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White House kicks off conservation conference

The White House is playing environmental matchmaker, sponsoring a conservation conference Monday that encourages odd couples such as the Nature Conservancy and the Pentagon to work together.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The White House is playing environmental matchmaker, encouraging odd couples such as the Nature Conservancy and the Pentagon as they team to save wild birds and military training ranges.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is among President Bush’s Cabinet members talking up “cooperative conservation,” the buzzword for the first presidential conference on the environment in 40 years. Interior Secretary Gale Norton says the aim is “to energize citizen-conservationists.”

Bush hopes the three-day meeting that opened Monday in St. Louis will boost local involvement nationwide. Leveraging federal money and helping cut regulatory red tape are other goals, his top environmental adviser said.

But what Rumsfeld had to say Monday wasn't likely to be well received by environmentalists.

“When those (environmental) concerns are not balanced, the consequence can be unfortunate, such as when troops deployed to Iraq,” he said in remarks prepared for delivery at the White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation.

When some troops trained for service in Iraq at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif., Rumsfeld said, they were taught to roll up the bottom of their tents to stay out of the way of desert tortoises.

“In Iraq, however, light spread out at the base of the tents and made troops more visible and possibly more vulnerable to insurgents,” he said.

The military is rarely on the same side as environmentalists in political battles. Many of the Defense Department’s training ranges are in wilderness areas. Near growing cities, residents complain about the noise from military bases even as development expands toward base perimeters.

Rumsfeld also mentioned several projects where the military and conservationists worked together. He pointed to the resurgence of the red-cockaded woodpecker, an endangered species, on U.S. military bases in the southeastern United States.

Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the administration wants to expand dramatically the federal programs that allow for local conservation efforts yet also “reduce some of the expansive machinery of government that can sometimes get in the way.”

Agencies plan to emphasize:

  • Interior Department programs that give direct financial help for conservation by ranchers and other private landowners.
  • Environmental Protection Agency help in commercially redeveloping waste sites.
  • Agriculture Department backing for preserving farmland.
  • Commerce Department aid in preserving marine habitats.

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson added that “as a 25-year EPA scientist, I have learned that when we act alone, mandating rules and regulations, our environmental progress is limited.”

Partnering with Pentagon
With about a quarter of all 1,268 endangered and threatened U.S. species residing on military bases, the Nature Conservancy has been an active partner with the Pentagon. The group’s president, Steven McCormick, says it helps identify natural habitat that species need to survive, then sets about securing land and funding to create buffer zones.

“We felt that it was a tremendous opportunity,” McCormick said. “There are more endangered species on military facilities than on any other federal lands. They contain some incredibly important habitat, and species depend on it.”

The group hired a retired Army brigadier general, Bob Barnes, to help out. He had seen the idea take hold with the Red-cockaded woodpecker at the Army’s Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

Congress appropriated $12.5 million this year specifically for creating partnerships for dealing with endangered species at military facilities, the first time lawmakers have taken such action.

“We’re hopeful that the White House conference will at the very least create greater awareness of these unlikely alliances,” McCormick said. “Regulation and buying land alone probably won’t be sufficient for conservation to take hold on a really large scale.”

Environmentalists critical of Bush’s environmental record support the premise that landowners play an important role in protecting endangered species, water and air quality. Nearly four-fifths of the land in the lower 48 states is privately owned.

“It’s not enough to put a fence around the land,” said Robert Bonnie, a senior economist for New York-based Environmental Defense. “We need landowners to go out and do things, restore habitat, plant buffers around streams — trees, native vegetation.”

Some skepticism
They caution against relying too much on public-private partnerships.

“I would be skeptical of any contention that ’cooperative conservation’ is the only tool needed,” said Michael Bean, a senior lawyer for Environmental Defense. “I think they want to emphasize that and de-emphasize the regulations.”

At the last summit on “natural beauty” in 1965, President Johnson supported a “new conservation” ethic against too much growth and industry harming the landscape. Today, Bush espouses a pro-business strategy of “new environmentalism,” in which citizens’ needs come before more regulations whenever possible.

“For us, this administration has become overly reliant on this type of approach,” said Wesley Warren, director of programs for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s just another name for voluntary partnership. It would be like saying we’re just going to rely on voluntary baggage screening to provide airport security. It’s good as far as it goes, but it’s not enough.”

Connaughton said, however, the White House only wants a bigger bang for its buck.

“The federal government owns and manages one of every five acres,” he said. “This is about how to work out paths to engage in conservation on the other four-out-of-five acres.”

Statements from and background on the conference are online at