Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Skeet Shooting in the Dark

By Pete Nowak, SWCS West North Central Director

Yes, the title of this piece describes a ludicrous situation. Imagine standing in the dark with a shotgun on your shoulder and the expectation that you are going to hit little clay disks that are flying about. Your probability of hitting any is very, very low, but that still would not prevent some people from firing away as if they knew what they were shooting at. Skeet shooting in the dark makes as much sense as do conservation programs without targeting and assessment. To what extent do we know where our shots should be aimed, and when we do pull the trigger, do they make an impact? Focusing on the number of shells we shoot or the design or make of the shotgun is of little benefit unless we also know that we are hitting the right target and making an impact. 

Traditionally, we relied on national assessment programs (e.g., the Resource Conservation Act and the National Resources Inventory) to define the target and evaluate impacts across time, but those sources of guidance are no longer treated as salient to our conservation efforts. Do we need such efforts?

Any reading of the agricultural press conveys an image of substantial changes happening across our working lands. Simultaneously, the structure of our agricultural system continues to change, and few within the conservation arena know how to deal with these changes. There is significant intensification in production due to global markets that has been accelerated by demand for alternative fuels, and in too many cases, a conservation ethic has been supplanted by greed. There is also an emergence of small farms and locally grown foods. Like some small religious sects that preceded them, local foods have a cultural halo that has limited a hard look at how they are produced. In addition, there is increasing variability in weather events such that the term “disaster” has become commonplace, and while we spend billions in remedial efforts, pennies are dedicated to exploring how to enhance the resiliency of our agricultural systems. The rate of fragmentation of our agricultural lands is matched by a growing rate of tenancy, and yet we remain blinded to the conservation implications of this structural shift by effective use of Jeffersonian images in public relation campaigns. The science of genomics continues to provide fascinating opportunities, but also reminds us with herbicide-resistant weeds that any new technology is a double-edged sword.

It is in this turbulent setting where, more than ever, we need an assessment of these dynamics coupled with a persistent question of whether our conservation efforts are hitting the target with the desired impact. Unfortunately, we do not even have a Cassandra as political decisions regarding assessment and evaluation have turned out the lights on the conservation arena. We are skeet shooting in the dark.

I have always thought that the expression “think globally, act locally” sounded a little too touchy-feely for me, but now I am beginning to appreciate some of the wisdom behind this statement. If our leadership cannot or will not act relative to the aforementioned challenges, then it is our responsibility as conservationists to act locally. A conservationist will work around programs and use experience and local knowledge to reach out and address the conservation challenges in her area. Local conservation issues are addressed by finding creative and even unorthodox ways of solving problems even if it means not being recorded in the performance systems of program managers (Nowak 2009). However, all these actions by conservationists remain insufficient unless one more element is added.

In the challenging setting I have just described, I cannot emphasize enough the importance of listening, learning, and interacting with fellow conservationists. There is no better teacher than the one found in the school of hard knocks, and most of the conservationists I know have been there. How do we deal with the trends and issues outlined earlier? Interacting with other conservationists is sure to generate some clues if not the answers on how this can be done. Creating opportunities for conservationists to talk about conservation with fellow conservationists creates, in essence, a spotlight on the target. Professional associations such as SWCS offer the opportunity to learn from other conservationists. To paraphrase John Donne, no conservationist is an island onto himself or herself as we have so much to share with each other. Turning the lights back on in the conservation arena depends on you acting locally with insights and motivation coming from global participation with fellow conservationists. Be active in your SWCS as so much depends on it!

Nowak, Pete. 2009. The subversive conservationist. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation 64(4):113A-115A, doi:10.2489/jswc.64.4.113A.

This article first appeared in the March 2013 Conservogram newsletter.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Northern Plains Chapter: Technical Meeting

On March 27 and 28, 2013, the Northern Plains Chapter of the SWCS will hold its annual technical meeting in Casper, Wyoming. The meeting will include presentations on soil health and biology, crop diversity, cover crops, and no-till management. There is no registration fee, but attendees are requested to register by March 20. The registration form and the conference agenda are available online here.