Backyard Birder

Land for all, large and small

Saturday, driving north as the sun rose, I heard on the radio that ice-out on Lake Winnipesaukee might come close to the record, May 12, set back in 1888.

Of the two possible records — early ice-out and late — it would of course be the latter.

I was heading towards Winnipesaukee for the annual conference for land trusts in New Hampshire. Called “Saving Special Places,” it’s a gathering of what I call the “plaid shirts.” The day is filled with presentations by people in the business of land conservation and volunteers equally committed. All work to conserve our state’s natural resources: intact forests and farmland, wetland and river buffers, and ridgelines where wildlife can roam instead of dogs and cats that come along with houses.

We humans build in lots of places that impact natural resources. Laconia Middle School, site of the conference, was built smack on the shore of Lake Opeechee, a subset of Winnipesaukee. There were no vegetated buffers to filter runoff from lawn and pavement.

At gatherings like Saving Special Places, the term “elitist” is heard more and more. Environmentalists worry a lot about that label, and some major conservation groups have changed their mission away from a focus on “saving” land and wildlife habitat and other natural resources to an emphasis on PEOPLE.

PEOPLE AND LAND is the remade focus. Photos of pristine nature have been put away. In their place are photos of people in all their diversity of age and origin out using the land — for agriculture including urban community gardens; timber harvests; school field trips; fishing/hunting; seeking spiritual renewal; exercising for physical health; walking dogs.

All are important. And all focus on people.

Peter Forbes, keynote speaker at the conference, is a longtime pioneer in the People and Land movement. He works to bridge what he sees as the gap between environmentalists and social justice, or social needs.

While tree huggers (elitist) are “saving” land, often raising significant funds, a lot of people live in “food deserts” where Big Macs are what’s most available and affordable, obesity is epidemic, and jobs don’t pay a livable wage.

A second reality, often stated, is that children recognize the Nike swoosh but can’t tell a pine from an oak; that time spent outdoors connecting to trees and birds and good old springtime mud is rare for children and getting rarer.

Without that connection to the land, who will be the next generation of conservation leaders?

While Peter Forbes talked about the great divide, slide after slide was projected on a large screen behind him of people on the land. Lots of people; no wildlife.

I could feel my inner grump rising. Land was portrayed only as it benefited people.

Too many people consuming too many resources is the problem that threatens life as we know it. Most environmentalists and land conservationists know that. They have chosen work as professionals or volunteers that they see as the most important work there is: “saving” exceptional natural resource land for the sake of clean water, air and soil, and to direct development elsewhere rather than sprawled out; supporting legislation that stewards natural resources; hosting hikes and field trips to get people out on the land.

To be labeled a tree-hugging elitist rankles. Deeply. When clean water runs out, we’re in deep trouble. Open spaces act as nature’s water filters.

Runoff from lawns, pavement and agriculture are among the many threats to water quality, and overpopulation threatens water quantity. Those are not elitist concerns.

I think the elitist label was manufactured by interests seeking to exploit natural resources. Fingers point at “those tree huggers” who want the forests (rivers, mountains, wide open spaces) for themselves. They want to deny hard-working people (real people, not elites) jobs laying oil pipelines or hydraulic fracturing for natural gas or clear-cutting slopes.

Concerns raised by tree huggers about climate disruption or water supply are dismissed as the concerns of people out of touch with the real world.

Yes, it’s important to get people out on the land, but how many new trails are needed, or new boardwalks to take people into a wetland to experience the abundant life supported by a wetland?

We have a lot of trails. “Nature as gymnasium” is tracker Sue Morse’s term for trails cut through wildlife habitat. She’s monitored the decline in wildlife in areas with new trails. Mostly it’s dogs jogging along with humans that disrupt wildlife.

Driving back from the conference I missed my pal and fellow curmudgeon Dave Stephenson. We used to argue about timber harvests. He always said, “Trees grow back,” when I questioned the wisdom of cutting timber on town conservation lands. He was a timber framer whose livelihood required cutting trees.

He died before an invasive tree species — glossy buckthorn — started to outcompete native trees as the first to regenerate on soil disturbed by a timber cut. Last month I advocated for a ban on commercial logging on a Peterborough conservation property that I steward.

I do believe in setting aside certain exemplary natural areas from commercial forestry. An elitist position? For the health of air, water and soils, I don’t think so.

Tree huggers are a diverse group with varying positions on land use. None are elitist.

The most exciting information I gleaned from the conference was about pollinators. Government agencies are paying attention to collapsing populations of pollinators, and not just honeybees. Funds are becoming available for habitat restoration specifically for pollinators, the little guys.

As usual, motivation is linked to PEOPLE and what’s called “food security.” The often-quoted fact is that one out of three bites of food requires pollination, and disappearing pollinators threatens food production.

Habitat restoration for pollinators means encouraging goldenrod and milkweed, letting cropland edges go wild and highway median strips grow weedy.

Thoughts of bumblebees and butterflies erased my inner grump. Everyone in the land trust world smiles when it comes to pollinators.

Backyard Birder by Francie Von Mertens appears every other week in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

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