An interview with the Sand County Foundation about the state of private lands conservation
Among the writings of forester and conservationist Aldo Leopold is a book titled A Sand County Almanac, about nursing a worn-down piece of land back to ecological health and fostering an ethical relationship between people and the natural world. In the spirit of Leopold’s ideas, the national nonprofit Sand County Foundation facilitates, incentivizes, and rewards rigorous, science-based conservation efforts on private lands. Western Confluence spoke with Sand County Foundation President Kevin McAleese to learn what conservation on private lands looks like today and why it matters.
Western Confluence: Why should we care whether there’s conservation on private lands?
Kevin McAleese: If you accept that something like 70 percent of the land in the United States is privately owned, then the significance of conservation on private lands is pretty stark. It’s that 70 percent of the land that we depend on for food, clean water, wildlife, biodiversity, open space, just to name a few. If you think of the dust bowl of the 1930s, that’s a risk we can never accept again.
WC: Who benefits from private lands conservation?
KM: If done right the landowner and the land benefit. It was Leopold who first concluded that land health depends on active, voluntary, creative efforts of private landowners. The public also benefits through clean water, open space, wildlife habitat. On top of that, private landowners support the local tax base. They’re paying property tax and they support their communities and their churches and their schools.
WC: What does Sand County Foundation mean by “conservation”?
KM: We point back to Leopold’s own simple and powerful definition that he published in 1949. He said, “When land does well for its owner, and the owner does well by his land; when both end up better by reason of their partnership, we have conservation, but when one or the other grows poorer we do not.”
Every time I read that the hair stands up on my neck. Think about what that quote implies. First there’s this relationship between humans and land that he describes as a “partnership.” That implies that there are things like trust and obligation flowing back and forth between people and land. And then there’s this idea of wealth and poverty as metaphors for the exchange of value between people and land. It’s just brilliant. I don’t believe there is a better definition out there.
WC: What is the Sand County Foundation’s approach to private lands conservation?
KM: We really do start from the perspective of the private landowner. For example, one of our commitments is we never have a meeting without landowners at the table and often at the podium. We don’t try to bring them in later once we’ve designed a conservation solution, but in fact, we start with their own perception of what the problems are and support their development of solutions.
Secondly, we strongly believe that conservation has to pay, and that there are economic realities that landowners face on a day-to-day basis. If they go out of business, that’s not good for land, it’s not good for their community, and it’s certainly not going to help achieve conservation. So there is that reality check that, look, we have to find solutions that are low-cost or that can actually generate economies for landowners.
We also don’t believe that regulation and government acquisition of land are better long-term solutions than empowerment of private landowners.
Lastly, as the name of Sand County Foundation implies, we believe that ethics are a real force in conservation. What we mean is that conservation, like any endeavor, is most resilient when it’s engrained in the belief system of individuals and communities. Ethics is an interior force that compels people to do the right thing when no one is looking. Increasingly we hear organizations talking about markets, incentives, that kind of thing, and those are important tools. But I think we are one of few organizations that really believe that that internal impulse is essential for conservation to stick.
WC: Who are the landowners your organization works with?
KM: [Private landowners] have to master so many different disciplines: agronomy and animal husbandry of course, but also ecology and hydrology and engineering, construction, economics, trade, business, politics, you name it. If you look at any successful farmer or rancher, you’ve got a real renaissance man or woman. On top of that, they are called upon to attend countless meetings, do volunteer service, and somehow raise a family. They are so amazing and yet humble and unassuming.
I’d say the farmers and ranchers that we know love the challenges [that come with conservation work]. We know ranchers who deliberately buy the worst, good-for-nothing, junk land just for the challenge of bringing it back to health. I mean they get their kick out of it, and they get grass growing again, they get springs running, they get birds and fish back.
WC: How does conservation on private lands differ from conservation on public lands?
KM: In some cases they are very similar, but there are some differences. First is the issue of vested self-interest. Leopold wrote that, “Husbandry of someone else’s land is a contradiction in terms.” Second is the fact that private land conservation incorporates the opportunity for creativity and self-expression on behalf of the landowner. That’s much less likely to occur on public land. And third, there’s quite a bit of evidence out there that conservation is more affordable on private lands.
WC: What is the most exciting innovation for conservation on private lands you’ve seen?
KM: In your neck of the woods in the livestock realm, there has been an explosion of interest in manipulating grazing patterns to achieve specific conservation and production outcomes. It’s unleashed an incredible amount of creativity and experimentation. Ranchers are beginning to think more like interior designers for cattle and sheep, sometimes moving water here, moving fences there, and really getting into monitoring and data-driven management.
In the row crop sphere, farmers are beginning to move beyond soil conservation—we talked about the dust bowl—to actually deliberately increasing soil health. They are getting into the chemistry and the biology of soil itself, the microorganisms. There’s all sorts of new combinations of conservation tillage, cover cropping, strange new crop rotations, managing timing of ground water through managed drainage.
In both instances, it’s an innovation of intellect and a deepening of farmers’ and ranchers’ fundamental understanding of the natural ecological processes occurring. And it’s accelerating because of the need to build more resilience into agricultural production systems to address changes in weather patterns. That’s driving a lot of innovation. People can’t be sloppy anymore when you have drought and wildfire and invasives and flooding and all of that.
WC: Where do you think we will be in 25 years?
KM: In some ways we have no choice really. We have to find a way to intensify food production to feed billions of more human beings on the existing land base that we have while continuing to protect our soil and water and biodiversity. I think people will still be looking to Aldo Leopold’s insights for how we can make that happen in 25 years.
By Emilene Ostlind