Sustainability: How productive is the moral high ground?
While in Canada this year I came across an organization called Ducks Unlimited and through a chain of coincidences found out quite a lot about it. I found what I discovered rather disquieting, and, as result did quite a lot of soul searching about sustainability and about our (particularly my own) preference for the moral high ground on environmental issues. A bit of background description is needed to understand my disquiet though.
I expected the Manitoba/Saskatchewan prairie to be an endless monotony of flat grain fields but was surprised at its parklike nature. There are thousands of small ponds and wetlands (slews) with associated raupo like vegetation and trees. The farmers work the land around these slews, which are of course, a refuge for all kinds of wildlife and water foul. I was also stunned at the road kill; skunks, racoon, porcupine, badger, and deer, and was told that, with the dry weather, the slews were drying up and the animals on the move looking for water. This lay behind the number of road killed animals.
I discovered too, that with the incessant pressure on farm viability, let alone profitability, there is an incredible temptation for farmers to plough in the dry slews. This adds more productive land and also saves having to farm around them. In my travels I noticed several Ducks Unlimited billboards and was told that the organization buys up land in order to protect the wildlife habitat. I was rather impressed by this.
One of the coincidences was that my itinerary involved a visit to a significant wetland and education centre near Winnipeg, called Oak Hammock. This is a 10 000 acre reserve and resting place for migratory water foul, owned by Ducks Unlimited. Throughout my visit, people were obviously interested in what I was doing and where I was going, but whenever I mentioned my intended visit to Oak Hammock wetland, the responses were 'furrowed browed'. It was as if Ducks Unlimited was a cover up for some dark secret.
About the third time this happened, one of my hosts asked another, "Ducks Unlimited is run by hunters isn't it?" and the answer was affirmative. I was rather surprised by this, and yet I did not understand why. I have hunted deer all my adult life, I have no objection to hunting. It is my observation that hunters are generally much more aware of the natural world than most other people, and serious ones often have a most profound respect for nature and are also often serious conservationists. But in New Zealand, hunting deer is conservation since they, like all mammals here, are an introduced species without natural predators. Despite this, the thought of conserving wildlife so you can kill it struck an uncomfortable note with me.
I was thus a bit cautious about spending a day with Dr Rick Wishart, the education officer with Ducks Unlimited. In fact, one of my hosts had added to the mystery by asking me to see if I could find out where their funding came from. I do not want to overdramatise here, I was told lots about the organization, and I probed a bit, before Rick somewhat sheepishly told me that the organization had been established by hunters. When I told him I was a hunter myself, things relaxed quite a bit, so it is obviously something the organization has learned to be sensitive about.
Rick told me, in short, that Ducks Unlimited was established by a group of hunters who noticed the decline in water fowl populations in the 1930s 'dustbowl droughts' and set about trying to preserve water fowl habitat. The organization now has a 70 year history and a budget of around $70 million per year. With a staff of over 200 they run education programmes, conduct and fund research. They do purchase at risk land but do so reluctantly. The reason is that doing so interferes with land prices and absentee neighbours tend to be resented. As well as pragmatic difficulties like poor weed control that upsets neighbouring farmers, prairie communities are also struggling, they need people. So, what Ducks Unlimited prefers to do is provide alternatives for farmers through their funding of agricultural research, demonstration farms and through education programmes.
In grazing country, for example, they encourage farmers to plant early growing fodder crops like alfalfa away from the slews and graze these in the spring. This leaves the natural prairie grasses undisturbed around the slews during the breeding season and available for grazing later in the season. As well as protecting the birds, this is good for all the other species that depend on the wetlands.
Also interesting, and rather enlightened by New Zealand standards I thought, were the arrangements around Oak Hammock. Tens of thousands of geese pass through Oak Hammock and graze the surrounding grain fields. Ducks Unlimited farm the surrounding lands but do not harvest the grain, leaving it to draw the geese in off neighbouring land. As well, the provincial government evaluates crop yields of surrounding farms and compensates farmers for damage. The birds, mainly Canada geese do, after all, belong to the nation.
Another initiative set up by Ducks Unlimited through a satellite organization, is a response to local planning codes that insist that housing subdivisions restrain their water runoff in ponds. These ponds end up needing artificial aeration. Moreover, the nice mowed grass frontages preferred by suburban home owners around these ponds are heaven for Canada geese whose mess is not what anyone wants on their front lawn. Ducks Unlimited research has led to the strategy of planting 'cats tail' (raupo) around the ponds. Canada geese like to be able to see and the tall grasses obscure their vision and discourage them. In conjunction with original prairie grass species, these plantings remove most of the nutrients that lead to excessive algal growth in the ponds and thus remove the need to artificially aerate.
Despite all this, I still felt uneasy as I explored the extensive display and educational centre at Oak Hammock. I think it was the hunting and fishing themes in the children's art displays that I struggled with the most. But this is someone else's culture out on the great prairie. And it was in thinking about culture that I made the most sense out of all the impressions and information.
Most of us recognise 'cultural harvest' by indigenous people as an essential part of cultural identity. But all human beings depend on harvests of one sort or another. It is mostly that industrialised society removes us from the reality of what we are doing. Hunting is, whether people in the 21 st century feel comfortable about it or not, part of being human. Hunting animals in the wilderness is probably less damaging to the environment than bargain hunting/ recreational consumption if you think about it. If we just change the language a bit, from hunting to harvesting, it is easy to see how emotive all this is.
If a group of hunters (and Ducks Unlimited has a much wider subscription base than just hunters) seeks to ensure a sustainable harvest, and in doing so establishes a whole raft of other sustainable practices which support a range of wildlife and improve the urban environment too, that seems pretty good to me. Central to coming to this conclusion though, is facing up to the ways we impact on our surroundings.
We cannot deny our impact on the world. We have to harvest resources from the environment to survive. As well, if we want to move to a more sustainable way of living we have to compromise. In that process, nobody is going to get everything their own way. The process of making and accepting compromises is a difficult and challenging one. I reckon, on reflection, that the Ducks Unlimited compromise is one that teaches several lessons.