DNR file photo
by Jim Eagleman
Perhaps you’ve read here before of my life-long love of nature, natural resources, and the environment. Like a phone message stuck on continual loop—I’ll proclaim it from the rooftops! If it’s anything to do with natural habitats in Brown County, our forests, soils, and wildlife, I’ll be the flag waver, out in front. As several Our Brown County readers have told me, they love living here, enjoy the year ’round beauty and, like me, want to do all they can to keep our woodlands pristine, natural, and healthy. To those county and local resident nature lovers I say nice job, keep up the good work, and continue to enjoy this wonderful place. It’s all our concern to make sure we live as conscientious and caring land stewards.
But what does that mean, a land steward? Can the term stewardship be applied to the environment, like in other disciplines? It was conservationist and author, Aldo Leopold whose land ethic began a citizen revival for sound conservation management of public, and private lands. His deep caring for the land made him realize it would take more than a casual nod towards conservation—infrequent attention wasn’t enough. To insure land would be passed on in better shape, Leopold knew we had to develop a love, respect, and appreciation for it. Fresh out of forestry school in 1909 and during his first job as forester, he saw careless destruction of public lands and how over-grazing on western US national forests further eroded dry gulches and ravines. Herds of cattle and unmanaged deer stripped vegetation. Lands under constant grazing pressure with no rotation or management soon became barren. To simply remind land owners and farmers to curb erosion or limit grazing wasn’t going to correct years of neglect. He had to come up with another approach.
My thrifty mother’s reminder that I “spend some, save some” when it came to my meager allowance was something I heard a lot as a youth. This gentle reminder was passed onto our young sons years later. I still hear them repeat the phrase when the topic of money surfaces. “Saving for a rainy day” isn’t just a wise thing to do, a folktale. We hear of “rainy day funds” in government’s fiscal matters yet today. Saving is a life-long ritual we all do, out of habit, or necessity. Saving land—for natural systems to continue functioning, for healthy environments and habitats to flourish—must be part of local and world-wide decision-making. How well we enter into future health as a planet and society will certainly depend on wise management of existing resources. Setting aside lands with no intent of development may seem like a good idea, but increasing human populations will eventually dictate and overpower their use.
Pragmatically, we cannot continue at the rate of current development without impacts on such important and life-giving resources as water, timber, soil, and air.
Loving the land, as Leopold suggests, may seem a strange connection—how do I love something inanimate, incapable of showing love in return? (Leopold called land an organism.) When we consider all we get from the land—its benevolence, and why dependency is so important—the connection becomes clearer. We may not know as much about ecologic relationships as we should or learn about new ones as they develop, but that lack of knowledge gives us even more reason to save parcels and habitats in large or remote areas. Locked-up secrets to some of life’s baffling diseases, clues to human chronic suffering, new understandings of soil and animal chemicals, may be at our disposal. Emptying the biologic storehouse before we have an inventory is both foolish and tremendously wasteful. To paraphrase Leopold “the first sign of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces.”
Some believe land stewardship infers an obligation—with ownership comes duty, vigilance, and custodial care. Not a bad idea when it comes to checking the spread of exotic vegetation. What each of us plans to do with our own property in the future also holds a responsibility. And luckily right here in Brown County, we have an active chapter of The Nature Conservancy, a land protection organization that can help with those decisions. When we hear that 44 million acres of US forest land could be lost in the next 20 years, another obligation surfaces, that of voter responsibility.
Years ago, folksinger Woody Guthrie sang “this land is your land, this land is my land.” How we determine its use—exploitive or compatible, with respect or disregard—will mean much for the quality of life we share on the planet. Earth Day is every day!