When you visit conservation lands, how do you think critically about stewardship? There are various things to consider and ways you might help.
Often conservation lands managers mention their obligation to balance conservation with public access. In our area, this is especially true for State Parks and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Here are some Mission Statements to help you understand:
State Parks Mission: “To provide for the health, inspiration and education of the people of California by helping to preserve the state’s extraordinary biological diversity, protecting its most valued natural and cultural resources, and creating opportunities for high-quality outdoor recreation.”
BLM’s mission is “to sustain the health, diversity, and productivity of America’s public lands for the use and enjoyment of present and future generations.”
The normal thing to do when analyzing how to provide a balance between recreational access and conservation is to perform a carrying capacity analysis, which defines ‘limits of acceptable change.’ Monitoring determines if limits are surpassed, and adaptive management reacts with changes to public access patterns to address any problems. If the carrying capacity analysis process were integrated into a collaborative natural resource management program that welcomed public participation, controversies about changing and limiting public access could be managed with more understanding and cooperation.
Visitor Use Expectations
If they followed state of the art management practices, conservation lands managers would consistently determine what prospective visitors expected and adjust to meet those expectations. Expectations are monitored through interviews and surveys not only of people actually visiting the conservation area, but also prospective visitors in the general population. Managers normally encounter a great deal of diversity of expectations from conservation lands visitors. Some want active recreational experiences – trails/roads to jog along or mountain bike; some mountain bikers even want “rad” experiences involving tricky terrain to navigate at high speed on single track trails. Other visitors hope for quiet, contemplative strolls, opportunities to observe wildlife, or safe places to walk with elderly or very young family members. Still other portions of the population want to recreate on motorized vehicles, fly kites or drones, or rock out with parties involving amplified music and dancing. And, other segments of the population want places to meditate, collect medicinal herbs or edible mushrooms, help with stewardship, or take photographs. Obviously, it is impossible to provide everything to all people on any given parcel of conservation land, but how can managers decide what to do?
Meeting Whose Expectations?
Conservation lands proponents are sensitive about meeting many different expectations because they perceive benefits of increasing the public’s support of conservation lands acquisition, which is expensive. Sometimes this is complicated because lobbyists for various recreationally-oriented businesses are good at amplifying their client’s voices to advocate for specific types of visitor use. Traditionally, hunter groups and off highway vehicle organizations achieved successes this way. More recently, mountain biking organizations have been similarly influencing conservation lands management. Proponents of conservation lands acquisition dodge the tricky nature of favoring some types of visitors over others by public cheerleading for ‘maximum public access’ while privately providing pressure for a small subset of visitors, usually those they think are most politically influential. This is why State Parks managers opened Wilder Ranch hiking trails to mountain biking without any analysis or planning, welcomed the public onto the Coast Dairies’ beaches without environmental review, and allowed a private organization to operate a parking lot, gift shop, and privately controlled entrance to Castle Rock State Park. This is also why the Bureau of Land Management will soon allow e-bikes to use trails at Cotoni Coast Dairies. BLM is also planning on crowding all visitors onto trails that will be so heavily used as to spurn contemplative users while disturbing wildlife enough to alienate bird watchers. Families will have their hopes dashed of viewing sensitive wildlife such as bobcats, badgers, and foxes, species that frequent the property before the public has been admitted.
Coastal Commission Cahoots
I would be remiss if I didn’t remind readers that the much-lauded California Coastal Commission has been a close party to such poor ‘maximize public access’ decisions. Politicians have long appointed Coastal Commissioners who agree to the (bogus) ‘maximize public access’ mantra and who consequently believe that protecting nature gets in the way of their political success. Likewise, staff who support this schtick are empowered and promoted…and an organizational culture has been created that knows little else. And so, our beaches, bluffs, and coastal parks are being overrun by visitors, vegetation trampled, hillsides eroding, and wildlife quickly disappearing.
In our rush to maximize public access, we are losing the quality of visitor experience. Social scientists have long understood that conservation lands visitor expectations can erode based on what is “normal” to experience. As levels of trash increase, people expect trash…and become more careless about leaving trash in natural areas. With poor planning, parks become more crowded, and people lose expectation of contemplative experiences, nature becomes less healing. As over-used, badly managed trails erode into ditches with holes, elderly people stop visiting their favorite places; the average age of visitors grows younger and younger. As poorly educated conservationists work together for the ‘maximum use’ paradigm, families stop expecting to teach their children about wildlife from first-hand observation and the conservation movement loses wildlife advocates.
Oh, But Funding!
Enter into conversation with conservation lands managers with these critiques and the conversation quickly turns to lack of funding as the excuse. ‘We just don’t have the funding to….’ While I am compassionate to lands managers that they face a very dire funding situation, I posit that such poor funding is a result of bad decisions by individuals within their organization and lack of enlightened leadership in the conservation community.
When you hear complaints about funding, I encourage you to ask some follow up questions, like: ‘Have you completed “Carrying Capacity Analyses?”’ ‘Have you delineated “Limits of Acceptable Change?”’ ‘What has your monitoring revealed about the trends of sensitive plant and animal populations on your land?’ ‘How have you managed for changing visitor use and visitor expectations over time?’ If conservation lands managers prioritized addressing those questions in collaboration with the conservation community and the public at large, funding would be less of an issue. When visitor use is curtailed within the collaborative and adaptive management context, there is increased political support and funding for stewardship, planning, and improved alternatives that better address visitor expectations.
What You Can Do
See something, say something. I encourage everyone to speak up and vote for these issues. Any politician at any level must interact with these issues in some way: they should have clearly stated policies that they support to improve conservation lands management. And, they should know the term ‘carrying capacity analysis’ and support the practice as it relates to conservation lands management.
And, if your expectations are not met when you visit conservation lands, you should let the managers know. Are the trails in good shape? Did you see wildlife? Was it too crowded? Did you feel comfortable with the other kinds of users on the same trails? Was there trash? Were bathrooms adequate? Did you and your family feel safe?
Finally, ask conservation lands managers the questions posed above. Also, ask how you might help to manage and monitor within their defined carrying capacity, or how you might then advocate for increased funding for their adaptive management. These dialogues could help immensely.
-this article originally published by Bruce Bratton at his weekly BrattonOnline.com, an invaluable piece of journalism helping thousands of people keep in touch with what really matters around the Monterey Bay area of California. Subscribe today- better yet, donate to keep it going.