Tuesday, March 4, 2008

To range or not to range?

What is a conservation ranger? Here in Alladale our very professional deer management team went by the traditional highland nomenclature until The Big Idea of re-wilding showed up. They are now rangers, which reflects the shift in emphasis from hunting to general conservation management. The change sparked some discussion, and even some mild but serious introspection about job identity, from staff, visitors, and management. As one regular guest put it, "they can't just go down to the pub and call themselves rangers!" And she's right.

At Unity College we know very well we train Rangers. No worries. Been doing it for years, thousands of them out in the world, rangering away. Proud of it. A major contribution to conservation. A ranger, to us, is a baccalaureate degree-trained applied biologist, a professional conservationist, whose job is land management, and, in the case of public land, land use law enforcement. One good conservation ranger can save millions of acres.

One bad ranger, in a position of high authority, promoted to chief of a major national conservation agency, can destroy millions. We hope we train good ones. Judging by the high elevation of our graduates in the profession, we have been very successful.

To some extent, the Highland land management system of head stalkers, stalkers, gamekeepers and ghillies, on the other hand, has destroyed millions of acres. We should think about that. But it isn't the fault of the stalkers. They were given a job to do by their bosses: produce deer and a high quality Victorian deer-hunting experience, and they did it very well for the 130 plus years the system has been in existence. The land they took over was already heavily abused by years of extensive sheep ranching, and by logging, charcoal burning, and so on, prior to that. Many keystone species in the ecosystem were extirpated years earlier.

So stalkers did not, and do not, look at the land as a conservation ranger might. But there isn't much else that is different about them, and in fact Highland stalkers took their knowledge to American and Australian and New Zealand and English and Welsh National Parks and reserves and other places where conservation management was developed, and were some of the influential people in developing the profession as we know it at Unity College. The Highlands got its first national park only a few years ago. For this and for other complicated reasons, the conservation profession, as a result of the large areas of land still dedicated to pure hunting use, is not as developed in the Highlands relative to the size of the areas under management as it would need to be to implement the restoration vision.

I was talking to the estate managers for hours yesterday, both the General Manager, Hugh Fullerton-Smith, Head Ranger (formerly Head Stalker) Innes McNiel and Poppy, Ben and others whose names, unforgivably, I never quite got straight. But one of the things we talked about was, what is a Ranger?

The rangers here, although trained as stalkers, look, act, and think much like the rangers I help train back home. Con law and PRE and forestry, fisheries and wildlife majors, is what they look, act, and feel like. They also have formal training, at the technical college level, up to four years, with full certification. They survived several years each of serious apprenticeship to older experienced stalkers, the conditions of which would fully deter almost 100% of Unity students, who are ridiculously spoiled in comparison. There is not really much work that would be required to close the gap, and in fact with a little analysis of the academic programs through which they were trained, I could probably determine exactly how much further formal work they would each need to be Unity College baccalaureate degree-trained rangers, and it would not be very much. Maybe a year of coursework for the most experienced Alladale professionals.

We have to realise, though, in our American education system, with everything broken into Carnegie credits, transfer of professional expertise from one area of emphasis to another is much more simple than in the Scottish system.

A Unity College student, on the other hand, would require years of work and dedication to become trained to their level of practical and formal knowledge. I'm not sure we could ever do it.

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