Good Habitat Management Doesn’t Cost ... it Pays: an Exclusive Interview with Brent Haglund

Good Habitat Management Doesn’t Cost ... it Pays: an Exclusive Interview with Brent Haglund
March 1, 1999

Aldo Leopold is well known, if not revered, throughout the conservationist and environmentalist movements as the inspiring author of the Sand County Almanac. Leopold’s writings took shape while he worked on improving the land he owned in Sand County, Wisconsin.

After Leopold died in 1948, something else took shape in Sand County: the Sand County Foundation.

The Sand County Foundation was created when one of the landowners around the Leopold estate began to develop his land for subdivision. Some family friends thought this would negatively affect Leopold’s land. True to Leopold’s belief that conservation had to be a voluntary proposition, agreements were negotiated that constrained further subdivision and led to the creation of the foundation to manage the combined land holdings.

Since then, the Sand County Foundation has grown in scope and effectiveness, applying the Leopold Land Ethic and today advising the managers of hundreds of thousands of acres of land in several countries. The foundation has become a world leader in free-market environmentalism, setting an example of sound science and voluntary private action well worth emulating.

Reed Coleman, godson of Aldo Leopold, continues as chairman of the Sand County Foundation, and Brent Haglund is its president. Haglund graciously took an hour of his time to explain the Foundation’s mission, operation, and results to Environment News contributing editor Don Tiggre.

Tiggre: Tell us a little bit about the Sand County Foundation’s history, and Aldo Leopold.

Haglund: The Sand County Foundation has been in existence since the mid-1960s. Its purpose is to extend to private landowners a vision of responsibility that Aldo Leopold developed as a land ethic, and to do so in a context of good science. In other words, using the process of, and information produced by, science in the approach landowners use to keep track of how well they're doing to improve habitats that they own and control. That's our work. The process of science is more important than the body of information.

In response to a proposed subdivision in the vicinity of Aldo Leopold’s shack in the mid-1960s, the creators of the Sand County Foundation, Reed Coleman and Howard Mead, enlisted the landowner neighbors to create a living memorial to Leopold. Those are the roots of the Sand County Foundation: private action inspired by the Leopold Land Ethic, using responsible voluntary means to improve habitat.

For a number of years the foundation concentrated its work at that one site. It's still a very small organization--we have a staff of only five people--but at the time it was without any staff at all, and the work was done by volunteers. Building from that, the foundation began an active research program in the mid-1970s. That led to the formation of an active communication network among scientists, landowners, and people skilled in habitat management.

We had a crystallizing moment in 1988, when an independent review team evaluated what the Sand County Foundation had done up to that time. I bring this up because the independent review is an important part of good science, and we think it's an essential part of being a responsible landowner. Their key points were that landowners should be engaged with long-term landscape-scale ecological restoration whenever possible, and that the Leopold reserve should be used as a springboard, as an example to engage landowners in other places and in other settings with that same kind of approach.

This gave us an opportunity, on an independent and peer-reviewed basis, to look for other compelling problems to solve. We went through a problem assessment at that time, keeping in mind that looking for ecological problems is pretty easy. Looking for ecological problems that landowners can make a responsible commitment to solve, or if not solve at least improve--to reduce the intensity of the problem--is a bit more difficult. So we looked for situations where the landowner had not only responsibility, but also authority to act, and could work at the long-term landscape scale to really make a difference, using good science.

Among the top problems that came up on our lists was the insufficiency of fires in North America. Fire is a very active force in keeping plant and animal communities healthy, vibrant. It improves, for instance, the vigor of stands of grasses that would keep soil from eroding.

Tiggre: Insufficiency of fires--how long ago did you come to the conclusion that that was a problem that needed to be addressed?

Haglund: We had been aware of that as an issue before we got the charge from our independent review team.

Tiggre: Before 1988? If Yellowstone management had been heeding your views, perhaps the large fire there would not have happened?

Haglund: The fires were largely in ‘88--the 870,000-acre fire was in ‘88. We did not have any involvement with that situation. Fire suppression in the park had been something that leaders of the park had pointed out for several decades as being a real problem. So, at least the Park Service let political leaders know that fire is a necessary part of that ecosystem, and that they needed to do something to get it back. Several decades passed with no fires in that time, and as a result the fires got to be more severe.

Tiggre: So, the fire of ‘88 was really the result of politics?

Haglund: Sure. But we believe that landowners can use fire to good effect, and they can do so at low cost. It turns out that prescribed fire is one of the cheaper habitat improvement tools that a landowner has in his toolbox, and that prescribed fires are cheaper, faster, and more efficient than waiting for catastrophic fire. We work with landowners to implement fire regimes that improve habitat.

Tiggre: Because fire returns nutrients to the soil faster than biodegradation would?

Haglund: That’s one very important aspect of the technique. There are others. The evidence is quite strong that prescribed fire, when used carefully, can reduce the risk of damage to facilities at lower cost than other techniques. For example, just in the past year, in Florida, even in the face of very high intensity fires that were burning, the state Forestry Department worked with private land owners to do emergency prescribed fires that saved houses and cut costs. As an outcome of identifying that problem, we have established our Savanna Partnership Program. We built a long-term prospect for conservation in six different sites, including an Army base--Fort McCoy--and other lands, both public and private.

Tiggre: Are these lands owned by the Foundation, or do you consult with the owners?

Haglund: We consult with and advise the owners. To encourage the owners, we hold meetings in which they come together with scientists and managers. They share information and resolve to get out there and do a better job. It often turns out to be the case that managers are not short of a will to manage, but they’re short of good and relevant information upon which to base their management recommendations.

We see science and management as being an iterative pair. Back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. In the current world of ecosystem and habitat management that’s called adaptive management. So in our Savanna program, the key thing we’ve been working with our partners on is adaptive management, to build an iterative process at their sites between good data--well gathered--and letting that information guide and adjust the management decision process.

It’s not that good science is beyond the realm of the ordinary land owner, as Aldo Leopold knew. It’s well within the realm of the ordinary landowner. Good science isn’t expensive. It’s the sort of thing that doesn’t cost too much to implement.

Tiggre: Let’s talk about good science for a moment. Back in 1995 or so, when the Bush administration was trying to coordinate across all agencies to manage ecosystems, a lot of “sound science” people seemed suspicious. They seemed to think it was hubris on the part of managers in Washington, DC--reminiscent of the Soviets thinking they could manage a whole economy from Moscow.

Haglund: In the case of our Savanna partnership--let me use that as an example of what we hope is sound science--number one is to identify the problem in practical terms. This requires some feedback between the actual land management, land ownership considerations, and scientific work.

Number two is to gather information that is currently available about the important ecological entities of the site and see that it is processed by the managers, the people that are responsible for carrying out the work. This is an important distinction to make; much of the information that is available about areas of land, habitats, and so forth, is not available in terms that are accessible to the actual managers.

Number three is a base-line inventory of essential features. If there isn’t a solid bedrock of long-term monitoring plot information available, it needs to be put into place.

Then the laying out of a careful and limited management program that’s followed up by measurement can take place. In the same way that a mother puts a thermometer carefully into the mouth of a child, we need to find ways to monitor the conditions, ideally to get objective information, though sometimes the best we can do is get subjective information. We can use that information to advise and suggest to the manager what changes, if any, might need to be made to the management plan, so there’s feedback between the plan and the measurements.

There are some other essential features to this whole long-term process. In our opinion, the managers need to think of the information in the context of science, where you’ve got peer review, you’ve got the pressure to publish, you’ve got to get the information out broadly. So we have every one of our programs run with what we call an Independent Review Team. These are composed of scientists who don’t have an axe to grind on the particular given issue, but who can be independent advisors and help managers comprehend the situation. They are independent of the politics, independent of the ownership responsibility, but still experienced scientists with some connection to the situation who can articulate concerns in terms that are accessible and appropriate to the managers.

And publication! We believe that good science requires that the scientists involved collaborate with the managers and landowners and get the information out for people to look at. We have a very strong reaction against what we call “gray literature.” That is a report, typically from a government agency, that doesn’t go through the crucible of independent scientific critique. We think that it must.

Another difference between our work and comprehensive ecosystem management planning is that we believe that ecosystem management is properly built upon the voluntary engagement of the landowners. We turn the whole scale upside-down. We don’t think the appropriate place to start is at the scale of the ecosystem. We think the place to start is with a tract of land in an ecosystem and then work up from there.

Tiggre: Can you define the Land Ethic and tell us how it guides?

Haglund: Aldo Leopold was pressured by a number of friends to make his book--the Sand County Almanac--much more than just a collection of sketches. He’d been writing since 1933 on what he called the Land Ethic. The case that Leopold built, in very general and abstract terms, is that people are members of the land community. People are different from other members of the land community--that is, the other animals, plants, fungi, etc.--because they have a moral sense.

Building from standard moral considerations--completely consistent with standard Judeo-Christian philosophy--Leopold believed that extending moral considerations to the biotic community was important. That can be done by appealing to the responsibility of landowners, primarily, to improve the health of the biotic community. By “health,” he specifically meant the beauty, integrity, and stability of the biotic community. We consider it Aldo Leopold’s call to us to leave places better than we found them.

Tiggre: Your brochure quotes Leopold as saying that, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.” This includes humans?

Haglund: Leopold had a great saying about conservation. He saw it as a multi-pronged undertaking. I don’t have the exact quote, but it’s something along these lines: “Conservation is a state of harmony between man and land. When both become poorer by reason of their coexistence, we don’t have conservation. When both are richer, we have conservation.” He saw people as members of the biotic community. His perspective is that conservation is by definition anthropocentric because we are the only moral agents.

Tiggre: Many people buy into a view of environmentalism that contends the world would be better off if there were no people in it. Does that limit your activities?

Haglund: It does. For example, there are activists who believe that animals have certain rights that, if interpreted literally, mean that people should not deliberately take the lives of animals. Management of habitat that takes animals’ lives is wrong. Leopold’s thinking is ecological, and ethical--not just organism-by-organism-based. It’s population- and community-based. Living nature doesn’t exist without dying. We don’t believe the animal rights perspective will help us disseminate a sound land ethic.

Also, we don’t think it’s right to take a passive, hands-off approach to nature. If for no other reason than that many of the messes we’re in are of human creation, we think that human creativity, resolve, and action, coupled with measurement, can help us, bit by bit, get out of those messes. So we take a very interventionist, anthropocentric, but ethically responsible view. I would also say that we do not operate on the notion that the individual organism is the unit of consideration. Our view of it is that a species, populations, communities, whole ecosystems are what matter to us and our work. That includes people.

Tiggre: Was it difficult to get the first four landowners to cooperate and slow down development? Did they feel like some of the value of the land was being taken from them?

Haglund: They wouldn't have felt that the value of the land was being taken from them, because the cooperative arrangements that were made were entirely private--entirely voluntary. They didn't involve government. Any risk of the coercive effects of, say, eminent domain, wouldn't have been there. They looked at these arrangements as being honor-bound, not legally binding.

Tiggre: Did respect for Leopold help them come along?

Haglund: Yes, but it was also some other things, and I think we could put them all under the heading of enlightened self-interest. That's a feature of the Sand County Foundation’s work. That is, we don't need or want conservation to be strictly altruistic. We can have a good time doing this, we can have fun doing this! A quick example out of the Sand County Almanac is the exploration of the science of bird banding. That's fun. So there's human entertainment, and interest and intellectual development that come from a good commitment to the science of conservation.

That’s because we go back to one of the other definitions Leopold gave us of conservation: both the land and the owners grow richer by the reason of their coexistence. Then we have conservation. We believe that augmenting the human checkbook is as important as augmenting the “checkbook” that the prairie grasses and other ecological entities have.

Tiggre: That sounds like such a positive win-win scenario, how many people share this vision?

Haglund: We do educational work in our Executive Seminars Series. That series consists of programs in which we bring together landowners and their representatives, land managers, and scientists. In those seminars, which we hold across the country and in Canada, we discuss issues of economic and ecological importance.

We keep these sessions to about two or three dozen people so we can really get some dialogue and discussion going. We want people to leave charged up and aware that they’ve not been present at just a didactic or pedantic session, but something that is in the manner of a real seminar.

Let me give you an example of one we’ll be co-hosting with the Thoreau Institute in March, in Colorado. The topic will be landowner monitoring. We'll be developing, in partnership with the landowners, long-term monitoring work at three large land-holding areas in Colorado and three roughly comparably sized areas in Africa, where both the landowners and the associated communities have a stake in improving the health of the wildlife.

Tiggre: And how many habitats do you actually manage, or consult with the management upon?

Haglund: In our Savanna program we have six, a total of about 100,000 acres. We have three sites currently engaged in our Quality Hunting Ecology program. The major landowners there are Champion International, in Michigan, and the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. Those are in the 100,000-acre range collectively, but we’re building more sites as we get approval from our various partners. In that program, unlike in the Savanna partnership, we’re focused on the restoration of a community directly.

It’s back to that enlightened self-interest again. Champion International is finding that its woods don’t grow enough trees. They’ve investigated and find that, in many cases, there are too many deer eating too many small trees. If we can deliver an incentive-based approach in which the hunters are required by the landowners to kill does first, then the deer herd will very shortly have a higher proportion of males. Within several years there will be bigger males available.

We’ve already shown, with our partnership with Wisconsin Power and Light, that hunter satisfaction with the hunt and the time spent hunting goes up, and there are reduced costs policing this operation. So we get better hunting, we get less damage to the forest because the total number of deer is reduced, and we have it done entirely on a voluntary basis in which the landowners control the trespass privilege. The hunters also get bigger male deer than they’ve ever seen in their lives and an assurance that there will be less cheating on the system.

Tiggre: What would you do if, say, the Department of Agriculture came along and said they wanted you to do a nationwide consulting gig with the Forestry Service? Would you be able to handle that sort of thing?

Haglund: No. We could maybe tackle it by partnering with other groups that could deliver on that scale. We are fortunate to be able to work landowner by landowner in actually implementing the real programs on the land. Our strategy is to lead by example.

Tiggre: And is it working? Are there many organizations that have taken up the Aldo Leopold Land Ethic as a guiding principle?

Haglund: I think so. Here’s one that may surprise some people, but I’m very heartened by the Defenders of Wildlife. Payment for wolf damage to livestock is an example. They do it on a simple basis: “You show us the dead animal and we’ll get out there and write you a check promptly.” They recognize their responsibility, and they are clearly motivated by the Leopold Land Ethic--their Web site has some documents about Aldo Leopold. I think that Defenders of Wildlife, in its publications and in its work, is affected in the best possible way by the Leopold Land Ethic, and I commend them.

Tiggre: What got the Sand County Foundation going financially in its early days, and how do you survive today?

Haglund: We have a set of investments that are varied. For example, we have a set of farmlands that we rent. We sell timber, mainly smaller trees. We have investments in bonds and standard types of financial instruments. We have a very small membership and we fundraise for each program on its own. And we run on a very financially conservative basis--our offices are located in a factory that gives us free use of the space. So, we have a battery of funds sources, but we are not a broad membership organization.

Tiggre: Any final comments for Environment News readers?

Haglund: Good habitat management doesn’t cost, it pays. Good habitat management that takes advantage of science can be a cost-effective means for improving wildlife and wildflower populations and communities. And it’s within the realm of the ordinary landowner to do much, if not all, of this work himself or herself.