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When It Comes to Public Lands Conservation in the USA: Got Science?

By: , Posted on: October 10, 2017

Protests like this one went viral globally in January 2017 when Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the USA due, in part, to his anti-science anti-climate change views (photo- D. DellaSala)

As a 30-plus year veteran of public lands conservation, I sculpted my career out of a solid scientific pedigree that was beginning to take shape in the 1970s-80s, the pinnacle of academia’s biodiversity craze. Science mattered to conservationists, policy makers, and conservation funders who viewed it as a necessary touch stone to the nation’s major conservation advances. My personal highlights included providing science support for the 58.5 million acre Roadless Conservation Rule and many of the 20 national monuments that President Clinton designated based, in part, on years of pain-staking field research and biodiversity cataloging of special places.

That trend of solid science in public lands conservation in the USA stood for decades even during the darkest days of the George W. Bush Administration’s attack on scientific integrity via political interference in the Endangered Species Act. At the time, we scientists stood up for scientific integrity during peer review of agency documents and by exposing flaws in endangered species rollbacks. In response, the Obama Administration thankfully made scientific integrity a pillar of its conservation policies, overturning many of the Bush Administration’s transgressions, while it pushed through its own science-supported climate change agenda and new national monuments. These forward-thinking policies are now in the cross hairs of the anti-science Trump Administration that is orchestrating an unprecedented attack on scientific integrity.

It pains me to witness the Trump Administration’s cutting of science programs and muzzling of scientists at the State Department, EPA, USDA, US Geological Service, Interior Department, White House Office of Science and Technology and just about any agency that has climate change in its mission. Government scientists willing to speak out get transferred to non-science jobs or resign under protest.

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” – Carl Sagan

But what is most alarming to me is the apparent abandonment of science in the conservation movement. I am increasingly hearing from many long-term funders that they are not investing in science much these days because they are ramping up funding of well-deserved grassroots organizing and local campaigning. Science is not how you win a conservation victory goes the narrative – you win with storytelling and organizing. Yes, and no. You win with a combination of storytelling and hard facts, which is what my activist friends tell me when they approach me because they need more science support to defend wilderness proposals and national monuments. Science is part of the grassroots narrative.

The recent turn of political events in the USA has underscored the need for grassroots organizing in all social change efforts, including conservation. And there is no doubt that grassroots organizations have struggled over the past decade to get the resources they need to do the conservation work that they are uniquely positioned to do – work that is critically important to long-term conservation success, but is often overlooked. We need both conservation science and grassroots organizing given the perfect storm brewing over climate change, unprecedented pressures to develop our precious public lands, and rampant climate change denial among US politicians.

If we respond well, the Trump Administration’s attack on science may act as a Zen-like blessing in disguise: a wake up call to all to not take science for granted.  For the first time in my career, I am no longer hearing from my science colleagues that they are worried about engaging in “advocacy” as if it is a four-letter word. Instead, Trump’s anti-science agenda has rallied even the most conservative scientists. Thousands of scientists showed up at national rallies earlier in the year, scientific societies now routinely make policy-engagement the topic of conferences and continue to issue statements about the need for more science in public policy, especially climate change. And brave government scientists are doing their part to expose meddling and to hold the line.

Science is not a panacea, nor is it the only tool in the conservation toolbox. Activism, communications, effective organizing, and campaigning win over the public in the long run. But science is how we understand the mysteries of the natural world. It gives us a way of evaluating the likely effectiveness of a policy change. Science is a foundational element in successful conservation efforts. Without science, we lose our ability to answer fundamental questions about how nature works and, most importantly, how to save the planet and ourselves in a changing climate.

I often have to remind my colleagues that when it comes to public lands conservation we are in a relay race, not a solo sprint. Same thing for rigorous science – just like wilderness advocacy – you have to be in it for the long haul. Got science? You better, for everyone’s sake!

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” – Carl Sagan

Dominick A. DellaSala, Ph. D, Chief Scientist Geos Institute, is an award-winning scientist with over 200 scientific publications and former president of the Society for Conservation Biology, North America Section.

For additional reading, check out these articles from Dominick in our Earth Systems and Environmental Science Reference Module:

The Impact of Climate Change on Public Health, Human Rights, and Social Justice

The Anthropocene: How the Great Acceleration Is Transforming the Planet at Unprecedented Levels

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