This year we face a few significant crossroads

One of my favorite quotes speaks to the difficulty we have when new or uncomfortable ideas challenge the way we are used to viewing the world:

“Shallow ideas can be assimilated; ideas that require people to reorganize their picture of the world provoke hostility.”<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="" target="_blank">James Gleick</a></span>

Gleick’s statement is the short form of these older, more flowery words by Tolstoy:

“I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives.”<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="" target="_blank">Leo Tolstoy</a></span>

In 2021, we face a few crossroads in our belief system. I call it a crossroads because what has been comfortable and usual is no longer so. Our past is colliding with our future and this is happening on our watch. There’s no getting around it, no putting it off, no ignoring it. It’s on our watch so it is ours to deal with.

This year, we are examining potential changes in the way that conservation district board supervisors are elected. We are also going to examine how diversity, equity, and inclusion intersect with our conservation district world. With two committees working on these themes, I expect that you will see recommendations to consider by this fall.

I guarantee that some ideas from the committees will challenge us. We will hear ideas that may sound delightful to some and abhorrent to others. Some of those ideas will come from folks who stand outside our conservation community. Within our community, we have folks on both ends of the rainbow on these issues, and folks at every place between those endpoints.

Conservation district elections

I’m sure that most will agree that we have been talking about conservation district elections for a long time. Thirty years ago, I provided testimony in a Superior Court case in which the conservation district election was voided. That election had to be done over. Many of us can recall one or two exclamation marks that stand out in our memories of conservation district elections.

Problems in conservation district elections are not new, and despite all of the work done by many people, all of the problems are not yet solved. I’m reminded of this variation of an Einstein quote: The same thinking that has led you to where you are is not going to lead you to where you want to go.

Are we at that moment where all of the thinking and good work that has advanced us to this point is now holding us back? Has what brought us to this moment become the anchor that locks us in place, keeping us from embracing new ways to move forward?

It does feel to me like we are at an inflection point in our steady striving to always be and do better.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion

Although diversity, equity, and inclusion appear to be much newer topics than conservation district elections, they go back to the very beginning of the conservation district movement. Requiring some conservation district board members to be landowners is now recognized as a way to exclude others. The original intent was undoubtedly well-intended: populating boards with people connected to land and natural resources would yield boards that could make the best decisions about those resources.

That’s the way it was and that’s the fundamental system we still have, with some of our conservation district board members having a direct connection to land. I am certain that this connection to land and other resources continues to be very helpful because conserving natural resources is the mission of our conservation districts.

Along the way, though, the scope of what conservation districts may do has become vastly wider. Districts are no longer tightly focused primarily on correcting the problems that emerged during the Dust Bowl. The mission has expanded.

Conservation districts don’t serve natural resources: they serve people. Conserving natural resources is the mission and people are the pathway to accomplishing that mission. People elect district supervisors. People authorize and pay rates and charges to support some districts. People allow conservation districts to do conservation work on their land. Clearly, our conservation districts are accountable to the people in their communities. Without the interest and support of people, conservation districts would simply be unable to conserve natural resources.

Since people are integral to what conservation districts do and how they do it, then including other values on district boards would help our member conservation districts see opportunities to serve even more people in our local communities and to deliver even more conservation.

We’ve been down this road before

Whether it’s conservation district elections, or access to Farm Bill programs, or improving how we reach and serve people in our communities, we have traveled this road before. As a group, we tend to exhibit a characteristic that helps our farmers and ranchers and foresters and fishers succeed: an unapologetic, focused, persistent, strong will. We don’t change quickly. Indeed, we tend to hold tightly to what has worked well in the past.

That’s human nature and we exemplify it. The tipping point we face means we face a choice: we could deny the hold that the past has on us and instead turn to face an uncertain future, or we could deny that any changes are helpful or needed. No matter what we choose, the rest of the world is moving forward and if we don’t advance, we will likely be left behind: marginalized, sidelined, forgotten. That is not an acceptable future for the torchbearers of the voluntary, non-regulatory conservation movement! To quote Robin Williams in his role as Andrew Martin in Bicentennial Man: “That won’t do.”

This is a time for creativity and innovation

This is a time to harness all the creativity we can muster. We should be well informed by our past because we have plenty of it, but to make progress on the elections and DEI topics, we need to grab hold of the possibility that the future could be better. It is a time to be incredibly innovative, to seek new ideas and thinking from many sources, and to become more aware of our own beliefs that may be holding us back.

“If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.”<span class="su-quote-cite"><a href="" target="_blank">Richard P. Feynman</a></span>

Physicists like to say that the solution to a problem is “obvious” when, with adequate study and reflection, the solution can be deduced. “Hard” is reserved for intractable, seemingly unsolvable problems. I am hoping that our solutions are obvious. I am hoping that with the care and grace and commitment that all of our people are known for, we can take some steps forward together and help to create a better future for those who will come after us.

Tom Salzer
Tom Salzer

It won’t be easy and it likely won’t be comfortable…at first. Eventually, whatever we do to become more effective will become our new normal. Eventually, we’ll look back on this time and wonder why it took us so long to embrace the idea that no matter how good we do, we can always do better.

To do less just won’t do.

Tom Salzer, WACD Executive Director