Tips for covering conservation policy
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BY KIRK MANTAY
Too often an assignment to write about an ongoing land or water use conflict finds itself heaving against an immovable barrier: An agency denial that isn’t a denial at all such as “we didn’t deny that permit,” or, “we don’t own that property,” or, “that’s not our agency policy.” When an agency representative speaks about an ongoing interagency or public-private controversy, what they aren’t saying can be more important than what they are saying.
The heirarchy of law is very important in conservation communications. In its most basic form, there’s law. Laws stem from legislation (bills) that have been passed “into law.” Those laws are then studied by legal counsel of various government agencies and interpreted into regulations or code, which must be approved by an attorney general or similar official. Regulations set specific rules and penalties in place that exist under any agency’s jurisdiction.
“Policy” is something entirely different, and something that writers hear from government agencies on a regular basis. Policy is a formal or informal interpretation (sometimes not even written), of how a regulation or code should be enforced or ignored. “Policy” is the root of conservation’s legal discretion and is thus the root of a great many lawsuits. This is because policy isn’t always derived from the regulations enabling legislation. It’s good practice to follow up with additional questions once you hear an agency staffer speak of “policy,” such as “Can I get a copy of that policy? Where is it written?” Or, “where can the public find that outlined in the regulations?”
When it comes to land management specifically, the legal picture is even less clear. An important habitat property may have been purchased by one agency, to be managed by a nonprofit organization that intends to support the habitat goals of a totally separate agency. A land protection project may have upwards of a dozen legal partners, each of whom may serve a different legal role in the property’s management and enforcement. For that reason, it isn’t enough to figure out who owns the property in question. Who has an easement, a memorandum describing management and access or a deed restriction? Too often, hasty calls to agency staff about a public land issue or conflict are met with a dry response of “the agency doesn’t manage or own or oversee that property.” The staffer may be incorrect, and such statements don’t make themselves true simply by virtue of being published on social media in official statements.
A date with the planner on call at your local planning or zoning office is warranted before you ever write about a property or land use conflict between parties. You may spend 30 minutes waiting and 90 minutes poring over plats, deeds and easement documents. It’s two hours well spent.
The last topic I want to mention here is an important one that impacts nearly everyone’s recreational use, particularly in suburban and urban areas, and universally on public properties or public easements. That topic is whether outdoor recreation uses are allowed exclusively or inclusively — is the use (your topic) specifically excluded from that land? It might sound unimportant, but in cases where the landowner agency bases its policy and enforcement on the inclusive use doctrine, recreational uses are allowed even if they are not enumerated. If the county park doesn’t say “no hunting,” than it’s “yes hunting,” assuming all other laws are followed. Writers might be surprised to learn, however, that this is not the default for many federal, state and local government properties — those that use the exclusive use doctrine. In that case, there’s no hunting in the county park unless the county’s website or the park’s entrance stipulates that hunting is allowed, and under what conditions. While this doesn’t sound like exciting material, it’s easy to forget to hunt down these facts when writing about a heated property use conflict on public land or water. In many cases, a second article will be waiting in the wings for you because the public access “policy” in place may have no formal or legal basis, instead being politically driven.
As a writer, it is very easy to state agency positions inaccurately, because the agency staff interviewed for the piece might be completely wrong or intentionally vague. Asking specific questions about land and water use bills, laws, regulations and policies can help any outdoor writer tease out the critical details that can constitute a story behind the story and enhance an article’s accuracy.♦
—Kirk Mantay has authored and managed the River Mud Blog since 2007. He has written numerous conservation related pieces for print and electronic publications. A lifelong sportsman, Mantay joined OWAA in 2013. He works as a habitat restoration manager in Annapolis, Maryland, and spends his spare time outdoors with his wife Amy and their son Henry.