“Old-School Conservationist” and a New Book

Editor’s note:  Tom Bailey has served as executive director of the Little Traverse Conservancy for more than 30 years.  He retires next month. Michigan State University Press has published a collection of Tom’s essays, entitled North Country Almanac.  Tom will be signing and discussing his book Saturday at Horizon Books in Traverse City from 4 to 6 pm.

Tom Bailey is not just another advocate.  He is a leader in the land conservancy community and an independent – sometimes controversial – thinker on conservation issues.  He is putting those opinions on display in a new book published by Michigan State University Press, A North Country Almanac: Reflections of an Old-School Conservationist in a Modern World.

Tom has been Executive Director of the Little Traverse Conservancy in the Petoskey area since late 1984. He currently serves on the Board of Trustees of Lake Superior State University, appointed by Governor Rick Snyder in 2016.  He was a member of Governor Snyder’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Michigan State Parks and Outdoor Recreation in 2011-12 and remains on the Michigan State Parks Advisory Committee. He has served on the National Land Trust Council of the Land Trust Alliance, was co-founder of the Top of Michigan Trails Council.  He received his Bachelor of Science degree in Park and Recreation Resources from Michigan State University. Before joining the Conservancy, Tom spent six years with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and served prior to that as a citizen representative and lobbyist for several local, state and national conservation groups.  He is a former National Park Ranger.

We asked him to explain the book and to discuss current conservation issues.


What message or meaning would you like a reader of your new book to take away afterwards?

It would be hard to suggest a single takeaway for people because the essays in the book deal with a variety of topics from a variety of viewpoints. Some readers might prefer descriptions of the simple joy of being outdoors—appreciating the beauty of an eagle in flight, the glorious beauty of the night sky, memories of outings with my father as a child, or the special delight my son took in being outside in a snowstorm.  Others might find that they’re most interested in different perspectives on issues like environmental laws and economics.  I would hope that others might enjoy observations on how the environmental movement has evolved since the first Earth Day, perspectives on hunting, or reflections on the relationships between fathers and sons. 


How did these essays come to be?

Most of them were written as quarterly columns for the Little Traverse Conservancy’s newsletter.  There are a couple of essays that were written for the newsletter but never published, and a few pieces were written to tie things together for the book.  The column on becoming a military family was actually written for a local newspaper when my son enlisted in the Army.


It seems as though family life has shaped much of your writing. Can you talk about the influence of your father and the meaning of your son in your writing?

Because of my father’s work as a wildlife biologist, I had the good fortune to grow up in a household where conservation was an everyday word.  Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” had an honored place on our family bookshelf, with his landmark “Game Management” nearby.  We had orphaned animals show up when people didn’t know what else to do with them, and it wasn’t unusual to go out with Dad on a dark night to hold the flashlight while he autopsied a road-killed deer or picked up a dead bird destined for the federal research center in Maryland to determine chemical content and cause of death. 

Because he loved hunting, I was able to learn at an early age how to shoot and hunt.  Dad took me fishing, and our family camped on many vacations from Maine to the Rocky Mountains and from the Keweenaw Peninsula to Mammoth Cave. One of my fond memories of early camping trips in northern Michigan is my mother cooking morel mushrooms on the Coleman stove.  And when I developed an interest in go-light backpacking as a teenager, Dad was happy to take it up with me. 

When my son came along, I wanted to give him the opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, but I didn’t want to force it on him.  As it happened, he took to hunting, fishing, shooting, camping and outdoor life like the proverbial duck to water. 

Another important influence was their military experience.  My Dad was a WWII vet, having been through rough action in the greatest air-sea battle in history off Okinawa.  He saw shipmates killed, and survived a terrible kamikaze attack.  When I talked about enlisting in the military he talked me out of it, saying that what he wanted most for me—and what he fought for in WWII—was for me to go to college and make a life and career for myself. So, that’s what I did.  My son didn’t so much ask his mother and me about military service as he told us that he was going to enlist.  As a student in middle school when the 9/11 attacks took place, he was profoundly affected by those events and determined that he would one day serve to defend our nation.  He rejected the comparatively easy route of ROTC and took the toughest training the Army had to offer, in the infantry.  He volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, and served on the front lines.  Because of their service, their bravery and their sacrifice, both my father and my son are my heroes. 


What is the significance of calling yourself an old-school conservationist?   How would you distinguish yourself from other conservationists and environmentalists?

I grew up in the tradition of the Aldo Leopold,/Theodore Roosevelt conservation science, ethics and appreciation of my father.  I’ve been a hunter, a fisherman and old-fashioned outdoor type: some would say a “hook and bullet” conservationist.  I’m proud of the fact that hunters and anglers were the first to call attention to the damage being done by overharvesting of game and fish, and that hunters and anglers stepped up to tax guns, ammunition and equipment in order to pay for conservation.  I was proud every year to buy my hunting license and federal duck stamp to pay for conservation. When the environmental movement took off in the early 1970s, My Dad and I were both impressed and also somewhat amused that people had suddenly discovered the importance of the environment and ecology.  I was happy to be part of it, but have been disappointed at times by the political orthodoxy that has found its way into the environmental movement. Many “environmentalists” have criticized the hunters and anglers who advanced conservation science and paid for conservation for decades without themselves stepping up to put their money where their mouth is.  Sometimes I think environmentalists make too many demands and don’t offer enough solutions. When I went to Washington in the early 1970s, I saw a number of environmental activists demonstrating and protesting on the capitol steps and outside the House and Senate office buildings.  But they didn’t bother to go in and speak with their representatives and testify at hearings; they just shouted.  Meanwhile, people like my father dedicated their careers to protecting natural resources and when policy debates flared, they did their best to work within the system to make things better.  So I consider myself more of an old-school conservationist than an environmentalist. 


Do you think Michigan has maintained or lost its way in terms of conservation and environmental policy? And why or why not?

I’m sad to say that Michigan, once the leading state in conservation and the environment, has lost momentum, lost focus, and lost initiative.  Michigan’s State Parks were once the envy of the nation, but now we have more than $300 million in deferred maintenance as the quality of our campgrounds and other facilities deteriorates.  We had a wonderful state Wilderness and Natural Areas program that has been ignored for decades.  And while things like our clean air act, clean water act, endangered species act and submerged lands protection acts need to evolve, we really haven’t kept up with the latest science of conservation. 

Why?  Several factors.  For one, as I like to put it we have not yet reversed the institutional momentum of Manifest Destiny.  There’s a persistent and misguided mentality that labels land “development” as a good thing while protection or preservation is at best a luxury and at worst a waste.  It’s just not that simple: there is certainly good development but there is a lot of irresponsible development too—just look at the empty malls and strip developments in many communities.  Conservation is not a waste it’s a long-term investment that benefits future generations.  It made sense in the 19th century to protect civilization from the ravages of the wild, but in the 21st century, we need to protect what’s left of the wild from the ravages of civilization.

Another factor in the loss of momentum is that our institutional approach to land use is still rooted in the 19th century.  Our financial system, our tax system, our zoning system and other institutions tend to encourage development which is often not able to pay its way.  This results in deteriorating infrastructure as we subsidize development of open space over re-using and repurposing our existing developed areas.  We used to call it “sprawl,” but there’s more to it than that. We need to establish a balance between land development and land conservation so that for every new subdivision that’s created, there’s a park or nature preserve.  We need to ensure that for every stretch of road where the scenic view is obliterated, there’s a stretch where it is preserved.  We need to turn around the subsidies that make it cheaper to convert farms to businesses than it is to redevelop abandoned developed areas. 

Fortunately, though, the news is not all bad.  Our legislature and voters had the foresight to create the Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund, which captures revenue from oil, gas, and minerals on DNR-administered public land and invests it for the benefit of future generations. The Trust Fund is the envy of the nation and it represents a truly enlightened approach that enables future generations to benefit from the resources we are extracting and burning today.  That is unprecedented in Michigan and is a great success story.  Another success story is that rather than repeating the sad history of cut-out-and-get-out logging, our State Forests have been well managed and have largely recovered from the devastation of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 


What do you regard as the most significant accomplishment of your career? 

I’d have to say that the most significant accomplishment has been to help Little Traverse Conservancy grow from a small community organization into a major community institution.  I helped to establish collegial relationships with our state natural resource agency, the DNR, and with the Forest Service and many local units of government.  We helped them acquire land for parks, forests and open spaces.  We also established positive relationships with the business community, helping to enhance the tourism and resort trade in our service area, reinforcing the idea that land conservation is not only good business but good for business.  I was able to integrate hunting, fishing and forest management with preservation so that we took an inclusive approach to our work rather than an exclusive one.  We were also able to establish an important education program that takes thousands of school kids out on to our preserves to learn about the outdoors in the outdoors, and not only to we offer these programs at no charge but we also reimburse at least some of their travel costs.  We’ve accomplished a lot.  Much of this was possible because I was the second person in the state outside of the Nature Conservancy to get paid full time to do land conservation and so there was no pattern to follow.  I was able to work with our board and members to chart an entirely new and unique course in conservation.


And the most significant disappointment? How have things change since you first got involved?

Biggest disappointment?  I think that would be that I haven’t been able to get the former Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant site into public ownership as a park.  There’s a lot of positive momentum for that to happen, and I hope it does.

How have things changed?  One of the most gratifying things I’ve seen in the 34 years I’ve been here is that land conservation has become a profession in its own right across Michigan. Leelanau Conservancy, Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy, Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy, Southeast, Six Rivers, Legacy, the list goes on.  I was the second person to get paid full time to do land conservation for a non-profit conservancy in Michigan but now there are dozens.  More and more people are recognizing the importance of keeping a healthy balance between land development and land conservation.

On the down side, the political climate is more polarized and more difficult than it was.  “Compromise” has become a dirty word.  There are a couple of issues now, however, that offer opportunities to transcend partisan and ideological differences and I’m hopeful that perhaps there’s a breakthrough coming that might lead to more cooperation to come.


Looking ahead, what is the biggest challenge to Michigan’s environment, the nation’s environment, and the world’s environment?

In Michigan and the United States, one of the big challenges that remains is to replace the 19th century “conquer the land” mentality with a more enlightened approach to balancing development with conservation.  We need to protect what’s left of the great American landscape that shaped our character.  We need to ensure that future generations will be able to hike, camp, ski, ride horses, hunt, fish, and live the outdoor life that is a fundamental part of the American experience. 

Worldwide, we need to recognize that while it may not be politically fashionable to address it, explosive growth in the human population is the greatest threat not only to the environment but also to our quality of life.  We’re at risk of fouling our nest because 11 billion people can’t all have 3,000 square foot homes, granite countertops, three automobiles and unlimited jet travel.  At the same time, we can’t be anti-technology and anti-human.  It’s about balance.  We need to harness our technology to develop more environmentally friendly ways to harness energy, to get from place to place and to live a healthy, secure and satisfying life. 

“Environmentalism” has become a toxic term in some circles, associated with the radical political left.  “Conservation” is, at its heart, a conservative approach to managing capital resources in a manner reminiscent of how one manages financial capital: prudently, and with the long term in mind.  At the same time, conservation resonates with environmentalists and social activists.  It is my hope that we can forge a new, trans-partisan consensus around managing our natural resources as one manages valuable capital, in a manner that appeals to all political persuasions. 


Tell us a little about your illustrator! (Tom’s fiancée is painter Heidi Marshall, whose works are featured in the book.)

Heidi is an amazing plein air painter.  Her work has been recognized at the local, state, national and international levels in competitions, gallery shows, university shows and by fellow artists.  She has a gift for seeing the beauty of the land, water and sky and capturing not just a photo-like image in her paintings, but the deep feeling of places, of weather, and of the moods of the land.  It’s no coincidence that her National Park paintings were displayed last year alongside the world-famous exhibit of Ansel Adams Masterworks: the both capture not only the look but also the feeling of the outdoors in their work.

We were introduced by friends in what one might call a “setup.”  We were both widowed, we weren’t interested in the dating scene and neither of us really expected to find love after grief.  But it happened, and it is one of the greatest blessings of my life. 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *