[This the second of two parts. Read part 1 here.]

The Third Wave

The next wave of conservation, which stirred after World War II, had two principal components: an emphasis on science and a focus on private land. This was no accident—these components represented important shortcomings of the previous two waves. Federalism, by definition, focused on public lands, which meant that one-half of the American West—its privately owned land—had been largely neglected by the conservation movement. This became a pressing concern after the war as the suburban and exurban development of private land sped up considerably. Meanwhile, the rise of ecology and other environmental disciplines meant that data and scientific study could now complement, and sometimes supplant, the emotional and romantic nature of environmentalism. An illustrative example is the rise and growth of the Nature Conservancy, a landmark nonprofit organization that is now one of the largest conservation groups in the world.

In 1946, a small group of scientists in New England formed an organization called the Ecologists Union with the goal of saving threatened natural areas on private land, especially biological hot spots that contained important native plant and animal species. The protection of biologically significant parcels of land had traditionally been the job of the federal government, state wildlife agencies, or private hunting and fishing groups. Parks, forests, refuges, wilderness areas, and game preserves were the dominant means by which protection was provided to critical areas in the years leading up to World War II. But a growing number of scientists believed this strategy wasn’t sufficient any longer because it largely overlooked privately owned property—land that was rapidly being paved over in the postwar boom.

The Ecologists Union changed its name in 1951 to the Nature Conservancy (TNC) and embarked on a novel strategy: private land acquisition for ecological protection. In 1955, the organization made its first purchase—sixty acres along the New York–Connecticut border. Six years later, it donated its first conservation easement, which restricts development rights on a property in perpetuity, on six acres of salt marsh, again in Connecticut. This new strategy of buying and preserving land caused the organization to grow rapidly. By 1974, TNC was working in all fifty states, often in tandem with state and federal agencies. It wasn’t all about acquisition, however. Frequently, TNC acted as the middleman buyer between a willing seller and the federal government. In the process, TNC became adept at real estate deals, developing a business acumen that was as novel for a conservation organization at the time as was its land-protection strategy. TNC also started an ambitious land trust program to accept conservation easements on property it did not own.

Soon, TNC was working internationally, buying land and facilitating major conservation projects. In 2000, it launched the “Last Great Places” campaign, raising over one billion dollars for land acquisition and research. By 2007, TNC was protecting more than 117 million acres of land and five thousand miles of rivers in the U.S. alone.

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A Last Great Place – a karst ecosystem in Arkansas

But it wasn’t just about buying land. Employing hundreds of scientists, TNC has based much of its conservation work on research, including a science-based modeling approach to large landscapes that helps the organization determine where to work, what to conserve, and what strategies should be employed. Their work was no longer simply focused on saving the rarest species here and there, as it had been in the 1950s. Now they worked at the ecosystem level across a large landscape so that all species might thrive—a strategy TNC calls “enough of everything.” They do this by establishing science-based priorities and then setting out to influence the social, political, and economic forces at work in these biologically important landscapes.

TNC’s approach has been replicated by many other third-wave conservation organizations, including Conservation International, the Trust for Public Land, and the World Wildlife Fund. It also helped to ignite a land trust movement around the world. Today, there are over seventeen hundred individual land trusts in America alone, focused on private property of every shape and size, from small community or regional trusts to statewide agricultural organizations.

A great deal of science-based conservation work was also integrated into various nonprofit organizations, public agencies, and private operations. The growing impact of ecology in conservation during the 1940s—thanks in no small part to Aldo Leopold—also led schools and universities to embrace science-based curriculums and implement numerous environmental-study programs across the country. Professional journals in ecology proliferated as a result. At the same time, many public lands–focused environmental organizations incorporated science into their advocacy work, especially those focused on saving large predators, wildlife corridors, and endangered species.

In contrast to environmentalism, however, the third wave eschewed the noisy emotionality and confrontational tactics of the second wave, preferring the quiet diplomacy of research and deal making to accomplish its goals. Although it still adhered to a protection paradigm that it shared with the first two waves, it was guided by data, not poetry, and it sought cooperation, not regulation or litigation, to accomplish its objectives. And as the success of TNC demonstrates, this wave was extraordinarily effective—for a while.

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A land monitoring workshop on the Gray Ranch.

The bloom began to fade in 1990, when TNC purchased the beautiful and biologically rich 322,000-acre Gray Ranch, located in the boot heel of southwestern New Mexico. Sheltering more than seven hundred species of plants, seventy-five mammals, fifty reptiles, and 170 species of breeding birds, the Gray Ranch was considered one of the most significant ecological landscapes in North America, which is why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had coveted the Gray as a wildlife refuge for decades. Indeed, in the 1980s, a similar-sized ranch in southern Arizona, called the Buenos Aires, was purchased by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service from the same Mexican millionaire who owned the Gray Ranch. This time, however, the financial terrain was different, and TNC was needed to broker a deal, which it did at a high financial cost to the organization. No matter—TNC had every intention of quickly reselling the Gray Ranch to the federal government and recouping its investment.

Except the transfer never took place.

When local residents heard of the Gray’s purchase and pending resale to the federal government, they raised vigorous objections. Going first to their elected representatives and then to the media, their opposition became front-page news across the West, and for a reason: it fit a changing mood in the region. Across the West, pushback against federalism and environmentalism had been gathering steam, often expressed noisily as an exercise of private property-rights. It was more complicated than that, of course, but the bottom line was the same: push had come to shove in the rural West. The Animas-area residents raised three objections to what TNC was trying to accomplish: (1) the Gray was still a working cattle ranch and thus a tax-paying, cowboy-hiring member of the local economy, and residents wanted it to stay that way; (2) a wildlife refuge would destroy the cultural and historical significance of the Gray, which was part of the historic Diamond A ranch, one of the area’s legendary operations; and (3) it was time to stop this pattern of transferring private land to the federal government.

It was this latter point that made the headlines.

Local residents took their complaints directly to TNC officials where, to their surprise, they found a sympathetic reception. That’s because TNC was hearing similar complaints in other places around the West. It gave the organization pause—not simply because they didn’t like controversy, but because TNC had always considered itself to be a cooperative conservation group. Their method was to buy land and easements from willing sellers, to work collaboratively with government agencies, and to create deals that benefitted people and nature while keeping a low profile. But local residents disagreed, saying TNC was not being cooperative—not with them, anyway. The complaints stung, causing TNC to ask itself an important question: could it accomplish its scientifically guided conservation goals while maintaining the Gray Ranch as a privately owned working cattle ranch? And perhaps just as importantly: could it find a conservation buyer who would help them recoup their substantial financial stake in the property?

The answer to both questions proved to be “yes.”

In 1993, the Nature Conservancy sold the Gray Ranch to Drum Hadley, a local rancher who also happened to be an heir to the Budweiser beer fortune. After the sale, Hadley and members of his family created the Animas Foundation, named for the nearest town, to manage the ranch for conservation as well as community goals. That seemed like a contradiction to many environmentalists, who subsequently objected to TNC’s new plan, though to no avail. It all added up to a new approach toward conservation. Success would require that TNC, the Gray Ranch, local residents, and public agencies effectively cooperate together. To that end, a year later, TNC and the Animas Foundation became charter members of the Malpai Borderlands Group, a pioneering collaborative partnership of ranchers, conservationists, and government agencies in the region—setting the stage for the next wave of conservation in the West.

The third wave faded for two reasons mainly: first, the benefits of a protection paradigm, whether science based or not, grew less effective over time as environmental troubles diversified. Climate change, for instance, largely defies the paradigm—what does “protection” mean under rising temperatures, water scarcity, and climatic disorder? Piecemeal protection also exposed the paradigm’s limitations as subdivision developments boomed across the West. TNC and other organizations were confronted with a growing dilemma: What benefit is there in buying a large property for protection purposes if the neighboring ranches sell out to a subdivider, thus fragmenting the surrounding land? Also, the top-down approach of the third wave, which shared a command-and-control philosophy with federalism and environmentalism, met increasing resistance from bottom-up groups, limiting its effectiveness. Locals wanted to be heard and involved now. Directives by outsiders, no matter how well-meaning, provoked pushback among the grassroots.

Second, this wave failed to develop a viable economic program to go along with its protection paradigm. While supportive of working landscapes, it struggled to help local residents find paychecks in conservation-friendly enterprises. For example, while TNC could afford to manage its own land without a profit motive, it had great difficulty finding an economic strategy that would keep its neighbors in business (and thus keep “For Sale” signs from appearing). As the subdivision crisis in rural counties heated up in the 1990s, TNC realized that it could not buy all the critical land needed to protect species. There simply wasn’t enough money. Nor would conservation easements complete the job. Some sort of conservation economy would be necessary—other than tourism and recreation. To this end, TNC tried a variety of economic strategies, including a “Conservation Beef” pilot project in Montana, but it wasn’t enough. Despite TNC’s success, it became clear to many that in order to accomplish the landscape-scale effort needed to help species and local people, especially if it involved public lands, a new approach would be required, one that featured partnerships and profits.

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Members of a collaborative nonprofit in northern Montana

The Fourth Wave

In 1991, the Forest Service extinguished a five-hundred-acre fire burning on private land along a stretch of the remote Geronimo Trail Road, located in the southeastern corner of Arizona. On the surface, it was an unremarkable event—the Forest Service had long reacted to wildfires with the same response: put it out. Period. Except this fire proved to be different. The local ranchers did not want it extinguished, agreeing with scientists that fire had an important role to play in ecosystem health. They asked the federal government to let the fire burn, arguing that it posed no appreciable threat to life or property. The landowner was supportive too; in fact, he had thinned the overgrown brush recently in order to create the right conditions for fire’s return. But the Forest Service didn’t listen. It put the fire out over all protest. This routine act, however, ignited the community into action. “No more,” it said aloud. Consequently, within three years, the nonprofit Malpai Borderlands Group was born. They were determined to do things differently within the nearly one-million-acre borderland they called home. They decided to give collaboration a try.

It was a similar story around the West at the time. When a federal judge shut down logging in old-growth forests throughout the Pacific Northwest in 1991 in response to a lawsuit by environmentalists over the spotted owl, it ignited a storm of protest in rural communities. It also lit two small, but important, bonfires of change. The first was in the Applegate Valley of southwestern Oregon, where a small coalition of activists, loggers, and Forest Service personnel met for potluck suppers and peacemaking. The second was a similar group that met in the only place they considered neutral in the logging-dependent town of Quincy in Northern California—the public library. The goal of both groups was the same: better forest management through collaboration, not confrontation.

In Montana, the Malpai Borderlands Group quickly inspired two groups of ranchers to give collaboration a try, one in the Blackfoot River Valley northeast of Missoula, and the other in the Madison Valley, northwest of Yellowstone National Park. Like Malpai, residents in both valleys grappled with a host of challenges, including the threat of land fragmentation due to subdivisions, curtailment of livelihoods due to endangered species regulations, and changing demographic trends. Instead of fighting the future, however, they chose to link arms with conservationists, scientists, and agency employees with the goal of making progress where it mattered: on the ground. It wasn’t easy, especially in the beginning. In many places, trust had to be rebuilt or created; in others, key players wouldn’t come to the table. This changed over time, however, as people began to see genuine results. The process was messy, difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating, but it worked.

One name for this new wave is the “radical center”—a term coined by rancher Bill McDonald of the Malpai Borderlands Group. It was radical because it challenged various orthodoxies at work at the time, including the belief of environmentalists that conservation and ranching were part of a zero-sum game—that one could only advance if the other retreated. The “center” referred to the pragmatic middle ground between extremes. It meant partnerships, respect, and trust. But most of all, the center meant action—a plan signed, a prescribed fire lit, a workshop held, a hand shook. Words were nice, but working in the radical center really meant walking the walk.

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Collaborative restoration project on Comanche Creek, New Mexico

I know because I did a lot of the walking myself.

The fourth wave drew strength from the first three waves, while filling in blanks and correcting important deficiencies. It aimed to protect open space and wildlife, valued working landscapes, incorporated public lands, employed ecology and other sciences, and required trust and fairness. But it also strove toward economic realities, often by exploring and promoting the diversification of business enterprises on private lands.

In doing this work, the fourth wave emphasized profits along with protection, arguing persuasively—as Aldo Leopold tried to do years earlier—that good stewardship flowed from ethical and regenerative attitudes toward land, business, and people. Profit could be a force for conservation, the fourth wave said, not against it, as so many environmental activists had insisted. The proof was in the pudding of these early collaborative efforts: conservation and capitalism (of the local sort) worked effectively side-by-side across the West. The keys were partnerships and dialogue—handshakes and countless meetings. It all led to a rapid expansion of collaboratives of varying stripes in the late 1990s, including the formation of many watershed-based nonprofit organizations. The radical center united, rather than divided.

One area where it worked best was ecological restoration. Ecology had led to a deeper understanding of land sickness—to use Leopold’s term—and what to do to restore forests, rangelands, and riparian areas back to health. Ranchers, conservationists, agency personnel, and others began to implement these ideas in pilot projects around the region, including the use of livestock to control noxious weeds, riparian and upland restoration work for water-quality and wildlife-habitat improvement, tackling forest overgrowth through thinning and prescribed fire, and repairing and upgrading low-standard roads in order to restore natural hydrological cycles. Success, however, required cooperation among multiple stakeholders, particularly across private/public and urban/rural divides.

For all its success, however, the fourth wave will too, in time, begin to fade. As the wave evolved from its gridlock-breaking and peacemaking roots into an effort that has brought ecological and economic health to the region and its people, the world evolved too, bringing with it new challenges and opportunities. In short, the times are changing again, especially as we enter into a period of increased climate instability and economic stress.

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Severine von Tscharner Fleming

The Fifth Wave

I traveled up New York’s Hudson Valley to visit a young leader of the emerging agrarian movement by the name of Severine von Tscharner Fleming. I had met Severine a few times before, and I knew her to be an astonishingly energetic and successful advocate for young farmers like herself. For starters, in 2007, she founded the Greenhorns, a nonprofit organization that has become an influential grassroots network dedicated to recruiting and supporting young farmers and ranchers. Severine also cofounded the National Young Farmers Coalition, manages a weekly radio show on Heritage Radio Network, writes a popular blog, speaks at countless conferences, and organizes endlessly via the Web. And she’s a farmer too.

Severine told me young people are inspired to get into farming for a wide variety of reasons. It starts typically with a journey through apprenticeships and internships as each young farmer discovers which parts of a farming life he or she wishes to pursue, followed by hard work to gain proficiency in, say, carpentry, horse wrangling, or irrigation system maintenance, without going into debt, and usually before starting a family.

Who are these young farmers? According to Severine, most are from cities and suburbs—thus the “greenhorn” moniker—and many come from the social justice or food poverty movements. Another portal is the Food Corps, which is a project of AmeriCorps and places young people in food-oriented jobs, often building school gardens. Many young farmers attended farms when they were kids or went on field trips to local farms through their elementary schools. A few participated in 4-H, though not as many as one might think, she said. The educational backgrounds of young farmers today varies widely, including engineering, public health, computer science, literature, anthropology, and earth science, but the decision to go into farming after examining all the options is the same: to live a life with dignity and purpose and have a positive impact on the community.

“We’ll seize opportunities to buy inexpensive battered pastures and compacted soils,” she said at a conference, “and then heal those lands using good land stewardship techniques. We’ll reclaim territory from commodity crops and try our best not to churn or ruin our own soils while we build up enough capital to stop rototilling. We’ll process our own darn chickens and build our own darn websites. We are just as stubborn and innovative as farmers have always been.”

According to the USDA Agricultural Census, the number of young people farming in the U.S. is on the rise. Though it is still a minority of the tiny minority of Americans who are farmers, it reinforces the argument that a movement is growing, called by many a New Agrarianism.

What does “agrarian” mean exactly? In Latin it means “pertaining to land.” My dictionary defines it as relating to fields and their tenure or to farmers and their way of life. Berry broadens this definition, calling it a way of thought based on land—a set of practices and attitudes, a loyalty and a passion. It is simultaneously a culture and an economy, he says, both of which are inescapably local—local nature and local people combined into “a practical and enduring harmony.” The antithesis of agrarianism is industrialism, which Berry says is a way of thought based on capital and technology, not nature. Industrialism is an economy first and foremost, and if it has any culture, it is “an accidental by-product of the ubiquitous effort to sell unnecessary products for more than they are worth.”

An agrarian economy, in contrast, rises up from the soils, fields, woods, streams, rangelands, hills, mountains, backyards, and rooftops. It embraces the coexistences and interrelationships that form the heart of resilient local communities and local watersheds. It fits the farming to the farm and the forestry to the forest. For Berry, the agrarian mind is not regional, national, or global, but local. It must know intimately the local plants and animals and local soils; it must know local possibilities and impossibilities. It insists that we should not begin work until we have looked and seen where we are; it knows that nature is the “pattern-maker for the human use of the earth,” as he describes it, and that we should honor nature not only as our mother, but as our teacher and judge.

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Rancher Tom Sidwell on his restore grassland, eastern New Mexico

I first ran across the term New Agrarianism in 2003 in a book of essays on the topic collected and edited by Eric Freyfogle, a law professor at the University of Illinois. The term resonated with me because it described exactly what I was seeing on the land. In fact, I could have used Freyfogle’s own words from his essay “A Durable Scale” to describe my experience. “Within the conservation movement,” he wrote, “the New Agrarianism offers useful guiding images of humans living and working on land in ways that can last. In related reform movements, it can supply ideas to help rebuild communities and foster greater virtue. In all settings, agrarian practices can stimulate hope for more joyful living, healthier families, and more contented, centered lives.”

In his essay, Freyfogle produced a list of New Agrarians that was spot on:

  • The community-supported agriculture group that links local food buyers and food growers into a partnership, one that sustains farmers economically, promotes ecologically sound farm practices, and gives city dwellers a known source of wholesome food.
  • The woodlot owner who develops a sustainable harvesting plan for his timber, aiding the local economy while maintaining a biologically diverse forest.
  • The citizen-led, locally based watershed restoration effort that promotes land uses consistent with a river’s overall health and beauty.
  • The individual family, rural or suburban, that meets its food needs largely through gardens and orchards, on its own land or on shared neighborhood plots, attempting always to aid wildlife and enhance the soil.
  • The farmer who radically reduces a farm’s chemical use, cuts back subsurface drainage, diversifies crops and rotations, and carefully tailors farm practices to suit the land.
  • The family—urban, suburban, or rural—that embraces new modes of living to reduce its overall consumption, to integrate its work and leisure in harmonious ways, and to add substance to its ties with neighbors.
  • The artist who helps residents connect aesthetically to surrounding lands.

The faith-driven religious group that takes seriously, in practical ways, its duty to nourish and care for its natural inheritance.

  • The motivated citizens everywhere who, alone and in concert, work to build stable, sustainable urban neighborhoods; to repair blighted ditches; to stimulate government practices that conserve lands and enhance lives; and in dozens of other ways to translate agrarian values into daily life.

To this list I could add from my recent research:

  • The carbon farmer or rancher who explores and shares strategies that sequester CO2 in soils and plants, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and produces co-benefits that build ecological and economic resilience in local landscapes.

Freyfogle shares Berry’s belief that agrarianism is the proper countervailing force to industrialism and its surfeit of sins, including water pollution, soil loss, resource consumption, and the radical disruption of plant and wildlife populations—the focus of the earlier waves of conservation. Freyfogle goes on to add broader anxieties: the declining sense of community; the separation of work and leisure; the shoddiness of mass-produced goods; the decline of the household economy; the alienation of children from the natural world; the fragmentation of neighborhoods and communities; and a gnawing dissatisfaction with core aspects of our modern culture, particularly the hedonistic, self-centered values and perspectives that control so much of our lives now.

In contrast to these negative attributes of modern life, the new agrarianism is first and foremost about living a life of positive energy and joy, says Freyfogle. Nature is the foundation of this joy, but so are the skills necessary to live a life. At its best, the agrarian life is an integrated whole, with work and leisure mixed together, undertaken under healthful conditions and surrounded by family.

“When all the pieces of the agrarian life come together,” Freyfogle wrote, “nutrition and health, beauty, leisure, manners and morals, satisfying labor, economic security, family and neighbors, and a spiritual peacefulness—we have what agrarians define as the good life.”

And it is to this good life that the fifth wave aspires.

Published in The Age of Consequences (Counterpoint Press) see: