Building Relationships for Community-Based Conservation

The root words for conservation and preservation are derived from the same meaning, to protect or to keep. In some ways, that is interesting to note simply because we typically find ourselves using them differently. Preservation is about the pure protection of the land, while conservation allows for some balanced use. These concepts are culturally defined. Our cultures are the voices of our communities, guiding us as we seek to understand our relationships with the world around us. With good reason, then, our connection to community is an important aspect of our existence. In more ways than one, we may seek to conserve it.

When I taught an ecological perspectives class at Fort Lewis College, located in Durango, Colorado, a few years back, we explored what it means to conserve and to preserve. Students from several diverse backgrounds offered both similar and dissimilar conceptions of what each meant to them culturally. And, in fact, that was one of the purposes for the course: to explore divergent cultural meanings behind conservation, natural resource management, and stewardship in a way that helps us build relationships. As it turns out, relationship and community building were very important to all but one student (who preferred his “go at it alone” approach).

The course was directed more toward the ecological perspectives of Native peoples, covering both historical accounts and contemporary issues. Through these studies, we began to understand how some tribal nations approach natural resource management. To simplify an actually complex set of interactions: tribal nations tend to be amenable to working with nonprofits, businesses, local governments, and other community organizations toward some preservation goals. This partnership bolsters community conservation endeavors in very meaningful ways, including the promotion of recreation, economic development, and local history.

Forming these coalitions may not be easy. As stakeholders with similar goals, the paths with which we may take to achieve them may look differently. The most effective partnerships are built on mutual respect, but also on a sound understanding of history. It can be productive to begin some of this work in the middle ground, or the intellectual and/or physical space where we can come together and build that alliance. As someone who has spent the past five years building these types of coalitions, I can attest to some failures. The breakdown of communication, the volatility of political turnover, and a combination of other external and internal influences contributes to this interruption. Learn from these challenges, partition a more secure middle ground, and think innovatively about achieving your goals.

Now is the time for communities and their constituents to take an even stronger lead in protecting their natural resources. In a time when our federal government appears to be redefining what it means to conserve our resources, it becomes prudent to do what we can to protect our more local environments. How we choose to do that will depend on how we not only define our local issues, but also by how we can more strongly build a diverse coalition of local stakeholders. Because a “One Minnesota” should include people from all walks of life — race, ethnicity, culture, sexual identity, and religious worldview — that make up our great state, these voices should be included in developing a meaningful conservation agenda. By doing so, we protect the values and the peoples that make Minnesota so great, regardless of how you define it.

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