September 18, 2010

Plovers and ATVs in Hatteras

So, I just came across this post about the ongoing conflict over environmental conservation and off-road recreational vehicle use out on Hatteras Island. Since I grew up in a place where these kinds of issues are critical, and since my current research focuses on very similar issues, I am of course very interested in what is happening over in North Carolina. It's about a battle over endangered plovers, coastal resources, tourism, and local residents. It's also turned into an ideological battle between environmentalists, the National Park Service, and some of the local community members on Hatteras Island. Rick, the author of the post, recounts the fact that he recently visited the island and was confused about signs that declared areas closed for environmental reasons. But, he explains, once he saw this video, he understood the "driving forces" behind the issue and became enraged about what he calls "environmental tyranny." He encourages readers to watch the same video, get equally enraged, and make this issue "go viral".

Ya, that'll solve the problem.

First of all, I can understand why people are upset and angry about this issue. Clearly, people's livelihoods are being affected by this environmental conflict. And it is critical to seriously consider how conservation efforts affect local communities and economies. People matter. Blindly enclosing environmental spaces without taking account of the effects upon local communities is shortsighted and unjust. That's how I see it. I have had my fair share of experience with these sorts of issues, and it's definitely true that communities can be pushed aside when it comes to the management of cultural and natural resources. It definitely happens.

That said, I don't really think that getting "enraged" and passing around a 20 minute video about the issue is really the way to go. I'd rather see people get informed about this before they leap to any conclusions and start jumping on the nearest political bandwagon. I think there is more to the issue than this 20 minute video suggests.

I think it's time for the quote of the day. Michel Foucault once said this: "Never engage in polemics." I think that's good this case and in many others.

Anyway, back to the birds and off-road vehicles. The video definitely shows an important component of this issue, and illustrates the fact that some people are being severely affected by what is happening. I think a lot of the people make a good case, and that they have some solid points to consider. These are voices that should be heard. There are real, serious, long-term effects with these sorts of problems. But what else is going on in this case?

The most recent Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and ORV Management Plan, which is available online, clearly outlines the conflict and the fact that the National Park Service has to find a way to allow ORV use while still protecting/managing the coastal environment that draws the tourists in the first place. The EIS clearly illustrates the fact that NPS realizes that people need to use ORVs to get out to the beaches. The whole problem is that finding a way to allow access and still preserve the environment isn't exactly a quick, let alone easy, process. Add to that the fact that EIR processes can be slow-going, and it becomes even more clear why the situation can get more and more heated. While the process drags along, people's economic livelihoods hang in the balance.

See, that's the whole thing. When it comes to resource conservation/management, the difficulty lies in striking a reasonable balance between use and protection in order to avoid the absolute destruction of the place that everyone wants to see. If the place gets overrun with tourists and ORVs, the locals who make a living off those pretty beaches are out of luck on that count as well. And that's why situations like this aren't always as cut and dry as they might seem at first. The local people lose if there is TOO MUCH protection, yet they also lose if there isn't enough. Go look at places like Hawaii and see why it's important to balance tourism demands and environmental concerns.

So yes, people matter. But so does finding a way to avoid the absolute destruction of environmental resources--that's the whole reason why national parks were established in the first place. As I see it, more information and cooler heads can lead to better chances for conflict resolution. Especially in cases like this where there are multiple users and agendas involved.

Ultimately, it should come of no surprise that this issue has become incredibly political. Anybody who thinks that environmental issues can be apolitical haven't been paying attention for the last century. Read about the politics that surround Yosemite Valley. Or about environmental issues all through Mexico. In the case of Hatteras Island and the conservation of the National Seashore, the issues are politicized on various fronts. The issue of use vs. protection for this small strip of land has some serious economic implications for people who have deep historical and social roots in the area. At the same time, while it is imperative to deal with economic and social ramifications in a just manner, it is also critical to preserve the very things that we all want to enjoy--it's not just about today, but about having these kinds of places around for future generations.

Ya, I know. We've all heard that one before. But to me it makes perfect sense to weigh future costs with current needs. I'm certainly not someone who goes around pretending that there is such a thing as an ideal, pristine natural world that needs to be shielded from any and all human actions and behaviors. For me, it makes sense to avoid looking at this as simply another issue of humans versus nature. It might help to realize that humans are--and have been--a part of this environment for generations. Humanity isn't just some recent aberration; it have been around these kinds of places for thousands of years, shaping landscapes all the while. Now, by no means does that mean that NPS or anyone else should just allow the place to get trashed by ORV use. and tourism That's the last argument I am making.

What I am saying is that ALL of these issues have to be accounted for, and unfortunately there isn't just one big answer that can solve every case like this. Each one requires attention to local specifics and details. Maybe getting enraged will in fact garner some attention, who knows? But in this case my vote goes for more background, more information, and slightly cooler heads. From what I have seen, going the "enraged" route only leads to prolonged conflict, misunderstandings, high emotions, and endless political gridlock.

No comments: