Regardless how the budget dust-up in Washington ultimately unfolds, if you care about the nation's land and water, and outdoor pursuits such as hiking, camping, hunting and fishing, the rumble you hear in the distance is not that of Congress dissembling -- though it could be.

Instead it's the sound of modern conservation crumbling at its foundation, not quickly to be put back together, if it ever is.

Put another way: The money's gone, and with it -- in Washington and in state capitals across the land -- the legislative will to sustain the nation's natural heritage by funding land and water conservation at historical levels.

Perhaps it should be no surprise.

Jobs are scarce, money is tight. And it's long been known that the largest share of the population doesn't give a rip about natural resource protection.

Not if they have to pay for it, or exert effort toward that end.

It was a good run. Beginning with Teddy Roosevelt and extending, with varying levels of intensity and effectiveness, through the administration of George W. Bush, the conservation of the nation's lands and waters was an idea whose basic validity never was challenged.

Historically, factions have argued over legislative and funding priorities, and how much could be afforded. But underlying these disputes was the fundamental belief that wild places and wild things were integral to the national psyche, and worth preserving.

The sea change that has occurred in recent years suggests much of that is history. Some of it is ideological: Republicans in state legislatures and in Washington simply don't seem to believe the natural world, or what's left of it, deserves a place at the table as the nation's more limited financial resources are divvied up.

Consequently, the list of state and federal conservation programs on the chopping block is nearly endless. Some gained no traction because it's perceived they are roadblocks to business success. Others simply don't resonate when funding discussions, and political careers, revolve almost entirely around how much can be cut, and how fast.

Wildlife groups such as Ducks Unlimited argue, correctly, that the business of conservation contributes billions of dollars to the nation's economy each year. Yet federal spending on land, water, ocean and wildlife programs represented an anemic 1.26 percent of the federal budget in 2010.

Expect even that percentage to nosedive in coming years.

What to do?

Conservationists must figure a new way to get things done. Preferably a better way. But at least a new way.

Because in most instances, depending on federal and state governments to fund conservation at levels even faintly approaching those of the past is a pipe dream.

Worse -- as those involved in conservation have long known -- most people don't care.

It is instead, and will continue forever to be, the province of something approaching 20 percent of the population who have done the heavy conservation lifting for the nation as a whole, and must continue to do so.

Take Minnesota. Forever, the DNR has been considered to be the steward of the state's natural resources. However true that has been in the past, it will be less and less so in the future, as continued funding pressures, along with demographic shifts among the state population, within the DNR itself and, especially, in the Legislature, steer the agency in a new direction.

Whether the state's resources will suffer as a result is conjecture. What's certain -- if only due to funding cuts -- is that the DNR will become a place where fewer and fewer staff undertake the hands-on business of managing particular fish and wildlife populations.

Instead, a smaller DNR likely will specialize in the delivery of regulatory, technical and other expertise to individuals, lake associations and non-profit fish and wildlife groups.

These individuals and organizations, in turn -- who will themselves face increased funding and demographic challenges -- must carry the burden of hands-on conservation in the state, if it is to continue.

Important now is the recognition among these groups, and among DNR leadership, that this new day is coming, and soon, and that it will require a retooling of past conservation methodologies, and development of new ones.

The challenges of wetland loss, wilderness protection and farmland conservation will only multiply. As they do, state and national conservation leaders must, together, develop a new vision for conservation delivery, and see to it that the vision is realized.

Otherwise the Minnesota -- and the nation -- your kids and grandkids inherit won't resemble a whit the one you've called home these many long years.

Dennis Anderson •