The Wild Goose Chase and the Land of Lost Opportunities

By Bob Ferris
“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Aldo Leopold in The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac pp. 224-25
Few us of know with certainty what we were doing 20 years ago, me included. But I do know what I was doing The Wild Goose Chaseon October 4, 1994. I was on a “wild goose chase” that was taking place at a very, very special place—Aldo Leopold’s shack in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
“Conservation, without a keen realization of its vital conflicts, fails to rate as authentic human drama. It falls to the level of a mere utopian dream.” Aldo Leopold in review of Our Natural Resources and Their Conservation (1937)
The Wild Goose Chase (and this was fun to put on expense forms) was a bringing together of leaders in timber resource management, environmental community and wildlife agencies—all folks grounded in Leopold’s Land Ethic—to see if we could figure out a way to make ecosystem management work and sand some of the rough edges off the Endangered Species Act. We wanted to know if we could come up with mechanisms that would provide both economic predictability and preserve ecological integrity—saving money and species at the same time. It turns out with a little creativity we could.
“I have purposely presented the land ethic as a product of social evolution because nothing so important as an ethic is ever 'written'… It evolves in the minds of a thinking community.” Aldo Leopold in The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac pp. 225
The meeting and process was the brain-child of Murray Lloyd self-described “loose cannon on deck” and participant along with me and several others in the Black Bear Conservation Coalition working to conserve the Louisiana black bear that Theodore Roosevelt once famously refused to shoot. We wanted to take the lessons learned in that process and see if we could collectively apply them across a broader geography. And we did by opening doors of communication between these interests and serving as a sounding board in the development of incentives like Habitat Conservation Planning and the so-called Safe Harbor agreements under the Endangered Species Act.
“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” Aldo Leopold in Foreword, A Sand County Almanac pp. viii
This and other similar initiatives were shining promises of a hopeful and cooperative future. We were building trust and cooperation and trying to move away from the old ways of doing business. It is hard to completely identify the actual “stake through the heart” of this whole enterprise. But soon thereafter one could not mention ecosystem management in congressional testimony and not get the resentful stares normally reserved for communists and atheists. One minute we were having friendly and productive discussions with the likes of John Chaffee, Sherry Boehlert, Wayne Gilchrist and other receptive Republicans that were leading to innovative solutions and the next were being browbeaten and bullied by Don Young, Richard Pombo and Helen Chenoweth.
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” Aldo Leopold in The Land Ethic, A Sand County Almanac pp. 204
Aldo's Red RockLots of factors contributed to the above change and our current and worsening state, but most relate to decisions made in boardrooms and offices to abandon legitimate and democratic processes of change like the Goose Chase or efforts like the Global Environmental Management Initiative for the hard and heartless hammer of money and influence. Certainly the Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch are exemplars of the derailing forces involved but there is room for broad blame and none of this is helped by the disastrous Citizens United ruling and the loss of the Fairness Doctrine.
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher 'standard of living' is worth its cost in things natural, wild and free.” Aldo Leopold in Foreword, A Sand County Almanac pp. vii
I think about the promise of the Goose Chase now because of the anniversary, but also because it and the subsequent congressional mood swing relate materially to my attitude towards and trust levels relating to modifications of how the O&C Lands are managed or even as we entertain and advocate for options for the Elliott State Forest in Oregon. My “trust meter” is on zero and those forces that worked so diligently to derail collaborative attitudes a generation or so ago should really think about what they gained through their efforts and what they could have gained had they remained honest brokers.
“We Americans, in most states at least, have not yet experienced a bear-less, eagle-less, cat-less, wolf-less woods. Germany strove for maximum yields of both timber and game and got neither.” Aldo Leopold in Notes on Wild Life Conservation in Germany (1935)
We are still mainly all in contact and the consensus among Goose Chase alumni is that the public will still exists to foment innovative public-private partnerships in the model of Leopold’s vision but that the congressional landscape which influences administrative actions and is influenced too heartily by the very corporate interests that would benefit from these undertakings is ironically the barrier. In order for us and others of similar mind sets to institute what we grew to call “virtual conservation” or “project-projects,” the bridge-makers with sensitivities to both economics and ecology need to be reactivated and empowered and the polarizing forces with a lack of understanding of the former and no sensitivity to the latter need to be expunged. Viva the Wild Goose Chase and thank you Murray!