Kaid Benfield Archive


Norm Berg, conservationist extraordinaire, 1918-2008

Kaid Benfield

Posted April 2, 2008 at 11:10PM

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Norm Berg with Ralph Grossi, photo by AFTThis news is a couple of weeks old but just reached me, as I was going through old email.  I am sad to report that the country has lost one of its truly great conservation pioneers.

Norman Berg practically invented the concept of thinking about farmland as an important natural resource.  Among his many achievements, he was chief of the US Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service, and initiated the first research that quantified the amount of farmland in the US and the rate at which it was being paved over by development.  In the last decades of his career, Norm was a senior advisor to the American Farmland Trust, with whom NRDC has collaborated on many issues over the years.

AFT's president, my friend Ralph Grossi, has it right in his praise:

“It is rare in life that one gets to work with a true pioneer in agricultural conservation, and who at 90, felt so passionate about the importance of our nation’s natural resources that he commuted an hour and a half to downtown Washington, DC, to continue writing and developing policies in this area . . .

"Norm was this tireless advocate for conservation, because he saw, before many people, that sprawl and development was a serious threat to our nation’s agricultural resources . . . Norm once said that although he came from a farm background, he learned early that urban dwellers have a great impact on the land and great deal at stake with what happens in rural America. That was very real understanding of people and politics, along with an encyclopedic technical knowledge that he brought to AFT and all the organizations he worked with. He was so gracious about sharing his knowledge of conservation, putting issues into perspective and helping us avoid critical missteps along the way.”

I first encountered Norm when I was a youngish lawyer in the US Department of Justice, working on environmental issues during 1980 and 1981.  We had this idea that soil erosion was like pollution, in that it contaminated waterways while wasting resources, and was preventable with sustainable farming practices.  We believed that corporate farms that were negligent in causing erosion should be held legally accountable.  We took our idea over to some senior officers at USDA, who generally acted like we were not just naive but downright dangerous.  There was one exception: Norm Berg, who got it immediately.  And later, after I joined NRDC and Norm joined AFT, we continued to participate in meetings together, and he still got it, every time, even when I didn't.

You can actually draw a straight line from Norm to the smart growth movement.  Without Norm raising awareness of farmland loss to sprawl, it is likely there would be no American Farmland Trust.  AFT, in turn, was one of the country's first conservation groups to understand the need for new patterns of development and to do pathbreaking work on the issue; they were a huge help to NRDC when we first began working on this stuff in the mid-1990s.  Moreover, without AFT, along with NRDC one of the original founders of Smart Growth America, there might be no national smart growth coalition.  Ralph, who considers Norm one of his most important mentors, served as chair of SGA's board during its formative years, while I was vice chair. 

Read Ralph's eloquent tribute to Norm here.