Discussing “Working Landscapes, Working Waterscapes”

Hetch Hetchy

Hetch Hetchy reservoir. Image by Phil Eager via Flickr

I attended a panel discussion at the California Historical Society, January 18, 2012 about appropriate land uses on public land. It was titled Working Landscapes, Working Waterscapes. Its purpose was to explore how we might “build a consensus” and perhaps “change the ways we think about and manage cultural and working landscapes within parks, natural areas, and wildernesses.” Is there a way we could “become better stewards of our public lands?”

The panel consisted of:

I captured as much as I could from the discussion. These are snippets:

Moderator: Is it possible to find or fashion consensus in the use of public lands for working landscapes? The initial answer is NO.

Richard Walker: The guiding ideas of conservation have changed over the past 100 years. Recreation has changed from automobile sightseeing to backpacking ethic to “working landscapes” where many of us take pleasure in the idea. Working landscapes embody conservation easements and other ideas. Point Reyes is ambiguous because it originally embodied some initial ideas of working landscapes. Agrarian landscapes provide aesthetic value. This working landscapes idea is particularly popular in Europe with an ‘artisinal’ use of the land.

Kelly Cash: We all see the land as something sacred. On the Malpai some hardcore preservationists and hardcore ranchers found common ground and the idea of “Working Wilderness” was born. In the Working Wilderness experience, the people and the wilderness work in a symbiotic relationship.

Amy Meyer: ” ‘Wilderness’ means something different to me.” She referenced the Wilderness Act. However, she noted that some people see wilderness as a ‘wild place.’ “I don’t expect, for example, to encounter bicycles.” “No bicycles in wilderness.” “Wilderness, to me, is a very defined place.” “Being one with the universe.” “Civilization drops away.” “Temporarily, I’m a visitor.”

Moderator: Are there not some sacred places, such as Hetch Hetchy?

Kelly Cash: Sacred things can have piety to them. There are sacred spaces. Hetch Hetchy is one of those sacred places. We will be remembered for what we innovate. We need to innovate as much as we possibly can.

Moderator: Perhaps we want it all. We want our wilderness next door.

Richard Walker: People are passionate about areas closest (in proximity) to them. We have intense feeling about close in areas because we grew up visiting these places when we were younger.

Moderator: Are there any areas that are hands-off?

Amy Meyer: “Wilderness!” It is something you can not bring back.

Moderator: How do we resolve this?

Kelly Cash: In my dream world there should be another blue-ribbon commission. “We’re Californians damn it! We innovate!”

Moderator: (inaudible)

Richard Walker: Every inch of acreage around the Bay Area has been fought over. “Wilderness is not a given state of nature, it’s a political idea.”
“The terrain has shifted.” “Public lands are disappearing.”

Kelly Cash: “I think it’s a big mistake to say that fighting is the only way.”

The Moderator then opened the floor up to comments and questions. People generally made sub-audible statements to which one in the panel would respond.


I came away with the impression that all the participants, Amy Meyer and Richard Walker in particular–and perhaps to a lesser extent Kelly Cash and Jon Christensen–felt that a pure form of Nature, with a capital N, exists. I disagree: it exists only as a construct of our imaginations. “Nature” is an ethos of those of us who are well off enough to not have to worry about mere survival. Nature and the ‘end of nature’ is something we wax elegiac about when we no longer have to wrest food, clothing, and shelter from our environment on a daily basis.

I would have liked to have seen an economist with an interest in environmental issues on the panel. Hetch Hetchy the reservoir, as an example, may have been “sacred” to everyone in the room, but Hetch Hetchy the dam provides valuable water to a populace that would be in constant drought conditions without it. Hetch Hetchy Valley may be more valuable as scenery, but if it is restored to its earlier undammed state, other areas will then be pressed into service and water will be diverted from other “sacred” spaces for the needs of the people of San Francisco. We delude ourselves if we think that there are only benefits from those places or projects we support or want to preserve in a sort of amber (e.g. renewable energy and wilderness) and only costs for those resources we oppose the use of.

While the conversation’s goal was to find common ground for a way forward, it neglected to bring in economics as a mechanism to achieve that. Economics is the study of incentives. Richard Walker dismissed any place for economics at the table when he said, (paraphrased) ‘It is ludicrous to talk about “ecosystem services.” Money has no place in the discussion.’ His point was that Nature is so important that it cannot commodified. I strongly disagree.

Finding the degree to which we humans can live with our alteration of a landscape will always be an economic question. Consider a thought experiment: would we want Point Reyes Seashore completely pristine if it took our entire Gross Domestic Product to transform it to that magical/mythical state? You and I would live in complete poverty (i.e. less than $1.25/day) in order to have this seashore restored. We would have to forage for food by trapping animals every day. Point Reyes might be a wonderland that only the wealthy elite can see but we would be happy that Nature had been saved at Point Reyes while (like the North Koreans) we pick kernels of corn out of pig excrement. Hallelujah. Praise Gaia. While this is an extreme example, you get my point. We can, and do, place price tags all the time on things like parks, clean water, and clean air. We just don’t usually think about it while we are doing this. We measure the cost of preserving land by looking at what we need to give up to have it preserved. And I would be willing to bet that none of the panelists would choose to preserve Point Reyes if they could never have enough money to get there, and its preservation took so much of our resources that the 99% could not eat.

Money and economics have to be part of the discussion.

Despite the monetizing of aesthetic and environmental services that parks and wildlands offer, economists do not try to put an exact and absolute price on these “commodities.” They just try to compare like with like. This comparing like with like is termed a cost-benefit analysis.

What actually happens is that when a cost benefit analysis says that this marshland is worth £squiddelypop as a nesting and feeding area for wading birds the statement is not that you can take the marsh to the bank and in return get the cash for this £squiddelypop divided by four pints beer. Rather, it’s that by their actions, on average, humans behave as if the value of this marshland nesting and feeding area for wading birds is worth that multiple of the value they put on that many pints of beer. We are not claiming that anything has an absolute value: we are claiming that human beings seem to put this value on it as compared to the other value they put on that over there. The only reason that we put these values into pounds and pence is so that we can do sums.

Another way of putting this is that we are using commensurable values because all of the values we are using are the (perhaps arbitrary, certainly subjective) values that human beings put on these things.

Now we have our method, this cost benefit analysis. We have the values which we can slot into our sums. We must now work out which is a cost and which is a benefit: sums notoriously don’t work out if you get that bit wrong. – Tim Worstall, Chasing Rainbows (emphasis added)

Or, said another way, if you remove Hetch Hetchy reservoir there will be a major loss of water to the people of San Francisco. The people who live in San Francisco would not have enough water to live there unless somebody else pays an environmental or monetary price (by diverting water from somewhere else). By relocating the dam to another place on the  Tuolumne River, another set of costs are incurred. There’s no such thing as a Free Lunch. Someone pays the bill.

I also came away with the feeling that Amy and Richard and most of the audience thought nature was static, that at some time before the 20th century or perhaps before the Industrial Revolution, but certainly before today, things were pristine and untouched. Just the opposite is probably the truth: that once we became wealthy enough to afford it, we could begin to set aside “natural” areas. I think that the fact that the discussion took occurred at all last night is a positive thing. And I think we need to keep talking.

Post to Twitter

Weekend postcard: Alexander Valley

This weekend’s postcards were taken in the Alexander Valley area in Sonoma County near Healdsburg. They were taken last year in May so the grass on the hills had begun turning brown in the shallower and more exposed soils. The grapes were in full leaf.

It was one of those perfect California days. I had gone to Bear Republic Brewery and had a flight of tasters to accompany an incredible lamb burger. Afterward, I went to hear my friend and fellow writer, Ken Dalton talk about what it takes to write his “Pinky and the Bear” series.

Post to Twitter

Dr. Whatsforlunch or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Chemicals

Some rationally optimistic thoughts from Matt Ridley are in this video.

Consider this: when we compare the farm yields of the 1960s to the yields at the end of the 1990s, we find that conventional (aka intensive) farming has, in effect, saved 44% of earth’s land from going under the plow.


Post to Twitter