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What does Teddy Roosevelt have to do with PPPs? Thinking about the origin — and the future — of conservation

M. Sanjayan's picture
Editor's note: M. Sanjayan is a conservation scientist and writer, and serves as Executive Vice President and Senior Scientist at Conservation International. He is host of the PBS live television event Big Blue Live, which debuts on August 31, 2015. 
 
President Teddy Roosevelt.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. President from 1901-1909, was an unlikely conservationist. He traveled to the Western states as a big game hunter in 1883, and during his time there saw the disappearance of the last large herds of bison, along with widespread damage and destruction to wildlife. It made an indelible impact.

With his firsthand experience of nature and as a witness to its decimation, his interest in preserving flora, fauna and animals grew as he ascended the political hierarchy, and he’s now known in some circles as the “Conservationist President.”
 
It’s a well-deserved honorific: as 26th president, Teddy Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service and established 51 Federal Bird Reservations, four National Game Preserves, 150 National Forests, and five National Parks.  He enabled the 1906 American Antiquities Act, which he used to proclaim 18 National Monuments. In total, Roosevelt protected approximately 230,000,000 acres of public land in the United States during his presidency.
 
What does this have to do with PPPs? Everything. Because it’s almost impossible to do conservation the old way, as Roosevelt pulled it off, which is essentially declaring a place off limits. You just can’t do that anymore. Instead, virtually everything I’ve ever been able to do in the field of conservation over the last decade has had a very big element of public-private partnerships, and all the big nonprofits understand this right now.
 
I worked on one of these partnerships several years ago to protect a very large area, 21 million acres of temperate rainforest. It happened by bringing together 30 First Nation communities, the timber industry and the government. The basis of the partnership was all of us recognizing a common future where First Nation communities transition into a more green, sustainable economy.
 
Governments still need to be convinced that these partnerships will benefit them. In my work with government officials, I’ve seen that many of them recognize the incredible power of these partnerships to bring untapped sources of revenue, often going directly to the people of the area. But it’s always the lack of control that government officials worry about. It’s not that they don’t get it — they do — they just don’t want to lose their jobs.
 
So when talking to government officials about the potential for a PPP, we start by asking what their challenges are. Once you understand their challenges, starting to talk about solutions will eventually lead you to talking about how to diversify sources of funding, how to increase technical capacity, or materials, or resources.
 
Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada.
Photo: flickr/Kathryn Burrington

Local participation, sustainable conservation
If you want sustainable conservation — that is, conservation that lasts beyond the donor dollar — it has to be inclusive. It has to self-generate need and value, locally. As long as conservation relies exclusively on U.S. and European philanthropy and World Bank and non-governmental organization (NGO) funding, that’s easy. Everything will be safe. But the minute that tap turns off, the whole thing will fall apart, unless you create that self-generating value. It doesn’t have to be equal or complete, but it has to be there.
 
That’s why when you look at these parks in protected areas that have managed to hang on, even in very difficult places, it’s often because they have that local constituency that understands the value that nature or the park provides.
 
Protected areas work when you have local voices raised to protect that place. When there is a local constituency built in, there’s a chance that protected areas will weather the storms of change, whether government change or policy change. In order to get that local participation — another important “P” that I include when I think about PPPs — you have to be able to demonstrate your value to the people.

In fact, the poor can be the greatest allies we have in the fight to save nature. They are our best allies because they need their natural resources far more than we do. And I think that Teddy Roosevelt would agree. 

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