May 29, 2012

Private investment in conservation: it works

I'm currently on a kick to convince at least a couple other people that conservation of habitats and wildlife can occur with private investment--not just government subsidies (e.g., Farm Bill).  So, it is fun to find examples of where this seems to work.

This past weekend (Memorial Day), our family decided to take a little trip to rural Nebraska.  We wanted to do some fishing, canoeing, and see the Ashfall Fossil Beds.  So, we chose a little lake in northeast Nebraska: Grove Lake Wildlife Management Area, which is managed by the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission.  Of course, the minimal campsites in the WMA were completely filled when we arrived, but we got lucky when we found a tent spot on a private campgrounds, adjacent to the WMA.

The Grove Lake Bait Shop and Campground is a place you should check out.  The owners, Randy and Mary Erb, are great hosts.  Randy told me that he'd been running the bait shop for 32 years.  Grove Lake is in the middle of nowhere, and a bait shop makes a lot of sense.

"I started the campground two years ago," he told me.  "I don't know why I didn't do it 30 years ago!"

The benefit of this private campground is to support a state-managed conservation area, so that tax payers don't have to support better/more facilities at the WMA.  And, a Nebraska family makes some money on the deal. 
A pond at the Grove Lake Bait Shop and Campground
gives us a chance for a few practice casts before we head for Grove Lake
(photo by Kelly Powell).
I would guess there are plenty of other places in Nebraska where the same model could be used by an investor.  The cabins are always filled at Mahoney State Park?  Well, build some across the road, make them nicer, and rent them for cheaper. 

All of this, philosophically, is fun to think about--private investment in conservation.  But, sometimes a photo says it all--the best part of our visit to the campground was some time away and time together.

World population growth: "we're at peak babies"

In my last blog, I mentioned that wildlife biologists (among others!) should be concerned about world population growth.  The main reason: feeding people is always going to be the highest priority for land use.  If we have more people, land will be used 'harder' or more land will be used for growing food.  Less land for wildlife.

Let's be clear: I like to eat, and I like to know that other people can eat.  But, I do think there should be spots on the globe that do not have to be used for agriculture.  Wild areas.

In the spirit of learning more about population growth predictions, I'm including a video from the TEDx series of talks: in this talk, Hans Rosling gives a powerful demonstration that quickly debunks the myth that certain religions have more babies than others.  And, he presents data to suggest that we are "at peak babies": the number of babies produced per woman is predicted to be level. 

What if we lower birth rates, rather than being satisfied with 'level' birth rates?  He doesn't address that, and I think it would be a good goal.  He does provide the key to how birth rate declines have happened in many countries. 

Give it a view.  I promise it is worth the 13 minutes it takes to watch it--just for the graphics, it's worth it!

May 20, 2012

Five days to build a city of 1 million?

My probably-most-favorite columnist, Alan Guebert, is at it again.  Today's topic: linking the need to feed the world with our current farm policy.  Need versus action.  And, "actions speak louder than words" as all grandmothers and mothers like to tell us.

Guebert quotes the recently-released report from the United Nations, "Food and Agriculture: the future of sustainability": "Our current population trajectory means that from now to 2030, the world will need to build the equivalent of a city of one million people in developing countries every five days."

Yikes.  Maybe ABC needs to develop Extreme Makeover: City Addition!  I am not sure even Ty Pennington could pull this one off.

Guebert tosses out some statistics: taxpayers can expect to pay $7.8 billion, per  year, for crop insurance subsidies through 2016.  In the past 15 years, taxpayers have paid $11.2 billion, per year, for direct subsidy payments to grain and cotton farmers (payments designed to take land out of production). Agriculture uses 80% of water used each day.  And, Guebert questions whether this set of payments supply the food and water that these 'new cities' will need.

In some ways, there is nothing new here: we have been warned about exponential human population growth for a long time--but, we are now in that part of the growth-curve where things really start to happen.  And, our farm policy has gotten incredibly complex and dominated by agribusiness interests.  We know that.

Conservation, of course, is caught in the midst of this dynamic.  We (conservation-minded folks) have generally been supportive of ag subsidies that result in more native vegetation and fewer crop fields.  Does that make sense, now?  And, any community ecologist can tell you that when the size of the population of one species increases (i.e., above figure), resources are going to be limited for other species.   Get ready for the IUCN Red List of threatened and endangered species on the planet to grow.

So, Guebert makes a good point in his column--we have some big choices as a society, in the US, as to the kind of agriculture policies that we are going to employ.  But, Guebert does not mention the elephant in the room--population size.  If population size did not increase, as projected, we wouldn't have to build those cities and feed those people.

As hard as the questions about ag policy may be, questions about controlling human population size appear to be even harder to talk about.  Birth control  and pregnancy planning are topics that are directly related to levels of education, economic distribution, and empowerment of women to make choices (that is why the "developing" county and "industrialized" country graphs have different population trends in the figure, above). 

It is hard to imagine our current set of politicians, in the US, sitting down to have any meaningful conversation about these topics.  It is hard enough to have the conversation in a local coffee shop.

So, Ty, I think it is time to start gathering your power tools.  Better include some old-fashioned hand tools, as well.  There may not be electricity where you're going.

May 19, 2012

Rural futures

The University of Nebraska system recently held a Rural Futures Conference--the purpose was to engage a broad stakeholder group in discussions about the university's role in shaping the future of rural Nebraska.   
The conference featured several panels of experts discussing their views (in front of 500 interested spectators). One panelist mentioned that there were many ways the university can support rural areas, and one was to "put their money where their mouth is." That is, the university should invest in Main Street at least as much as they invest in Wall Street.

I thought that was a pretty challenging statement. I am guessing most high-ranking administrators in attendance were a bit nervous about that statement.

It has been a few days since the conference, and I've been thinking more about that challenge. Here are just a couple of ideas for how to start meeting that challenge:

1. Really support the training of Nebraskans. Stipends and benefits for graduate students have been the university's hidden eye-sore for a long time. This applies to most universities in the country. Low pay, high expectations, and little to no benefits. Especially health benefits. The average graduate student is not a single 22-year-old, now--grad students are coming back to school later in life, and they have complex families.  We are training Nebraskans and we are also training the world--international students are similarly vulnerable during their graduate training in the US.  Health insurance issues are complex, but we can improve what we offer.  The university should step up and support the engine of the discoveries that are coming from its bowels. 

2. Support rural training with affordable tuition rates and housing. I think the University of Nebraska actually does a pretty good job at keeping tuition in line. But, housing rates at the University are ungodly high. I recently priced a graduate dormitory for a visiting student from Ethiopia. They wanted $750\month for a starkly furnished room (bed and desk) in a very old dormitory, with no meal plan--just the room. I can see why so many students live off-campus.

3. Investments in local communities. Universities truly have power of investment. Decisions about where to house certain activities can have a large impact--the University of Nebraska does have satellite research and extension centers in all parts of the state, which contribute (through university-paid salaries) directly to the local economies. We should keep thinking about this model--not every new venture has to be in Lincoln. Perhaps the Rural Futures Institute should be physically located in rural Nebraska!

With regard to financial investments, Duke University has some interesting programs that might spark ideas. They have invested in the local Durham neighborhoods that boarder the school. There are neighborhood clinics supported by Duke. They have funded low-interest mortgages. I suspect UN could make a similarly impressive page of how the Medical Center plays roles in rural communities already. But, there are some key decisions that could be made to switch some investments to funds that include local companies. 

4. Invest in faculty and staff positions that benefit Nebraskans. Universities are running, these days, on income generated from high volume of external grant dollars. The indirect costs associated with those grant dollars help make up the slack from decreasing investments from the state legislatures (across the country) in universities. The current economy and our political climate's philosophy of lower taxes means that states have less money to spend on programs, like universities. To date, the University of Nebraska enjoys good funding from our state, because the University is seen as contributing to the state. Once that perception changes, however, you don't have to look far to find states (Iowa, for example) who have substantially decreased funding to state universities. Tuition hikes and increased pressure for high-level research are the only answers (well, and finding large donors for programs--as is hoped for the Rural Futures Institute).

My point: if universities go too far in the research direction, teaching and Extension programs are minimized. And, that is what makes the connection to the state. The RF Conference, if nothing else, compiled evidence from testimony after testimony that Nebraska has needs that are not going to be filled by high-dollar research grants. The university must find ways to invest salary lines in Extension and teaching positions that make a difference to the state--without worrying about whether these positions will result in high research kick-backs in the future. This is going to take a little re-thinking: it is a delicate dance, as research is also the innovation engine for the state (as well as a funding device for universities).

That is the challenge of the Rural Futures Institute, as I see it! Should be a fun ride for those of us already on board!
PS:  One of the nice adventures at the conference was meeting people from outside Nebraska and outside the US.  "Rural Futures" is not a Nebraska invention, which is good to remember!  For additional, similar, already-running efforts see:

A UK economic planning/consulting unit "Rural Futures"
University of New England's Rural Futures Institute in Australia
A multi-institutional lab in the US: Rural Futures Lab
The North American Rural Futures Institute
Rural Futures: a newsletter from New York's Senate