Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Finding common ground on Earth Day

Bill Berry in The Capital Times:

Earth Day comes Saturday, the first since the passing of its founder, Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson.

Near death at this time last year, Nelson left us with his final Earth Day message, printed by The Capital Times and news outlets around the world. It was eloquent and razor-sharp in its assessment of the state of the environment and those left in its charge.

So now we go forward without him, although Nelson's name will be sounded and his words quoted time and again on Earth Day this year and beyond.

Here in Wisconsin, Earth Day could run a good environmentalist ragged. There's the annual crane count to be conducted by the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. Thousands of volunteers in Wisconsin and nearby states fan out to count sandhill cranes. Once mourned as ghostly voices of the marsh by Aldo Leopold, sandies have made a nice comeback across the region, with counts reaching more than 13,000 pairs in recent years.

It happens also that on Earth Day this year, the man most associated with cranes in Wisconsin, George Archibald, will be inducted into the Wisconsin Conservation Hall of Fame in ceremonies here. Archibald, founder of the International Crane Foundation and an international ambassador for good will through an appreciation of nature and its preservation, will join the likes of Leopold and Nelson in the Hall of Fame. Some of his Crane Foundation friends plan to count birds in the morning and then head over to the induction ceremonies at Sentry Theater here, perhaps fittingly with a bit of earth trapped in the creases of their shoes.

Were they of a mind, they might stop along the Buena Vista grasslands south of Point on their way home to catch one of the events at Prairie Chicken Days, a celebration of these fragile birds of the range. Included are grassland tours and educational programs, and a book reading at the rural Plainfield home of the late Fred and Frannie Hamerstrom, world famous ornithologists, authors and students of Leopold.

Earth Day has become Earth Week over the years, and events of all sorts will be held by groups that stake a claim to the environment and its well-being, even some that do it pretty much for dress-up sake.

It's all fine and good to celebrate Earth Day, but one is also left to wonder what Nelson might say were he asked one more time about the environment. Certainly he would proclaim again that those who would say the economy comes first are foolish and dangerous in their summation, for the economy is but a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment.

But Nelson might also have a critical word or two for those of us who see ourselves as environmentalists. He might chide us to stop talking to ourselves so much and tell us to start reconnecting with those who agree with us on many issues of substance but from whom we have become separated, either by our doing, theirs or our shared inability to communicate.

Your correspondent has spent a good deal of time in recent years working with private land conservationists of the fields and forests around the country. It's a pretty conservative bunch, although there are many good conservationists in the crowd. As a group, they are quite disconnected from what many would recognize as the environmental movement.

Were someone to have handed me a hundred bucks for every time I've heard a speaker in this crowd say that urban environmentalists are out of touch with reality, my daughters would have no college debts. Often in these settings, someone also gets around to saying that some of the best examples of conservation collaborations happen when seemingly disparate groups actually manage to put some differences aside and work for a common good.

A few years back at a River Alliance of Wisconsin function, outdoor writer Tony Dean of South Dakota spoke about how environmentalists and traditional rod and gun sportsmen had allowed themselves to drift so far apart that they almost seem like enemy camps. The way Dean sees it, all that stands between these groups is a rifle and a bullet, which isn't much when you think about it. Differences over hunting and its place in society have fragmented otherwise like-minded people who want many of the same things: clean air and water, healthy and diverse habitats, plenty of open space, a government that takes sustainability seriously, and other wholly sensible and achievable goals.

But our own little disagreements get in the way. Those who would drive wedges between sportsmen and environmentalists, farmers and conservationists, city dwellers and county folks get their way. Often it's for rotten motives. Maybe the next great stage of the movement Gaylord Nelson helped fashion will be the discovery of common ground among those who have been standing on it all along.

Bill Berry, retired editor of the Stevens Point Journal, writes a semimonthly column for The Capital Times. E-mail: billnick@charter.net


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