rather deal with someone who has a different opinion from me than someone who has no opinion at all,” Davidson said. “But you’ve got to get the facts.”
  • Have fun. “At our meetings, we always have beer. We always have something to eat. We might be able to fish a little bit,” he said. “Wild life management is people management. We’ve got to figure out a way to get people to the table.”
  • Be patient. Community-based conservation takes longer to get organized because there must be genuine participation by all stakeholders. But it can save time in the long run because the product is more likely to stand up under fire. “All the problems we have in resource management could be solved with a more cooperative approach,” Davidson said.

The Black Bear Conservation Committee is a model for other hands-on environmentalists. It also calls to mind the seventh Unitarian Universalist Principle: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.”

Respect is certainly part of a serious land ethic. Aldo Leopold taught that “a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” Surely it is a gift that we share our lands and waters with many kinds of creatures—large and small, filling a wide range of ecological capacities. We are called to responsible action on behalf of that web of life.

But because we are also called to “justice, equity, and compassion in human relations,” we UUs, and those with whom we make common cause, have a responsibility to respect our fellow human citizens, too. Our neighbors, as the Louisiana black bear success shows, will become environmental champions if we ensure respect, common sense, responsibility, and encouragement for every member of the community, endangered species and landowners alike.

Thomas W. Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, helped write this essay. Adapted from Hands-On Environmentalism, © 2005 by Brent Haglund and Thomas Still (Encounter Books). Learn more at www.sandcounty.net.

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