Much of the conservation community’s current approach to conservation planning is a commodification of nature. Lands are valued according to laundry lists of the tangible services (e.g. water quality protection, forage, carbon storage) they provide. We might not assign actual dollars to such services, but we’re certainly thinking about cash for services.
…and sometimes that’s fine. When it comes to the reconstruction of destroyed ecosystems or the restoration of severely degraded ecosystems, there is much to be gained and little to be lost ecologically, so why not sell a project using ecosystem services that appeal to people as consumers? After all, ecological reconstruction and restoration do cost real money.
However, when it comes to the protection and management of our last remnant natural areas, I protest. Any service that the lone prairie in the encroaching thicket or old-growth timber in a metropolitan corridor provides fails to even remotely approach the value the remnant natural area has by its mere continued existence. Our remaining natural areas cannot be adequately considered by deconstruction into goods and services, just as a Monet cannot broken down to paint, canvas, and frame and then sold for millions of dollars. Natural areas are our windows into the past, benchmarks for scientific understanding, and loci for contemplation of our own human existence. Quite often, they are a finite resource very near exhaustion.
In the conversation over conservation priorities, then, I am loathe to consider remnant natural areas on the same plain as other forms open space.
Much of the problem is that the public doesn’t register the differences between an old field and a prairie or an oak woods and a buckthorn thicket. They live in a world where green is green, gray is gray, and brown is brown…a world that is mostly seen out the window or through a screen. Others of us live in a degraded landscape, where through determination and effort one might still find the odd hidden treasure. More of the broader public needs to share in that experience. How that happens in contemporary society is tricky, because it is a matter of perception rather than a matter of providing directions to a location. As the first step and at the very least, we can strive to ensure that remnant natural areas continue to exist, so there remains hope.