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Habitat: What's in it for us?

Conservationists walk, talk and worry about habitat. They work hard to convince people to spend time understanding and protecting our land, water, flora and fauna. If we take good care of the habitat base, they say, fewer species will be in trouble.

That's sound thinking, but I wonder if they-and we-aren't underestimating what really results from a wise approach toward habitat. Our efforts to preserve places for the benefits of a few troubled species are valuable, but preserving good habitat also is essential for us, for our well-being, for our own species.

A good example of the extent habitat plays in framing the human species was shown to us by the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, made possible and, probably, inevitable, by human habitat modification. That example and more were included in Jared Diamond's recent book, Guns, Germs and Steel. According to Diamond, our humble beginnings as a species and subsequent diversity were directly formed by the physical attributes of our world. He argues that the world we live in forms us and our attitudes.

The Ozarks help illustrate my point. We have always considered Ozarkians to be rugged and independent folk. We believe that character was forged by the isolation of that region with its numerous hills and valleys.

If we accept that habitat strongly influences character, then we have reason to worry when we consider how many of us live in the inner city and grow up in neighborhoods dominated by rows of houses and little open space. The primary species of concern there are likely to be raccoons and squirrels-usually those flattened by a passing car. How different from a view of life forged by a rural upbringing!

Because most people are clustered in or closely around cities, conservation departments struggle with how to influence their attitude toward the future of habitat. The Missouri Conservation Department develops nature and discovery centers and educational materials. It forms partnerships with other habitat groups and school systems and purchases small plots of open space in urban areas. We hope our efforts won't prove too little too late. Many urban citizens may have already been unalterably influenced by their habitat to see a different world than conservationists envision.

The conservation battlefields of the future will increasingly be urban sprawl zones, where city and country collide. If we are to have a healthy conservation future, it will be essential to institute good land use planning and practices in our subdivisions and growth areas.

Your involvement and influence and time in retaining and improving habitat yard by neighborhood by subdivision not only will help maintain wildlife diversity, it also will determine how your children view conservation.

You are creating the environment that will become your children's memories and form their attitudes. If we are to have a better conservation tomorrow, we have to start building it today.

So what about the bottom line? Perhaps it's to give a little less thought and worry to the habitat needs of other species and more consideration for our own species. Being kinder and involved in meeting our habitat needs might pay big dividends.

Better for all of us to be shaped by a kinder neighborhood environment than grow up simply sending in money for other species' causes. What's in it for us? Ultimately, just about everything that's worthwhile in life!

Jerry M. Conley, Director

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