In March 1940, Aldo Leopold gave an address to the Fifth North American Wildlife Conference. He concluded his remarks with this sentence: “To change ideas about what land is for is to change ideas about what anything is for.”
Leopold was speaking at a time when leaders of the wilderness movement were expressing concerns about the loss of wilderness and its adverse effect on American culture. Robert Marshall, one of the co-founders of the Wilderness Society, remarked: “As society becomes more and more mechanized, it will be more and more difficult for many people to stand the nervous strain, the high pressure and the drabness of their lives. To escape these abominations, constantly growing numbers will seek the primitive for the fine features of life.”
Marshall, like many of his contemporaries, took a utilitarian, or cost-benefit, approach. He argued that the value of wilderness will increase proportionally as wilderness becomes scarcer. As people lose opportunities for relaxation and contemplation, they will seek even harder to find and will be willing to pay more for those opportunities.
Leopold’s voice was distinctive from his contemporaries in that he rejected the utilitarian approach outright. Indeed, he went so far as to say, “I doubt if there exists today a more complete regimentation of the human mind than that accomplished by our self-imposed doctrine of ruthless utilitarianism.”
We can see the effects of “ruthless utilitarianism” today in the Wisconsin Legislature’s proposal to drastically cut Stewardship funding.
The proposal betrays two assumptions:
- Public land is not economically productive.
- Only economic production matters.
Marshall would dispute the first assumption; Leopold would dispute the second.
Public land is not economically productive in a direct sense, but if used wisely can generate many times its value for private business. A survey by the National Association of Home Realtors, for example, discovered that the second most important community amenity for prospective homebuyers is access to trails. Another example is the economic impact of outdoor activities such as trout fishing, which according to a recent study by Northstar Economics, amounts to $1.1 billion per year in the Driftless region alone.
Where does public access to trails and streams come from? In Wisconsin, it comes mostly from the Stewardship Program.
The Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Program was established in 1989 to preserve land through purchase and easements, to restore wildlife habitat, and to promote outdoor recreation. More than 500,000 acres have been protected through the program. During the past budget cycle, the Legislature cut funding from $86 million to $60 million per year. This time around the Joint Finance Committee has proposed cutting the allocation an additional $12.5 million for 2013-14 while also selling off 10,000 acres of previously acquired property.
It is difficult to say just how much land the state should conserve, because it is not a simple question of amount. There also are questions of how to conserve land (through purchase or easement), where to conserve it (in rural or urban areas) and for what purpose (for hunting and fishing, logging, hiking or ATV use). But such questions, though difficult and at times contentious, are answerable.
Robert Marshall’s advice was not to take a short-sighted view of things. As the population increases, and undeveloped land becomes scarcer, the value of the remaining land will increase. As other, more populous states continue to squander their natural resources, states that take measures to protect natural areas will reap the long-term economic benefits.
Leopold was not satisfied with that reasoning. His resistance to framing questions about the value of land in terms of economic costs and benefits was that it skewed our perception, not just of land but of everything we care about.
In the foreword to “A Sand County Almanac,” Leopold writes: “That land is a community is the basic concept of ecology, but that land is to be loved and respected is an extension of ethics. That land yields a cultural harvest is a fact long known, but latterly often forgotten.”
The question raised by the debate over funding the Stewardship Program is not simply one of economic foresight. It is also, and more significantly, a question of cultural foresight. Who are we, and who do we wish to become? The answer will be determined in large part by what we do with the land entrusted to us.