Jason Atkinson: Conservation’s Radical Middle

AtkinsonJasonNewHeadshotConservation in America is shifting to the “radical middle.” The extreme edges of the political spectrum, right and left, the partisans, protect the status quo. That has radicalized those caught in middle, where most Americans live, where people and their local environments suffer the consequences of partisan gridlock. People want and need action, not obstruction.

A perfect example of the radical middle is Long Island’s Great South Bay. A true grassroots movement from towns like — Babylon, Sayville, Bellport, Patchogue and a dozen others — want their bay back. For centuries, this bay produced oysters, finfish, and clams, providing livelihoods to thousands of families. Today, that world is all but gone, destroyed by over-harvesting, rampant over-development, along with the gross mismanagement of the bay and of Fire Island, the barrier beach forming the bay’s southern border. A laissez-faire approach to resource management led to a ‘tragedy of the commons.’

Until now, the issues faced by Long Island’s shorelines and Fire Island were addressed ‘top-down,’ with The Army Corps of Engineers literally drawing lines in the sand. When a storm washed away dunes on Fire Island, or breached the barrier, the solution was simple: pile more sand. Billions spent over the decades to defend the indefensible, with the baymen knowing all along their bay needed regular flushing the breaches and shifting sands provided. The bay needs clean ocean water to come in an out with the tide, regardless of who is in office. But money can move faster than sand, and after all, there were were summer homes with basements to protect. The Army Corps, like America itself, has been informed by the old rules of conservation, where man can supposedly bend nature to our will and still protect it.

With Sandy, however, came “The Breach,” a place on Fire Island’s National Seashore where the ocean broke through to the bay where The Army Corps of Engineers had limited jurisdiction. They couldn’t, post-Sandy, go and fill it in as they had with two other breaches. Within weeks, locals began to see years of stagnation convert into clear water. Fish returned, clam growth accelerated, eelgrass started sprouting. Residents of the South Shore could see their past again — and just maybe their future. They rallied fiercely to defend the breach against Democrats like Senator Schumer and Steve Bellone, the Suffolk County Executive, who sought its immediate closure, for reasons having nothing to do with science and everything to do with politics.

Buried on Long Island are an estimated 500,000 septic tanks seeping into its sandy soil and triggering brown tides, rust tides, red tides, and blue green algae, wiping out Long Island’s bays, rivers and ponds. The Brookhaven town dump, referred to locally as “Mt. Trashmore,” the only mountain seen from the bay, leach downhill into the water, too. Mainline conservationists have failed to convey to the larger public they have come to the point where Long Island is at the brink of an ecological collapse.

The radical middle knows the problems we face are fixable, building clean bays and protecting our waters is not rocket surgery. The old way of thinking is that all environmental issues are organized vertically, mainly in one party. My friends on the extreme right would say ‘this is all an environmental conspiracy,’ whereas our supposed Democratic stewards have typically funneled money into the hands of the incompetent.

Save The Great South Bay has focused on the local shared love of the bay transcending all party lines. No budget to speak of, no lobbyists, no lawsuits. Party lines, environmental left and Tea Party labels, no longer apply. Marshall Brown, Founder of Save The Great South Bay, strategically organized laterally around a shared concern, rather than preach to the vertical choir. The radical middle started getting the word out what was at stake and what could be. To date, no Army Corp bulldozer has driven on the strip of beach to fill the breach and once again choke off The Great South Bay.

So how come an Oregonian is talking about Long Island? The reason is the radical middle does something we don’t think Congress is capable of: working for the good of America first. The Great South Bay is as important to Oregonians as preventing the Pebble Mine in Alaska is to Iowans. Conservation reflects who we all are as Americans. The radical middle is ahead; way head in fact, of our politicians. In essence, they are a better definition of public service than those making decisions with an eye on a lobby donation.

Don’t blame politicians, they don’t know any different than the old way of thinking. Winners, losers, fear and loathing is how they get elected. This new conservation movement created along horizontal lines and reaching across to people, holds no victory for these types of leaders. How can you be a true environmentalist working with a Republican? How can you get reelected if people who share the same concern you do are not part of your party? Marshall Brown states inclusively: “This is our bay, our heritage.” While politicians are playing partisanship gridlock, Brown and radical middle Americans like him are leading.

(Cross-posted at The Huffington Post)


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