"Cooperative Conservation Conference" Comes to St. Louis

There's a conference opening in St. Louis tomorrow --actually, it opens tonight with cocktails -- that conservationists and environmentalists should keep an eye on. Dubbed the "White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation," this three-day affair is intended to showcase the Bush administration's "New Environmentalism."
Over the course of the conference, talks and exhibits will focus on the on-the-ground results that can be had through cooperation. Indeed, much good can be achieved when folks work together with a common cause. However, while some common ground no doubt will be found, I'm worried about how the administration will handle the conflicts that are sure to rise up.

What conflicts? Well, Interior Secretary Gale Norton says that "the people who are best able to take care of the land are those who live on the land, work on the land, and love the land. They have the knowledge, skills and motivation to care for the land. We need to empower them."
Hold on there a minute, Gale. A good number of the ranchers who live on the land surrounding Yellowstone National Park vehemently objected to the wolf recovery project that has been so successful in restoring this keystone predator to the park. And a good number of the businessfolk who live in Yellowstone's gateway communities support snowmobiles in the park, even though two environmental impact statements and one environmental assessment have said snowmobiles are bad for Yellowstone's health, not to mention the health of park employees and visitors. And let's not overlook the strong majority of Americans who supported a snowmobile ban during the comment period on those previous studies.
Should we have "empowered" those local groups in those two instances to decide what's best for Yellowstone? After all, ALL Americans have a right to say what goes on in Yellowstone, and any other national park, because we ALL own the parks.
"The conference itself is aimed at strengthening conservation partnerships with states, tribes and local communities, and most importantly promoting citizen stewardship of our natural and cultural resources," Michelle St. Martin, the conference's director of communications, told me when I asked about the goal of the conference. "The goal is really to inspire the American people who are not experts in environmentalism, or conservancy, but live on and work and love the land."
That inspiration comes with an "invitation only" tag, a curious approach when one talks about cooperation, particularly when there are so many divergent viewpoints on how our public lands should be managed.
Who got invitations? Well, while there are many logical invitees, such as the National Wildlife Federation, the Trust for Public Land, the Wildlife Society and the Nature Conservancy, there are some not-so-logical ones, such as Anheuser-Busch, the Department of Defense, the Federal Highway Administration, the Monsanto Company, and the Office of Surface Mining, to name a few.
Who didn't get an invitation? One seemingly obvious oversight was the National Parks Conservation Association. Michelle couldn't tell me why they didn't get an invite. She wasn't even familiar with their acronym.
"We've been partners with the Park Service for a long time, and we consider ourselves a park advocate," NPCA's Steve Bosak told me, adding that while the organization isn't hesitant to criticize the Park Service when it thinks it's making a mistake, the two have worked well together for a long time.
Long an advocate for national park issues, NPCA has been involved in the forefront of many issues, and worked on some of the drudgery, such as helping the Park Service develop business plans for individual parks.
"We spent a lot of time and energy setting up the business plan initiative," Bosak says. "When you're a partner at that level, and you don't get invited to a conference like this, you do wonder how serious they (the Bush administration) are. Was it an oversight, or was it intentional?"
Surprisingly, the Sierra Club got an invite. That really is surprising, since Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope slammed President Bush a year ago when he signed an executive order calling for the conference, saying Bush "clearly has been listening to the Republican pollster whose memo said 'the environment is probably the single issue on which Republicans in general -- and President Bush in particular -- are most vulnerable.'
"Instead of trying to 'greenwash' his record by issuing an order with a vague call for cooperation and a conference," Pope said at the time, "President Bush needs to assure Americans that the federal government will fulfill its responsibilities to protect their health, welfare and natural resources."
At the Sierra Club, David Willett says the organization will have an exhibit at the conference showcasing a project in Hawaii in which the Sierra Club teamed up with the U.S. Marine Corps and others to restore coral reefs and other marine ecosystems. At the same time, the organization will pay close attention to the claims the Bush administration might make during or after the conference.
The administration, says Willett, has been "extremely hostile" in its approach to the environment, chipping away at the Clean Air Act, the national forests, and clean water. While promoting cooperative conservation is a worthy cause, "if it ends up with Bush trying to take credit for a lot of projects that predated his administration, that would be unfortunate," says Willett.
So keep an eye on news coming out of St. Louis. For while cooperative conservation is a noble cause -- Teddy Roosevelt held the first conference on conservation, and he truly was worried about America's landscape -- ALL Americans should have a voice in how our public lands are managed, not just an invited few.