A Conservationist's Conundrum

How Green Can You Get?

by Melinda Nye

I pull backpacks, hats, windbreakers, and assorted outdoor gear from a hall closet. Two of the hats and several windbreakers bear the logos of wildlife organizations. The clothes might be drab, but the philosophy is green.

A used drinking bottle, filled with tap water, goes into a neoprene fanny pack. A trail map lands in a side pocket, toilet paper in another. Neither the map nor the TP is recycled. (The idea of calling toilet paper recycled seems unfortunate, at best.) The toilet paper is soft, fluffy, and presumably American-made. I decide to call that choice a small effort to support the national economy.

A larger source of guilt looms in the parking lot. I cannot afford to rehabilitate my old Honda, and head out, mid-week, alone, in an old SUV. Perhaps no one else will be at the park; it is, to say the least, socially awkward to park a gas guzzler next to vehicles with bumper stickers claiming Trees Are The Answer.

I sigh. A jaunt in the woods should not be freighted with so much moral responsibility. If challenged, I'll mention agribusiness. Researchers in New Zealand believe methane plays a far greater role in global warming than carbon emissions. And methane comes from sheep and cows. Belching sheep and cows. (As for the dangers of methane, I'll cite a precedent: the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum, when prehistoric methane induced a dramatic spike in greenhouse gases.)

On Route 78 the speedometer's needle hovers at 58 mph. The morning is lovely and cool and the mountains beckon. My conflicted inner environmentalist wavers. Economics, not environment, keep the needle down.

How much do all these micro decisions matter, anyway? At the extreme end of the eco perspective, everything counts. Small actions change the world. A butterfly flaps its wings and alters the course of a distant tornado. By that rationale, a cow burps, a sheep farts, and a tree half the world away withers and dies.

By the time I reach the Delaware Water Gap, my inner Rachel Carson has been reduced to a resentful, chattering whirlwind. How much is expected? The most modern marketers would answer, everything: organic food and clothes, eco-travel, hybrid vehicles, recycled trash. All seemingly wonderful, but what about the carbon footprint on eco-travel? Why replace an aging but trustworthy vehicle with a hybrid? Why does "go green" sound more and more like marketing buzz centered around politically correct consumption -- an activity that bears an uncanny resemblance to purchasing indulgences from the church?

Few people argue over the need for open space, clean air, fresh water and safe, sustainable sources of energy. And yet for all that, many "environmentally friendly" activities seem exactly the opposite. Practice and reality often diverge. An honest appraisal of our activities means taking a long hard look at our behaviors. In essence: when and how are we truly green?

In Sussex County, almost thirty percent of the land has been dedicated to public open space. Farmland preservation has set aside almost 13,000 acres. "We want to position ourselves as the green county of New Jersey," says Donna Traylor, Director for Sussex County Conservation and Farmland Preservation.

Each spring, outdoor types will flock to the annual Sussex County Birding and Nature Festival. But how "green" is birding, with its digiscopes, binoculars, cameras, digital darkrooms, and carbon footprints? When hundreds of people flock to see fowl, have they done right by the fowl? (At Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, bird-lovers have spooked long-eared owls from favorite trees; now the staff rarely gives out the locations of roosts.)

Conservationists would argue that education, added to an amplified appreciation of the natural world, offsets the negatives. In the festival's "green" tent, visitors can learn about recycling practices, energy efficient appliances, environmentally friendly cleaning products, etc. Members of local conservation groups will answer questions about the area and nature activities. Horticulturalists will display plants that attract birds and butterflies. Farmers will sell New Jersey grown produce and plants.

Which drags my thoughts back to all those cows. How do farmers go "green"? Will the economics of farming in New Jersey, already under severe stress, be at all viable while conforming to the demands of modern environmental constraints? How will agriculture remain truly sustainable? Or do we judge "green" activities by a simple criterion: what causes the least harm to the environment?

"If we don't do this," Ms. Traylor warns, referring to efforts to get public buy-in for farm preservation, "the next crop will be houses, not corn and cows."

I am biased; I prefer silos to strip malls, pastures to parking lots. I am also conflicted. I once logged nine thousand miles to band birds in South America, and would return in a heartbeat. Has eco-travel become an oxymoron?

In 2008, the Duke Foundation in Hillsborough (Somerset County) closed its exquisite greenhouse gardens, the glorious mosaic of multi-cultural gardens designed and created by Doris Duke and open to the public since the mid 1960s. The Foundation's decision to dismantle a legacy sparked an angry response, with calls for town meetings and special permits. Advocates of the plan questioned the value of static, unchanging gardens that could not be replicated. Opponents claimed that was the very reason to preserve them. Bloggers claimed the board ignored Doris Duke's will.

Staff and volunteers then embarked upon large-scale habitat restoration at Duke, replacing invasive species with native plants to encourage local wildlife. "Duke has the most important birding sites in the state," says Troy Ettel, of the New Jersey Audubon Society. "The grassland bird population at Duke is unprecedented. It is filled with threatened and endangered species of grassland birds." Through environmentalism, the Foundation seeks to fulfill a public need, and realize an economic benefit. Duke offers horticulture and nature programs, including activities to teach people how to propagate native plants for their own gardens. It also seeks to become a tourist destination, eventually tripling its number of annual visitors to 150,000.

150,000. The population of Paterson, New Jersey. The foundation plans to move visitors through the farm via sustainably powered trams and hybrid cars. Will that offset the carbon footprint of 150,000 visitors making their way to Hillsborough?

It is enough to make an eco-enthusiast's head hurt. If going green is about smart consumption, how do we choose intelligently?

This story was first published: Spring, 2009
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