December 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 6 // Commentary // 6COM1

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Land Use Is the Issue, But Is Land Grant the Answer?

Local land use decisions are increasingly important to the health of our resources and communities. The Land Grant University/Extension network is the only national system with the structure, mission, and track record to deal with local land use issues, but, as a system, we're not doing it. There are a number of reasons why we're not doing it and even more reasons for why we must begin.

Chester L. Arnold, Jr.
Water Quality Educator
University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System
Haddam, Connecticut
Internet address:

Land Use and Natural Resource Management: It's Not Just for Aggies Anymore

America has entered a new era of natural resource management, in which local land use decisions will be the key determinant of the health of our resources and communities. The Land Grant University (LGU) network is the only national system with the structure, mission, and track record to deal with local land use issues.

We're not doing it. While individual programs and staff are forging ahead on these issues, as a system there is considerable hesitance to embrace any natural resource programming other than production agriculture. This narrow focus has resulted in significant incursion of other agencies into research and outreach that could be done better by LGU/Extension.

The head start provided by our experience and the much-touted LGU/Extension model has all but completely eroded away. The LGU/Extension system must move aggressively to reassert our leadership in the broad field of land use and natural resource management, particularly at the community level. The alternative is to cede the field to others--and with it, our relevance to the changing landscape of America.

The Focus Shifts to Communities

Over the last couple of decades, natural resource management has been moving out of both agency offices and farmers' kitchens into town hall. On the one hand, our critical environmental issues are diffuse and incremental, making them a poor fit for traditional "command and control" regulatory solutions. On the other, as American suburbanizes, the majority of our landscape is no longer primarily controlled by individuals owning large swaths of farm or forest land.

As we move to face problems such as nonpoint source water pollution, farmland preservation, and forest/habitat fragmentation, the solutions are to be found partly with individuals owning small parcels of land and primarily with local units of government. Land use is the issue, and land use is overwhelmingly decided at the local level by county- and town-level volunteers serving on land use boards and commissions.

Agencies and organizations involved with natural resources have been slow to recognize (or at least embrace) the overwhelming importance of local land use, but it has finally dawned on them. Mounting evidence of the environmental, social, and economic impacts of poorly planned land use, particularly at the rural/urban interface, has attracted the attention of a diverse group of agencies and organizations from The Nature Conservancy to the American Farmland Trust to the Environmental Protection Agency to the National Homebuilder's Association.

However, despite the appearance of recent initiatives focused on "sprawl," "livable communities," and "smart growth," relatively little is being done to assist the critical audience of local land use decision makers. The world of local land use--messy, complicated, frustrating, and time-consuming--is foreign and intimidating to many organizations. Few groups have the experience, the tools, the mindset, or the sheer people power to assist local land use decision makers.

Extension (including Sea Grant Extension) is the one exception. Extension's strengths are precisely what are needed at the local level: solid, research-based information; facilitation and outreach skills; and ability to work with many different sectors without the "baggage" of being a regulator or advocate. However, despite a number of excellent individual programs in natural resource management/environmental quality throughout system, the LGU system as a whole has steadfastly refused to take up the challenge of addressing land use issues as a topic or focusing on local land use decision makers as an audience. Presented with this apparent abdication, other organizations far less suited for the work are finally moving to fill the gap.

Phantom Impediments to a Land Grant Natural Resource Focus

Why is our system so slow to embrace the natural and necessary evolution into land use based natural resource programs? The answer seems to be a combination of misconception, fear, and inertia. Misconception that "environmental" issues are a fundamental topical departure from LGU/Extension's strengths. Fear of moving away from the power base of traditional agricultural audiences. Inertia that is the byproduct of a large, complex system resistant to change.

Environmental Doesn't Mean "Tree Hugging"

There exists the misconception that natural resource issues are "environmental" and therefore suspect. Let's not forget that agriculture is natural resource management, albeit only one of several major aspects. Presumably, agriculture programs are considered mainstream because they encompass a "production," or economic, emphasis. But all natural resource management is inherently economic in nature, whether it's a timber company attempting to maximize its yield or a town trying to protect the health of its waterways.

To be effective, natural resource programs should address both sides of the conservation/development coin. This is far from tree-hugging, and it is a viewpoint that is sorely in need of a champion in our communities. The LGU/Extension system could become this champion by broadening its focus to include "non-commercial" natural resource management by individuals, local governments, and others. It's a logical extension of our historic charge, not a radical break.

Breaking Through the Rural-Urban Interface

There is also a rarely expressed fear that by overtly addressing issues related to urbanization, LGU/Extension would be making a dangerous move away from our rural public and political power base. However, if we are to effectively address land use issues, LGU/Extension cannot possibly leave traditional rural areas and audiences out of the equation. For example, groups like the American Farmland Trust have been quick to realize that you cannot effectively address farmland preservation without addressing urban issues. Similarly, issues like forest fragmentation, nonpoint source pollution, and sprawl affect both sides of the urban/rural interface.

One needn't be an "inside the Beltway" savant to recognize the enormous potential of the political power represented by suburban and urban audiences in general, and local decision makers in particular. Consider the political clout represented by satisfied LGU/Extension "customers" who are mayors, first selectmen, city council members, county commissioners, and League of Women Voter officials, for example.

The Myth of Mission Creep

What about staying faithful to the "A" in USDA? Doesn't a more explicit focus on land use and natural resource issues constitute "mission creep"? On the contrary, one can make a strong argument that the greatest mission creep evident in the LGU/Extension system is its continued emphasis on production agriculture. By retaining this programmatic focus, we have drifted considerably from the intent of the system's original mission to serve the community. Back in the 19th century when the system was created, the dominance of the family farm in the landscape and culture of America made "community" virtually synonymous with "agriculture." That is obviously no longer the case.

Some parts of our system have avoided this blind spot. Both 4-H and Consumer Sciences have turned their attention to suburban/urban areas and issues, and, in those parts of the country where they still exist, Community Development Extension staff have broadened their focus to issues like farmland preservation.

The Enemy in the Mirror

It has often been pointed out that the large and complex LGU/Extension system cannot adapt with the speed or decisiveness of more "line-oriented" agencies. While true, the real irony is that the complexity and plurality that make administrative hierarchies slow to respond to new situations are the same characteristics that foster creativity at the field level. The result is that individual staff and programs have adapted and moved far ahead of their own administrations on emerging issues.

Putting the Brakes on Innovation: Lending a Hand, Versus Having a Hand Out

Through the entrepreneurial work of individual staff members securing external funding, Extension now boasts a handful of excellent research and Extension programs that address critical issues such as urban forestry, habitat fragmentation, land use planning, open space preservation, watershed management, and household environmental management. However, due to their topical focus and their non-USDA funding sources, these programs often exist in isolation from their LGU base, to the detriment of both program and system.

Isolated LGU success stories could be dramatically multiplied in both magnitude and number with the addition of one key missing element--administrative will at the state and the federal levels to support, package, and market these programs to the clientele and to other agencies.

Moral support is extremely important, but not enough. Money talks, and the language it speaks is leadership: the value is not so much in dollars and cents, but the ability to alter the dynamic between LGU/Extension innovators and our partner agencies. Even modest amounts of "internal" county, university, and USDA funding would allow LGU/Extension natural resource programs to go to the table as "players." This is an entirely different scenario than having our programs continually playing the supplicant, with our hands out and nothing to put on the table but our excellent ideas.

Without the basic bargaining chip of internal support, LGU research/Extension model programs will continue to eke out their existence as fringe players in the natural resource management game.

A Closing Window of Opportunity

America is suburbanizing, and many of the most critical issues facing Americans are at the urban/rural interface. Our communities need help: help to plan and envision their future; help to dovetail economic growth with environmental protection; help to promote tourism without depleting their natural resource base; help to preserve open space and farm land from an onslaught of subdivision. We should be there for them, because a description of the ideal delivery system to meet these needs sounds like a LGU/Extension marketing brochure. But for the most part, we're not.

We could be. The solutions are to be found at every rung of the system ladder. On the program end, Extension educators must come to the table willing to fill the need that exists: providing field level information and assistance on natural resource issues directly to land use decision makers. Mere facilitation and research are not enough. Being ready, willing, and able to "get our hands dirty"--in this case at a zoning board meeting rather than in a corn field--will continue to be the greatest asset that our system has to offer.

At the individual LGU level, administrators need to take the "choke chain" off of their excellent natural resource programs, and promote and support them the way they do the more traditional programs. Deans and Directors steeped in the agricultural tradition of the system need to look to their entrepreneurial field staff to help them open up new doors and to attain a comfort level with natural resource issues and agencies.

At the national level, NASULGC, ESCOP, ECOP, and other system-wide policy bodies should facilitate the creation of a network of existing exemplary research and outreach programs that address natural resource management and the environment. This network should be tapped for their expertise, "marketed" to partner agencies, and, in general, presented as a package that showcases the power and potential of LGU/Extension as a major partner in natural resource management for the 21st century.

If our system does not find the will and the resources to assert our role in natural resource management, we will be out of a job. Of greater importance in the big picture, however, is that those recreating our wheel may be too little and too late to provide the type of assistance that our communities desperately need.