On a cold and windy Saturday last January, hundreds of people filtered into the cafeteria of Keene High School in southwestern New Hampshire to attend the Monadnock Land Summit. The old guard of New England land conservation was out in force: veteran landowners, conservation commission officers, town officials, and executive directors of land trusts, community organizations, and local non-profits. Many of those in the auditorium had known each other for years, having formed strong friendships and alliances over the difficult business of making land conservation happen in tax-wary communities.
As I entered the room and found a seat, I was painfully aware of the difference in years and the difference in outlook between myself and many of my fellow summiters. I was a new and naïve face in that crowd, fresh out of graduate school and with less than a year under my belt as a working professional. I wondered what I had to bring to the table in this celebration of years spent conserving land.
Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely out of place. Ducking in and out of the milieu, holding their own in the sea of experience, were my fellow fresh faces – few in number, but significant in contributions and ideas. Several presented posters on their work throughout the region, some led discussions, and even more asked tough questions. We fanned out into the crowd to make new connections and came together in small groups, joking and gossiping and sharing ideas. We were a new guard, a unified and friendly cohort, the future of the land conservation movement.
This new guard, this club to which I belong by virtue of relative youth, is not insignificant. An ever-smaller percentage of young people live in rural areas, stay where they grew up, or care about becoming stewards of the natural world. Many of us who do pursue a resource-management education have taken our skills with us to cities or the wide open spaces of the West. It is obvious, and a point much beleaguered, that this is dangerous for the future of land conservation and the tradition of working the land.
The “new guard” represents a way to defeat this trend. We are the thin green line, our generation’s unsung and often unnoticed police force of traditional cultural values. We practice energy conservation and live lifestyles free of the conspicuous consumption so often present among our nation’s young and successful. We hunt, tap sugar maples, make food from scratch. We get involved in local organizations, despite living transient lives that often require moving every few years. We work for land trusts, non-profits, schools, and think tanks, preserving resources even though we typically can’t, and may never, afford to own land ourselves. In many ways, we are the last line of defense between rapid urbanization and the old traditions of the American Northeast.
The young have a unique ability to get riled up about inequality and social justice, and we must use this passion to our advantage. In the Northeast and across the country, the largest and best land conservation projects often take place in the richest communities. A balance must be struck between the importance of conservation and the rights of everyone to be able to work hard, own land, and continue their chosen rural lifestyle. It’s up to us to create new models that promote open, diverse, land-focused communities.
We must not only speak but also learn to listen – to elderly neighbors, community leaders, landowners, those who have worked in the forest industry, who have seen its decline and the resulting hardships. Only then will we learn how to create a balance of conservation and economic success. We can avoid choosing unfocused idealism over practicality by learning from those who have faced similar challenges.
At the same time, we should be aware that we have a perspective not shared by many of those we work with. We’ve grown up hearing about new problems, like climate change, invasive species, and habitat fragmentation. At the same time, there’s been a shift in the way people look at nature from a series of concrete disciplines to a cohesive unit in which every part affects the whole. We are well-suited to use that kind of systems thinking to synthesize solutions to a range of problems.
We are also responsible for the environmental education of the generation coming up behind us, that group to which one day, in our old age, we will pass the burden of land management and conservation. We can foster, in our fledgling families, an early appreciation of the natural world.
As the conference ended, I collected free pens, magnets, and brochures and surveyed the crowd, promising to bring this inspiration back to the challenges of my own work. Maintaining an active and diverse community is crucial to the future of the rural Northeast, both as we know it and as we want it to be. This is the challenge and responsibility of my generation as we move forward.
Erin Quigley is involved in a number of conservation projects in and around Keene, New Hampshire.