Rocky Barker: Kareiva engaging a new generation on conservation

rbarker@idahostatesman.comMarch 3, 2014 

The Nature Conservancy Science director speaks to the Idaho Environmental Forum Feb. 27, 2014 in Boise.


If you want to make friends in the environmental movement, you don’t start by trashing John Muir, Henry David Thoreau and Edward Abbey.

But that’s exactly what Peter Kareiva did as he set out on his quest to make conservation more effective. The chief scientist of the Nature Conservancy said Muir described Yosemite as a place more sacred than a “temple built with hands” when it had a hotel, a timber mill and he was seeking to drive out the native Indians.

When Thoreau, author of “On Walden Pond,” was philosophizing about the value of solitude, his mother was stopping by weekly to take his laundry. Kareiva said Edward Abbey was a hypocrite for writing about the value of solitude in his classic “Desert Solitaire,” while writing in his journal about his loneliness in the Utah wilderness.

Kareiva challenged the idea that nature is fragile and the traditional “gloom and doom” approach that many environmental voices preach.

He spoke Thursday in Boise to the Idaho Environmental Forum.

His critics say his myth-busting rhetoric misses the context and the values that were the foundation of these conservation pioneers’ messages. And they say his message provides cover for corporate efforts to destroy critical habitat and to continue to develop nature for profit.

But Kareiva’s people-centric approach won’t look new to Idahoans who have heard similar sentiments and seen them play out for the past decade.

Environmentalists in Idaho, including Kareiva’s Nature Conservancy, the Idaho Conservation League and Trout Unlimited, all have worked with farmers, ranchers and loggers to advance their goals to protect land, water and wild places.

From the Owyhee Canyonlands to the forests of North Idaho, environmental groups have worked with former foes on programs that help critters as well as people.

Kareiva, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, worked on the northern spotted owl case in the 1980s.

He went to work for the National Marine Fisheries Service when it developed the “Four H” plan — hydroelectric, hatcheries, habitat and harvest — for recovering salmon in the Columbia River Basin. He’s been at the Nature Conservancy since 2002.

His message is less controversial today among most of the international environmental and conservation organizations that have moved into the mainstream of political and cultural life, 44 years after the first Earth Day.

But the environmental movement — diverse, fragmented and institutionalized — has lost some of its appeal in an urbanized, technologically transformed society. In many ways, it shares the same challenge that rural communities do: Young people are not just leaving the land, but in many cases leaving nature as a whole behind.

Kareiva wants to find new ways to reach the next generation. He acknowledges now that some of his provocative statements have gotten in the way.

So now he starts his talks differently. “What I do now is say, ‘I care about nature,’ ” Kareiva said.

In fact, Kareiva believes humans’ love for nature is the movement’s trump card. He points to Edward Wilson’s hypothesis, which says there is an instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems.

“You don’t overcome a hundred thousand years of evolution in a hundred years,” Kareiva said.

Sigurd Olson, former guide and nature writer, said it well: Wildness carved the grooves of ancient truth into our souls. He and Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Abbey and the older conservation icons are important, Kareiva said.

But the movement needs new voices and faces, preferably more ethnically diverse and of wider appeal, Kareiva said: “We need leadership that reaches the next generation.”

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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