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The modern conservation movement came of age when citizen protestors demanded corporations stop polluting and start accounting for wildlife impacts and resource depletion. Given this history, a new rallying cry on the future of conservation at the AAAS meeting, recently held in Boston, came as a bit of a shock. The new message, say conservation stalwarts, is “go corporate!” After hearing why, I actually left the meeting with a sense of hope and optimism about the future of conservation.

Take the session entitled, “Is the Future of Conservation at a Crossroads?” With speakers such as Peter Kareiva of the Nature Conservancy, John Robinson of the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Alan Thornhill, who just moved from the Department of the Interior to the U.S. Geological Society, it offered up an all-star cast of conservationists.

Kareiva started by saying for the future, conservationists need to restore, reconnect and rethink. In his own years as an eco-warrior, he’s seen corporations as the bad guys. But he urged us to rethink that for long-term success. He described corporations as a “keystone species.” Just as the sea otter is a keystone species off the coast of central California, keeping sea urchins in-check and kelp forests thriving, he says, so are corporations.

Next, he gave examples of ground-breaking collaborations. The Nature Conservancy is working with the Dow Chemical Company to create better air quality around the Houston area by restoring forests. Kareiva admits it’s an experiment The restoration of such a large ecosystem has never been done, and they are starting with only 1,000 acres.

When Robinson took the podium, he granted that sometimes placing a value on biodiversity and ecosystems just for the sake of biodiversity does work. But more often, if you place an economic value on the services that the ecosystem provides, it will prove more effective for conservation efforts. He calls it mainstreaming conservation. He looks at the future of conservation as making very hard, pragmatic choices and understanding that one size does not fit all.

Alan Thornhill spoke to our need to expand the conversation, allowing divergent views and stakeholders a seat at the table for some of these decisions. His work within a government agency taught him the wisdom of this approach. He says it’s all well and good to speak with like-minded conservationists, but we also need to reach out to others outside that group.

“Companies are not necessarily conservation-oriented,” he said. “But they may just need a little help to get there. At their base, they have that desire to protect the planet for their kids and grandkids.”

According to these speakers, the non-conservation world is not as hostile as you might think. We just need to speak the same (or at least a similar) language. Thornhill said that framing ecosystem conservation like an infrastructure such as roadways or water system might help. “When you turn your tap on, you get water.” Ecosystem services are no different.

The conservationists are hopeful. Robinson said, “Change is going to happen, but likely very slowly. Sometimes it might be dramatic and revolutionary, so be prepared.”

We may be at the crossroads of conservation, as the session title suggested, but that may not be a bad thing. It’s also an opportunity.

Image: cherie'/Flickr

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