Caring about Public Land Management

What’s going on with public land management around you, and what are you doing about it?

Most citizens of the U.S.A. state that they want healthy wildlife populations and clean water for their communities and for future generations to enjoy. And yet, repeated surveys of Santa Cruz County residents suggest declining efforts to learn about wildlife so that individuals could take action to protect assure wildlife conservation. We can see this decline also reflected in our activism and politics. When was the last time you heard about an environmental activist group taking a stand to protect local wildlife? Which politician can you name that had environmental conservation as a major portion of their platforms? Have you looked at the agendas or minutes from Santa Cruz County’s Commission on the Environment or Fish and Game Commission – both advisory bodies to County Supervisors? I challenge you to find any evidence of solicited or unsolicited advice to the Supervisors. In short, our County, at the top of the nation’s biodiverse counties, is effectively asleep while their precious natural heritage is being rapidly eroded by neglect. I frequently hear how much Santa Cruzans appreciate the wildlife, the open space, and the natural beauty of this area. If we take these things for granted and do not make efforts to be involved with conservation, I think we know what will happen to these values: they will decline, whither, and disappear altogether with time. It is time to make a shift, and the shift is best focused on our public lands management.

One of the most important things we can do as citizens of this county is to be involved with the management of the public lands around us. There are many ways to be involved in wildlife conservation on public lands throughout the region: volunteering for stewardship, rallying political support for increased conservation on public lands, and supporting environmental conservation organizations. There are three main threats facing nature conservation public lands: changed disturbance regimes, invasive species, and poor management of visitor use. I discuss each briefly in the following and present ways that you might be involved in solution for improved public lands management.

With climate change and increased development encroachment on natural areas, natural disturbance regimes, such as fire and grazing, are rapidly changing presenting a high degree of danger to nature conservation. With climate change, fires are expected to be more frequent and more severe; this is exacerbated by increased human interactions at the Wildland Urban Interface where accidental fires more frequently occur. Likewise, we have removed tule elk and pronghorn and it is becoming increasingly difficult for natural areas managers to use livestock to mimic natural grazing regimes. With both fire and grazing, public lands managers need more public funding to increase their ability to manage natural systems. There needs to be more public outcry and support for both funding and expertise within those agencies to improve lands management. Those kinds of support are also important for invasive species management. A different kind of support is needed for better management of natural areas in the face of poor visitor use management.

Badly managed visitor use in natural areas is a major cause of concern globally for nature conservation, and locally this seems to be nearly entirely ignored. The most glaring evidence that this is a problem is the nearly ubiquitous and unquestioned philosophy that increased access to natural areas is an important goal for nature conservation. Look carefully around our local parks agencies and you’ll also notice that there are no personnel trained at managing the conflict between nature conservation and visitor use, the field of study necessary to assure nature conservation in parks. The most recent planning effort for visitor use in a public park was with the BLM’s Cotoni Coast Dairies property, a real disaster in public process with recreational infrastructure development proceeding apace despite an active and unsettled legal appeal by a very small of citizens who have seen too little community support. Of the many larger, environmental groups in the area, only the Sempervirens Fund has offered publicly stated concern”Important details remain to be determined and we look forward to working with BLM to resolve them.” For the grave impacts to nature from visitor use in natural areas, there seems to me to be a need for a fundamental shift in both public perception and in the public lands management agencies to better recognize and address this issue. The following section outlines some actions you can take to help this process forward.

There are many ways, big and small, for you to be more involved with the paradigm shift needed to better address the serious issues surrounding visitor use management in natural areas. First and foremost, many more of us should become educated about the science documenting the concerns and how those concerns are addressed through social and environmental carrying capacity analysis and adaptive management. Social carrying capacity analyses define the limits of acceptable change from visitor use conflicts: conflicts between different types of uses (for instance, mountain bikers vs. passive recreational use of families with children) or conflicts due to overcrowding. Ecological carrying capacity analyses define the limits of acceptable change for soils, biota, or other natural phenomenon (for instance, amounts of trail erosion, wildlife such as cougars that are easily disrupted by visitors).

Another thing we can do to help the situation of poor visitor use management in our parks is to advocate for improvement. We should tune our senses to notice negative impacts of visitor use and then aim our activism towards change: make formal reports of issues to natural area managers, follow up on those reports, and also message higher level administration, commissions overseeing those agencies, and politicians who are invested in agency oversight. Persistence will help. Let’s also vote for politicians who promise to help. And, let’s support environmental groups who promise to work on these issues. Finally, many more people who care about these issues need to be involved with public lands management planning. Currently, mainly exploitive and well-funded non-passive recreational users are organized and vocal during these processes (i.e., Outdoor Industry Association funded groups like mountain biking advocates). Meanwhile, traditional conservation groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon Society have shied away from such issues due to either controversy or co-option. We need a new group or need to sway old groups to take these issues on.

-this article originally appeared at Bruce Bratton’s weekly BrattonOnline.com If you haven’t subscribed, I recommed it: “The last great news sources of Santa Cruz.”

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