news from a pacific perspective

Mr. Mikulina goes to WashingtonÖsort of

Jeff Mikulina, Director of the Sierra Club’s Hawai’i chapter, recently returned from the White House Conference on Conservation Cooperation in St. Louis, Mo., where he represented our state and his organization. This is an excerpt from the online diary he kept.

Day 1
The White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation in St. Louis opened with a bang sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, which apparently is brewing us a better planet. I’m feeling better already about this cooperative stuff. Organizers handed out oak tree saplings to conference participants, and I remarked to a small group that the Bush administration was retaining the right to come to your house in 10 years and harvest the oak tree.

Later in the evening I received a scolding from a Council on Environmental Quality conference worker. I promised I’d be on my best behavior from then on. I did have a light-hearted conversation with Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton, but we were interrupted by a loose kangaroo. The kangaroo–joined by a lemur and other furry friends from Busch Gardens–drew everyone’s attention for the evening. But more than a few people mentioned the elephant in the room: What are we really doing here? Is this really just a dog-and-lemur show by the Bush administration? And can we get anything to drink besides Budweiser?

Day 2
The day started with Norton welcoming us to the new era of Cooperative Conservation. She offered some examples of the successful partnerships that were on display at the conference, including salmon-restoration projects in Washington and wetlands management near St. Louis. Norton did acknowledge the need for strong enforcement ‘for those situations where coercion is actually needed.’ She said the administration will be submitting legislation ‘to further the potential for cooperative conservation.’ One can only guess.

What’s been conspicuously absent from many of the presentations and exhibits on the various partnerships is the impetus behind the cooperation. Did various landowners, rangers and agency folks just get religion and start taking care of their backyards in a new way? In some cases, yes. A good example of that seemed to be the ‘Blackfoot Challenge,’ where residents and agencies bonded to fight the onslaught of development and recreation forces in an area of Montana popularized in the movie A River Runs Through It.

But in many cases, litigation–or the threat of it–drove the parties to the table. For instance, the presentation ‘Water Without War: Cooperative Salmon Restoration,’ which described the efforts to restore water and salmon to the Walla Walla basin after a century of water diversions tapped the river dry, seemed too good to be true. Sure enough, during the Q&A, the agriculture representative on the panel sheepishly admitted that the threat of an endangered species lawsuit and a letter from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service were the motivators behind this meeting of the minds. Would he have given up one-third of his water without the threat of litigation? ‘Probably not.’ Not that the project isn’t a great example of a working partnership, but let’s be honest about its roots, people. Reduce the threat of the hammer–as the Bush administration and others have proposed with the Endangered Species Act–and these partnerships may evaporate with the water in Walla Walla.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld delivered the luncheon address, opening with ‘President Bush’s conservation ethic is well known…’ This was standup at its finest, but with Gale Norton’s press secretary at our table, the guy next to me tried his best to keep his chuckles to himself.

Day 3
Maintaining an open mind grew increasingly difficult during the morning propaganda…er, plenary session. This one started with a rich video featuring our great green hope, President Bush. As Al Gore invented the Internet, Bush is now staking claim to conservation. Bizarroworld continued with EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson’s proclamation that ‘conservation means development as much as it means protection.’ This was followed by the sound of crickets. Johnson then offered this telling sound bite: ‘Most importantly, instead of focusing on solid, but incremental gains in environmental protection by mandating rules and regulations, EPA is working in cooperation with our partners.’ Cooperation instead of focusing on gains in environmental protection? Not in addition to? Has the EPA’s mandate been thrown under the cooperative conservation bus? Are we really about to turn our environmental laws into faith-based initiatives? A scary thought–especially for those who like to breathe.

Day 4
Substance was in abundance at this conference once the scripts were put aside and the industry and administration rhetoric muted. Projects born out of passion for a healthy, sustainable community. People with a passion for the land, for place, for wildlife; making a difference in their own backyard and beyond. Not just for the sake of conspicuous conservation, but to protect the land that sustains us and our economy. That is sustainability work that truly inspires. Let’s just hope the Bush administration stops making environmental messes faster than we can cooperatively clean them up. But enough. Can’t we all just get along?
–Jeff Mikulina