Protecting the vital ecosystems of this country has become big business, with large organizations leading the charge, while their armies of outspoken donors grow increasingly insistent. In his book, “Good Dirt; Confessions of a Conservationist,” David Morine argues that the modern large scale model of conservation means the preservation of natural spaces is not as easy or straight-forward as it used to be. Good intentions, he says, have built elaborate frameworks that require so much overhead and maintenance that the actual preserving of land has become buried beneath the behemoth of the system.
“People who think they are giving to a cause are for the most part supporting the bureaucracies that have grown up around it.” Gone are the days, he says, when there was an expectation that an employee or a volunteer working with a conservation organization would be going out into the field and getting dirty, not sitting in a well-appointed office answering emails.
Morine’s book is essentially a refresher course on the more humble origins of the conservation movement, illustrated by the years he spent working as the director of land acquisition for the hugely successful Nature Conservancy. Made up of an amusing and touching collection of stories from those years within the organization, he demonstrates the uncluttered model of the respected non-profit’s approach to habitat preservation through land acquisition.
In his mind, the most successful acquisitions are the oldest ones, the nature preserves that have had the soothing balm of time on their sides to sink into the consciousness of a generation, meaning that the stability of those lands will more likely be guaranteed into the future. Morine compares The Nature Conservancy’s approach to conservation to the concept of a public library—even though it may rarely be used by some individuals, it will always be there, an available and nurturing presence that enriches a community, including for the members who may never set foot through its doors.
From the organization’s earliest days, “the preservation of biotic diversity” was the mission of The Nature Conservancy, and this usually correlated with efforts to acquire large pieces of land. The key to the most successful projects was the integration of any conservation efforts into the preservation of a community’s cultural identity. Also crucial was identifying how conservation could enhance the development of lands in a viable and creative manner. This was especially an crucial approach when dealing in areas of the country less committed to preserving natural habitats.
According to Morine, part of the early success of The Nature Conservancy was its ability to fly under the radar; it became a specialist in not attracting attention. Quietly doing its utmost to acquire land was the best tactic; making waves in the public eye diverted attention and energy away from the perpetual goal of the organization.
Despite being a policy nerd’s dreamland, a sort of how-to manual for land conservation, “Good Dirt” has many moments of humor and charm woven through it. The main take-away of Morine’s book, though, is that any land deal has layers of complexities and potential complications, usually stemming from the parties involved having different motivations, agendas, and goals. Many seemingly impossible deals have seen success through patience and through the simple concept of being nice and treating those with differing view points with respect. Because, of course, the mood and motivations of man are about as easily predicted as the quirks of nature.