Prosperity and Ecology in our Lands of Romance

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Prosperity and Ecology in our Lands of Romance

By: Jerry Johnson, D.A.
Posted on May 03, 2017 FREE Insights

Introduction by John Baden

FREE has recently received a substantial gift.  It enables us to expand our work to conserve important values linked to America's parks, wildlands, forests, range, wildlife, and waters.  The focus of the project is Greater Yellowstone.  This continues work begun at MSU four decades ago in its Center for Political Economy and Natural Resources and continued with University cooperation ever since.  

At Baden's suggestion while a member of the President's Advisory Council, MSU Pres. Geoff Gamble obtained the copyright "University of the Yellowstone" for MSU.  MSU researchers have produced far more refereed papers from the Park than any other institution.  With active engagement from its leaders MSU would become internationally recognized as "The University of the Yellowstone".

Our attention is on the West, especially the "romantic" sector of environmental policy.  We identify threats to amenities and ecological services and consider sludge only when it endangers romance lands and waters.

This long term project builds on FREE's which we completed last year.  Beginning this summer we plan to host small policy salons. We will invite interested and accomplished individuals to join us discussions, meals, and adventures in the romantic lands of Greater Yellowstone.  Each salon will include carefully designated readings and some participants will prepare essays for discussion.

We will include participants from universities, businesses, government agencies, and civic groups concerned with conservation and civic culture.  We especially welcome those who identify timely topics and who can contribute to this project.  The essay below, "Linking Ecology with Prosperity in Lands of Romance" provides an introduction to our new project.


Linking Ecology with Prosperity in Lands of Romance

co-authored by Jerry Johnson and John Baden

We know ever more about linking ecology with prosperity in our Rocky Mountain communities. In the romance lands of the American West, the ecology of prosperity resembles the complex biodiversity of the Pacific Northwest forests.  You can see this mosaic of relationships where Roosevelt elk, salmon, bears, and now wolves roam--all within a mountain bike ride from the REI mother store in downtown Seattle.

In decades past and throughout the West, community leaders thought subsidized logging, mining, dam building, and drilling would create financial security and prosperity. For a while it seemed to. But not in today's integrated and highly competitive global economy, one where people with high human capital and active lifestyles seek out places with high quality environments. 

Quality places attract quality people.  It's a virtuous circle of improvement.  But not all good things go together.  The problem facing such communities is the inverse of America's depopulating rust belt cities: At some point densities detract from amenities.  Boulder, Colorado is the benchmark. 

When we think about environmental policy and the “jobs vs environment” tradeoff, we need to think "romance" and "sludge". West of the 100thmeridian romance lands dominate commodities. The redrock public lands of the desert southwest, the iconic parks of Yellowstone and Yosemite, and the wilderness of Idaho hold wildlife and habitat on par with the Serengeti or the Amazon. For westerners, these lands are our home territory; they provide the context and substance of our lives.

For some of us, they define our cultural heritage and our aspirations for living well. Here's the key to understanding today's West: These lands and the wildlife they contain are unambiguously linked to our prosperity. In the Rocky Mountain west the traditional models of economic development are obsolete: At the macro level, amenities trump commodities.  Romance reigns where large animals freely roam.   

And conservation of large charismatic animals requires space. The more space, the more species the land will attract and hold. Robert Macarthur and E.O. Wilson demonstrated this simple biological fact of island biogeography in 1967. It is the basis of successful conservation worldwide. The federal Endangered Species Act, often maligned by political opportunists, has in fact fostered prosperity in the West. The conservation of grizzly bears, American bald eagles, and Grey wolves has resulted in landscapes that are good for wildlife and attractive to people. Whatever its flaws, the law unintentionally catalyzed the gathering of creative people with high human capital.

The real work of building prosperity takes place in city halls, nonprofit boardrooms, main street business, and regional universities. Public infrastructure such as quality medical facilities and efficient airports encourage social and financial entrepreneurs to locate near high quality public lands. They bring wealth in the form of ideas, social capital, and community.  They often push state and local governments to break their molds and do better.

The draw of open spaces encourages bureaucratic entrepreneurship in several sectors.   Public land managers expend political (and financial) capital to expand the amenity value of public lands through cooperation and experiments like catch and release fishing, local wilderness, and community trails networks. In Southern California hundreds of people have shown up at public meetings to compel managers at the Paramount Ranch, a small national recreation area in the Santa Monica mountains, to protect an isolated population of mountain lions. The state is now building a land bridge over the 101 freeway as a way to create more space for the cats.

Not everyone wins in this new economy. However, empathetic social institutions often thrive. Food banks, locally subsidized public transportation, and affordable housing programs seek to reduce the inevitable costs of leaving some folks behind as their home territory grows wealthy. The most successful responders to the transformation are partnerships among willing local governments and non-profits with volunteers. We've learned that high social capital investment have eventual high returns for people and landscapes.  This is a situation where many good things complement one another.   

Conservation of large animals and their habitat preserves high levels of ecosystem services and functionality. The result is often clean water, open spaces, social opportunity, and prosperity. This lesson is vividly demonstrated in the Greater Yellowstone, southern Utah, western Washington, as well as in the European Alps, Scotland, South Africa, and Scandinavia. These are lessons that can and should be exported elsewhere.  FREE's new project aims to foster this constructive outcome.  

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