Nebraska's Anti-Conservation Tradition

February, 2013

Lincoln -- The Lincoln JournalStar has ridiculed a "silly" bill in the Nebraska legislature for its anti-environment and anti-conservation hyperbole. The editorial suggests the bill is out of the mainstream, which favors conservation and is beyond conspiracy theories.

If only that were true. The bill's anti-conservation sentiment goes back decades in Nebraska; it is alive and well in the best educational circles as well as on the political fringes. Conservation advocates face a constant struggle.

Eugene Glock, a farmer and one of the founders of Nebraska's Natural Resource Districts, explores one aspect of the sentiment in his article "The Resource Cliff", in which he warns of the loss of soil and water resources if educational institutions do not do a better job of conservation research and education:

[S]oil and water conservation practices and structures can be applied very quickly if the farmer sees the wisdom of using those practices. Our colleges and universities need to put emphasis on research and innovation to produce conservation methods that are compatible with our larger machinery. Research is also needed to determine why producers, who know about the necessary conservation methods, choose to ignore them.

Chris Helzer writes provocatively of how far Nebraska has fallen in conservation education:

A couple years ago, we brought ... Illinois botanists to Nebraska to help us with a research project. We had to, because there aren’t many people in Nebraska who can identify the majority of plants in a prairie. That’s embarrassing. More importantly, how can we manage prairies or evaluate our conservation progress if we can’t identify the species we’re trying to conserve??

This is an affront to the once-proud Nebraska legacy of professors Bessey, Clements, and Weaver, recognized world-wide as the greatest botanists and ecologists of their day, or perhaps any day. (And an affront to some formidable contemporary Nebraska botanists, who are doing their best despite a lack educational emphasis and resources.)

The anti-conservation views of historian James Malin still hold sway over many Nebraskans, educators as well as citizens. Malin despised what he called the evangelical conservationists, suggesting they were totalitarians who would destroy the country. He attacked native Nebraskan Frederic Clements in particular, perhaps because Clements was so successful. Clements's students and protégés fought the Dust Bowl with conservation measures and a pro-conservation message.

But Malin's conservation-as-totalitarianism message was published by, and is still available at, the University of Nebraska Press. Clements has almost been forgotten; his ashes are buried in Lincoln's Wyuka Cemetery, unmarked. None of Professor Clements's Nebraska publications is available on the UNL digital commons, even his ground-breaking Research Methods in Ecology.

Perhaps that is too harsh. Malin was in many respects a fine historian (at the University of Kansas) and his paranoia about totalitarianism has been given the comeuppance it deserves by Bancroft-award professor Donald Worster (also of Kansas). Nor was Clements the perfect scientist. Nevertheless, the comparison serves to point out that anti-conservationism has a long history and much of it is alive and well in mainstream Nebraska.

To any researcher, writer, or graduate student looking for a worthy conservation topic: I have a large collection of documents on Frederic Clements and his remarkable wife, Edith Schwartz Clements, who was the first woman to receive a Ph.D at the University of Nebraska. I'd welcome the chance to share them.