April 20, 2002

Helping Citizens Conserve Their Own Land — and America's


In 1996, when Kimberly de Castro bought a small ranch in San Jose, N.M., that had been badly damaged by overgrazing and destruction of wetlands, she set to work healing the land. With the help of a small federal grant, she planted thousands of trees and shrubs, sowed native plants, placed tons of straw bales with grass seed in eroded areas and developed a five-mile drip-irrigation system to provide water for the new plants. The success of her restoration work has made it possible to raise honeybees on the land an operation that produces 100 gallons of honey every year for donation to local charities.

Ms. de Castro persuaded 10 of her neighbors to bring conservation to their 5,000 acres by seeding eroded lands, repairing outdated water structures (once used for cattle operations) to support wildlife, restoring small wetlands, setting aside conservation easements and planting native trees and shrubs for wildlife habitat. She also worked with local school districts to bring in schoolchildren for field trips to learn about taking care of the land.

Without realizing it, Ms. de Castro was joining thousands of other Americans who have quietly given birth to a new recognition of the land ethic in America, a new environmentalism rooted in the concept of citizen conservationists who take upon themselves the care of the land while still living on that land and working it.

Monday is Earth Day, and there will be speeches and programs around the country assessing our national progress since environmentalism first reached a high place in the public's consciousness. We have addressed many of the most dramatic and visible issues: the bald eagle on the verge of extinction, the Cuyahoga River on fire, the smokestacks belching fumes in our cities. Now we are facing the more subtle and difficult problems of balancing a growing population's increasing demands on the land with the need to conserve our lands for future generations.

Americans tend to think big. So 50 acres, or even 5,000 acres, may not sound like much in the context of the entire country. The impact of Ms. de Castro's efforts may not seem significant compared with the effects of landmark laws like the Clean Water Act or the Clean Air Act.

But measuring our success in protecting the environment isn't simply a matter of looking at how many laws we have enacted. Success is measured by real conservation and restoration on the ground one acre at a time. These are activities that can be set in motion by the people who live on and work the land. Success also involves replacing conflict and confrontation with partnerships involving scientists, neighbors and the government.

In his 2003 budget, President Bush has proposed $100 million in grants under his Cooperative Conservation Initiative to support this concept of a new environmentalism. Landowners all over America will use these grants as a springboard for the kind of work Ms. de Castro has done on her property. An additional $60 million in grants will be distributed under the Landowner Incentive Program and Private Stewardship Grant Program.

In Vermont, for example, citizens concerned about the declining health of the White River watershed have formed "stream teams" to adopt 150 to 200 miles of river frontage. With the help of a federal grant, they have completed more than 20 restoration projects throughout the watershed everything from replanting eroded stream banks to putting up fences to keep out livestock.

In South Dakota, Terry Howard, a rancher, used a federal grant and the help of biologists from the Fish and Wildlife Service to restore 320 acres of farmland to native grassland that can be used by both livestock and prairie wildlife.

We are at a time when we must move beyond command-and-control and punitive approaches. The goal of government must be to empower people to be citizen conservationists while respecting the need to make a living off the land. America's future must include both a healthy environment and a dynamic economy.

Wade Robertson, a Texas landowner who restored prairie grouse habitats on his property with the help of a federal grant, summed up this approach to a member of my staff. "Thank you for empowering us to help ourselves," he said.

The great conservationist Aldo Leopold once encouraged Americans to make a personal commitment to conservation. "A conservationist is one who is humbly aware that with each stroke he is writing his signature on the face of the land," he wrote. We must take his vision and Kimberly de Castro's and make it a reality.

Gale A. Norton is secretary of the interior.

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