Conservation Imprinting, Oak Savannas, and the Community We Serve

Conservation Imprinting, Oak Savannas, and the Community We Serve


12 March 2024


By David Allen, Development for Conservation


My formative years in conservation were all with The Nature Conservancy. I learned how to raise money, and why raising money for land conservation was important, from some of the best practitioners available. That imprinting came in many forms. But one of them was around the word “community.”


From a very young age, I was fascinated by symbiosis – the close and long-term biological interaction between two different species of organisms. And I remember vividly the day I “discovered” that whole “communities” of plants and animals can enjoy a “close and long-term biological relationship” too.

In the same way that specific animals and plants can have “ranges” and be described as “threatened” or “endangered,” so can communities of plants and animals have ranges and be described as “threatened” or “endangered.” Everything has to live somewhere, and nothing can live everywhere.

A good example from the Midwest is the oak savanna – a distinctive plant community characterized by a mix of prairie grasses and wildflowers, interspersed with large, widely-spaced oak trees. Oak savanna once covered more than 32 million acres – less than 1% remains.


A decade later I read A Sand County Almanac for the first time:

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.

Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac


I’m sharing all this with you because I am on a journey. I am white, male, and privileged. And I am finding myself tripping on the word “community.” Because where I came from it was used in a very different context.

Today we see the word “community” everywhere – but always, it seems, connected to the idea of “human.”

  • “BIPOC” community
  • “Geographic” community
  • Community “engagement”
  • Community “outreach”
  • Community “involvement”
  • Community “empowerment”
  • Community “health”
  • Community “resources”
  • Community “organization”
  • Community “conservation”
  • Community “collaboration”
  • Community “activism”
  • Community “values”
  • “Under-resourced” community
  • “Under-represented” community


  • And “the community we serve.”


When I started my career with TNC, we were regularly given information about why protecting land and water resources was important – to protect habitat for endangered plants, animals, and communities of animals and plants. At some level I understood that even being able to consider land conservation was a privilege, but I tended to see it much more related to economic privilege than to racial or ethnic privilege. Indira Ghandi is credited with having said that there is no conservation until people are fed.

Meanwhile just a short time ago, I conducted a capital campaign feasibility study in which the most important reason to protect land was for human use – forest bathing, through hiking, mountain biking, and so on. It was the first time I had seen this result in any form, and it made me sad.


I guess what I’m saying is that I still believe the “community we serve” is the land community. Humans can be a part of that, but they are ONLY a part, and in many cases, not even the most important part.

And I sort of just get stuck there.

I don’t understand why conversations about land conservation automatically have to connect to questions of diversity and inclusion, because conversations about diversity and inclusion never include other species. They never include oak savanna. Why does there have to be an answer to the relevance question (which I interpret as “what’s in it for me?”) before we can talk about the other members of Leopold’s “land community.”

In other words, I can get to a place where I’m willing to accept that there are perspectives I don’t fully appreciate, but I don’t know where to start putting one foot in front of another from there.

Except perhaps to write about it – here.


In another formative TNC experience, I traveled to Nicaragua to work with indigenous nonprofits to help raise money for a mapping project. There were five tribes of Mayangna on the border of Nicaragua and Honduras. They each had territory that they identified as “theirs,” but no maps existed that showed where one tribe’s territory stopped and another’s started. And without clear boundaries, they were easy to exploit (still are!).

TNC’s interest was in using GPS technology to help them map their boundaries.

The Mayangna were primarily subsistence farmers, though they supplemented their diets with river fish as well. But what I remember most was that within each of their territorial boundaries, they maintained a sacred space. Members of the tribe could travel through the sacred space, but only silently, without speaking, and never to hunt, fish, or cultivate in any way.

What TNC discovered, through the mapping project, was that the sacred spaces for each tribe were all contiguous with each other. This was something the tribes themselves did not realize before then.

That image – of contiguous sacred spaces, ringed by tribal land – has stayed with me ever since.


All around us, there are strong arguments for nature, wilderness, and sacred spaces having intrinsic value. They don’t need to have a defined human use to be worth protecting from human use.


I accept that I am on a journey.

If you are on a similar journey, I would be interested in starting a conversation.


Cheers and Have a Good Week!



PS: Your comments on these posts are welcomed and warmly requested. If you have not posted a comment before, or if you are using a new email address, please know that there may be a delay in seeing your posted comment. That’s my SPAM defense at work. I approve all comments as soon as I am able during the day.


Photo by The ND lense courtesy Pixabay



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  • Kimball Cartwright
    Posted at 12:10h, 15 March

    Conservationists historically and to this day have a practice of separating environmental issues from those of social inequality. Yet conservation work exists within human systems. Compartmentalization isn’t unique to conservation of course. Erasing the intersections of issues makes it easier to articulate a clear objective for success and get started on a project.

    But there are negative consequences to asserting the white privilege to decouple issues.

    As an example, compartmentalization marginalizes the concept of environmental justice. See this study done at Yale in which they examined nearly $5 billion in grants awarded by 220 foundations in 35 states and found that several of the largest mainstream environmental organizations received more funding individually than did all the environmental justice organizations combined. Read Dr. Dorceta Taylor’s book “The Rise of the American Conservation Movement for a more historical narrative on the consequences of compartmentalizing environmental issues from social inequality.

  • Nelwyn C McInnis
    Posted at 11:47h, 13 March

    David, thanks for kicking off this interesting topic and discussion. I like you spent many years with The Nature Conservancy, over 25 in fact and another 7 years with the LA Natural Heritage Program as the endangered species botanist. I, like you still believe the “community we serve” is the land community, and that was what drew me to my career choices – groups that also held this belief. I too have noticed the shift in conservation support language over the years – it seems that it is almost entirely couched in terms of benefits to humans – green infrastructure, clean air and water, climate benefits, scenic, recreation. I have gone along with this, not only because those values are true, but because whatever gets someone to donate or conserve land is better than no support at all, and that language seems to resonate more with people today. But I have felt disappointment that conservation for conservation’s sake – the intrinsic values – are not emphasized as much as in the past. I can remember when TNC’s magazine always had a rare plant, animal or habitat on its cover and how shocking it was when, about 20 years ago, they put a human on the cover. Heaven forbid! I understood the reason why and know I am being too harsh, but I felt it was a step backward from teaching intrinsic values such as donating for conservation somewhere across the world at a place one may never visit.

    And I too remain “stuck there”, more or less. I do not advocate no humans should visit these sites or help restore and manage them when needed – I lead field trips to natural areas all the time and write management plans. But as we have all seen, excessive use from which a site cannot heal and where species and processes are lost, does not serve many of the intrinsic values. It may serve many human values for recreation, forest bathing or conserving some species, but some of the intrinsic values of the “natural community” will have been lost.

    For this reason, I especially like the idea of “contiguous sacred spaces, ringed by tribal land”. We need both, or even more rings around the sacred space – land heavily developed, then moderately developed, then lightly developed which includes recreation areas, then preservation areas with very light to no human impact. This is not a new concept, but we seem to mostly discuss the benefits of areas most used by humans.

    As far as the diversity of humans using these areas, that to me is a worthy but different topic for which I do not have time right now to delve into. I am only commenting from a scientific and not social perspective.

  • Emily Torres Barton
    Posted at 16:14h, 12 March

    Hi David, I’m so pleased you are bringing this topic up. It seems deeply held by you. And probably is deeply held by many others. These deep conversations are important for us all to move forward as a more inclusive community and make the 30 by 30 goal a reality. I think subconsciously maybe, you are placing animal species and land as an underrepresented interest. That’s true in Western societies where land and animal dominance has been an ongoing crusade–and continues to be one. This paradigm is associated with ownership and, not-coincidentally, mapping that ownership. The indigenous ways are not always bettered by interacting with the Western ways. Frequently there is a course correction away from adopting Western ways. Other paradigms do exist–where societies live in balance with the world around them. Unfortunately, those voices and experiences have been silenced due to the very Western dominance that imperils the land. It’s important to remember that things were not always this way. Land didn’t always need saving. It’s important to ask ourselves why it does. And then take the next step–which is to include voices that have different perspectives and answers for how to bring ourselves into healthier relation with the land and other animals (of which we are one. And we must think critically about what religious paradigms set us separate from animals in the first place.). Perhaps what you are struggling with is not the word community in general, but a binary. It’s either the land or it isn’t. Binaries aren’t always helpful and sometime lead us into unnecessary conflict with others and ourselves. The world is actually much more complex than that…and much more intimidating. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable on your journey and about your journey. I encourage you to continue to learn! Anyway, thanks for being vulnerable. I hope to see you at the PNW Land Camp where I will be one of the co-presenters of a session. Please join me to chat more about this topic.

  • Emilee Martell
    Posted at 13:04h, 12 March

    Hi all – I’ve been avidly reading the comments on this post! I wrote an initial response this morning but then decided to let it sit and percolate for a few hours. I had a lot of the same thoughts as Jessica, including the note about oak savannas! Here’s what I’d like to add:

    I want to share my thoughts on this sentence in particular: “I don’t understand why conversations about land conservation automatically have to connect to questions of diversity and inclusion, because conversations about diversity and inclusion never include other species.”

    First, I think there are certainly conversations about diversity and inclusion that include other species. The indigenous speakers I’ve heard here in Wisconsin refer to plants and animals as relatives. For instance, when the 2021 wolf hunt happened in Wisconsin, tribes fought to protect wolves not only for their ecological importance but because of the deep relationship between wolves and tribal members – in fact, arguing that treaty rights should extend to wolves too. Here’s a great article about it: Including indigenous folks in our conservation work means uplifting and respecting that perspective.

    In addition, indigenous people were excluded and even harmed by early conservation in America, oftentimes BECAUSE we wanted to protect wilderness as wilderness. The national parks are a perfect example – tribes that had been living in harmony with the land for thousands of years were removed so the dominant white culture could enjoy a “natural” setting. As land conservationists working in the ancestral lands of tribal communities, we should at the very least be aware of this legacy, and at best work to rebuild connections. Humans are only one part of the land community, but we ARE an important part. Oak savannas have been lost not only because of agriculture and development, but because human stewardship through prescribed fire was removed from the landscape.

    Other marginalized cultures might also have different views on the relationship between humans and the natural world that should be considered in the DEIJ work of conservation organizations. I’m a white Midwesterner, but I’m also queer, and the diversity of the natural world is a vital part of my connection to conservation. I also see parallels in the callous disregard for endangered species and ecosystems and the cruelty towards the broad spectrum of LGBTQ+ identities. For me, conversations about land conservation DO automatically connect to questions of diversity and inclusion, because they encompass my perspective on why this work is important.

    Finally, I think we do serve the land community by having conversations about diversity and inclusion, because this is how we continue to grow support for this work. There are so many people out there who have only the vaguest concept of an ecosystem, who have never even heard of an oak savanna, much less seen its beauty or appreciated its rarity. For lots of those folks, that’s simply because they’re unaware and can learn more through outreach, but for others there are active barriers like income, fear, or exclusion. When we talk about connecting people to the land, I agree that it shouldn’t solely focus on how much recreational fun they can have. It should be about giving every person an equal opportunity to understand, appreciate, and find joy from our incredible natural world.

    I hope in these ways, we are indeed thinking of “community” as both human and non-human. And I hope my thoughts here help contribute to this ongoing conversation!

    • David Allen
      Posted at 13:23h, 12 March

      Hear, hear! Love these thoughts and contributions. Thank you so much for sharing them.


  • Jessica McDonald, Greenbelt Land Trust
    Posted at 11:37h, 12 March

    Personally, I think this is a dangerous and false-dichotomy that has been perpetuated by the primarily white-dominated conservation community. I really appreciate you sharing your reflections with honesty and vulnerability, David. And, yet … I don’t agree.

    I won’t be able to say what I want as succinctly and eloquently as I want, as I have a few minutes to write this morning. So, for now a few thoughts:

     I think of a Tribal member in a recent conversation that was focused on battling the paternalistic restrictions imposed by an agency funder – he stressed that we need to be reminded that ‘the only way that conservation goals can be met, the only way that we can have healthy lands, is if they are in connection with people’. You started this piece talking about symbiosis – similarly, this man is saying that there is a symbiotic relationship between people and healthy lands. You can’t have the latter without the former.
     Questions I would ask you: “What is the danger that you see in defining community as being both people and nature?”. Are you seeing issues from either land protection goals not being met?” Because … what I see is that land trusts (the world I know best) are only becoming more adept, accelerating the pace of their land protection work, as their missions maturate to reflect more people-community needs. I see talented staff being able to hold space for people and nature together – and doing this has not compromised work towards endangered species protection or restoring critical habitats… in fact, it has only expanded these results. I see more donors coming into organizations that show that they are not solely focused on ‘keeping the wild, wild’ (don’t get me started on the word ‘wild’). I see a more elevated public profile for organizations who are being able to connect people to the land.

    Lastly, I wanted to note that you begin by talking about the imperiled oak savannas … but, what is not mentioned is that we only have this oak habitat because of active management by people since time immemorial.

    • David Allen
      Posted at 12:44h, 12 March

      Well – there is certainly room for disagreement! I love the comments and the examples. I’ll share a couple of things, just to be clear. There are several different kinds of symbiotic relationships, and only one of them is mutually beneficial.

      “What is the danger that you see in defining community as being both people and nature?” I believe the point of the Leopold quote is that community SHOULD be defined as people and nature. Not people alone. I can accept that I may not be hearing the full context, but when the question “What is the community we are here to serve?” is asked, the answer doesn’t seem to ever include the land.

      “… there is a symbiotic relationship between people and healthy lands. You can’t have the latter without the former.” You can’t have healthy land without people? I’m not sure I buy that.

      I am part of the “white-dominated conservation community.” I understand that and own it. Hence the journey.

  • Heather Gaghan
    Posted at 10:35h, 12 March

    David, your story of the contiguous sacred tribal spaces immediately brought me back to the start of my fundraising journey– the year I volunteered with the San Carlos Apache in AZ. I was immersed in sacred spaces throughout the reservation. I didn’t realize it then, but I was being taught the balance of land conservation and preservation: use versus protection from use. The Apaches and other native tribes (I spent brief time with the Navajo and Zuni as well) all possess an intrinsic understanding of their place as stewards of their lands, of the symbiotic relationship between the creatures and natural resources of the land. The Apache footprint is relatively small in comparison to their lands they were re-given. Working in the conservation space now keeps bringing me back to my time there, and I have struggled to find and share the right translation of that experience. However, your blog post made a connection for me. From my experience, the indigenous peoples relationship to their lands is like that of a parent to a child. It is primal, protective and nurturing. “They don’t need to have a defined human use to be worth protecting from human use.” This statement has inspired me to take my fundraising conversations to the next level. Thank you.

  • Jill Boullion
    Posted at 09:24h, 12 March

    I think we have to live in this question to be be land conservation practitioners. It’s a paradox. We have leaders who want us to put every available resource into land protection, but then I look around at that group of leaders and so many of them have come through our community engagement programs. So who would even be sitting at that table if not for those programs? We aren’t separate from nature, we are nature as much as the oak savannah. But humans like to believe in separation, tribes, races, nationalities. We are symbiotically connected to nature, but I’d argue we need nature more than it needs us. Envision the health of Mother Earth if humans were no longer part of the equation.

  • Amy
    Posted at 08:58h, 12 March

    This is an intriguing post and brings me back to the environmental ethics class that helped shape my future career in conservation–not as a biologist, but as a social scientist. And now I find myself in fundraising, go figure.

    “All around us, there are strong arguments for nature, wilderness, and sacred spaces having intrinsic value. They don’t need to have a defined human use to be worth protecting from human use.”

    To me, valuing something as sacred is still a human perspective. “Human use” and “human values” are not one and the same. If you value oak savanna, that is a human valuing oak savanna. It may be for altruistic, moral, religious, scientific value, etc. — but those are still human values. How do you separate yourself from that?

    As fundraisers we are in the business of translating that human valuation of nature into dollars for conservation.

    I certainly believe in nature, biodiversity, and biological communities as having intrinsic value, don’t get me wrong. But if you begin down the path of valuing certain biological components of the larger community as having a higher value than certain other biological components of the larger community, including certain humans, where does that end?

    • David Allen
      Posted at 09:24h, 12 March

      I’m not sure I value “certain biological components of the larger community as having a higher value than certain other biological components of the larger community” except in the sense of urgency. The protection of certain biological components might be more urgent, based on assessments of the degree to which they are threatened. I do appreciate your comments about “sacred” being reflective of a human value. The interesting thing about that to me is that I don’t seem to have another word for it. “Intrinsic” I guess, but that’s such an esoteric word (as is the word “esoteric.”) When I think of something being sacred, I think of it as having value beyond human. At least that was what I intended when I wrote the sentence.

      Thank you so much for your comment. We need these conversations!


  • Carol Abrahamzon
    Posted at 08:52h, 12 March

    I love everything about this David! Every year we have a “theme” to use in our communications through our writing and photography. 2 years ago it was “saving the Driftless for them…” the “them” was our children and future generations. Lot’s of photos of cute kiddos! Last year we repeated the them BUT the “them” was plants and animals of the Driftless. Our photos focused on oak trees, birds, beavers, etc.

    Our mission statement changed recently to reflect this as well. It used to say, “To conserve native habitats and farmlands in the Driftless Area for the health and well-being of current and future generations.” Now it says, “To conserve native habitats and farmlands for the current and future health and well-being of the Driftless Area.” This takes the focus off of people.

    The story about the Mayangna is very moving and a beautiful vision of how we can “do better together”, (our communications theme this year).

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts…we’re on a journey.

  • Jay Addison
    Posted at 08:39h, 12 March

    I have to share this intensely profound post with our Board and staff as it should stir an awakening in all of us. As, if you are not on a journey, perhaps you should be. The clock is ticking.