"This country has gotten where it is in spite of politics, not by the aid of it. That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation." Will Rogers (1932)
Well, the world of conservation was certainly thrown a curve ball on November 8, 2016. The election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States was unexpected by many people. For those of us in the conservation profession, it raises many questions on what the new President-elect’s priorities will be for our country. If the rhetoric of the campaign is any indication, conservationists have a right to be concerned.
I was thinking about all this as I traveled to the University of Tennessee at Martin last month, about a week after the election. My purpose for the trip was to speak to Dr. Eric Pelren’s Wildlife Policy class at UTM. I’ve previously enjoyed this experience, and enjoy the opportunity to meet his students and discuss some of the contemporary issues that are important in today’s conservation world.
The long arc of conservation history
This year presented a different kind of opportunity. The divisiveness and outright ugliness of the Presidential campaign, the stark differences between the two major party candidates on conservation issues, and the surprising outcome of the election caused anxiety for many people. But it also presented an opportunity to gain some different perspectives, through the eyes of the next generation of conservation leaders. Knowing that I’m rapidly approaching the twilight of my career, I was more interested in knowing what was on the minds of college-age students who are preparing to start their own careers in conservation. What were their concerns? What were their aspirations? What issues do they see on the horizon? And, what was the first spark that inspired them to pursue a career in conservation?
My talk focused on the history of migratory bird conservation and landscape-scale conservation, but really it was about the long arc of conservation history, using the story of Joint Ventures and Landscape Conservation Cooperatives to illustrate the progress of the last 35 years, which builds on a larger conservation story of what has transpired before,
To prepare for the class, I asked the students to read 4 papers:
- Baxter Open Letter to the Directorate.pdf provides 130 year historical context and challenges USFWS to meet the needs of the future;
- DOI Secretarial Order 3289 establishing LCCs and Climate Science Centers, a fundamentally new direction for the department;
- Congressionally requested National Academy of Sciences Review of LCCs (summary), concluded that landscape-scale conservation/LCCs are important conservation priorities for the nation; and
- An article (Scarlett_et_al-2016-Frontiers_in_Ecology_and_the_Environment.pdf) on the emergence of Network Governance in large landscape conservation, about emerging innovations in conservation governance that are enabling public-private partnerships to find new solutions to pressing problems.
Student perspectives: what’s important to the next generation
After the class, I invited the students to provide their perspectives on the conservation issues of the day, what their key issues and hopes are, and what inspired them to get into conservation. Following is a summary of their responses:
- What resonated most to you from reading the 4 conservation papers? – Many reacted to the Baxter Open Letter, saying that it had opened their eyes to the long-term history of conservation, and created a better understanding how conservation paradigms have changed over the last century. It also created an understanding of the continuing need to adapt to new times and challenges. One student wrote that the paper “opened my eyes up and lit a fire in me to help out even more” in protecting the natural resources that others have worked so hard to restore and maintain in the past.
- What do you think are the most pressing conservation issues in the 21st century? – Reacting to the Presidential election, students expressed concerns about who the next Secretary of Interior would be, and what direction the country would take in conservation. Also, issues such as sprawling urbanization, loss of forests, population growth, and climate change were mentioned as important. The declining number of sportsmen was identified as an important challenge for state fish & wildlife agencies, and the North American model of wildlife conservation, that relies on this constituency for funding and relevance.
- What are your personal goals, both short and long-term, in conservation? – Most of the students mentioned getting a job in the conservation field as their most important short-term goal. For longer term goals, there were a range of thoughts: post graduate degree in wildlife or advancement in a conservation organization; tackling larger conservation issues such as restoring bobwhites; being a mentor to the next generation of conservationists that will follow them; working on global conservation initiatives to conserve wildlife habitat or mitigate the effects of climate change.
- What caused you to get into conservation as a profession? – Consistently, students identified a mentor, usually their father, who provided that first spark that got them interested in wildlife conservation as a potential career interest. Some students grew up in a state park, or close to a park where they could be outdoors and explore nature. All of the students wrote of the importance of being introduced to the outdoors at an early age, and how much they loved various outdoor activities, whether it be camping, hunting, fishing, or caving.
Resting easy in uncertain times
Clearly, we are in for some uncertain times as a new Administration takes office in Washington, DC and begins to implement its priorities for the country. I’m sure there will some changes that I will disagree with vehemently, but I remain hopeful that some of the more damaging changes will either be short-lived or abandoned altogether, and I also have hope that some positive changes will be implemented as well. I appreciate the UT-Martin students for their willingness to voice their opinions and perspectives on the current state of affairs in conservation. We owe it to this next generation of conservation leaders to both share our experiences on lessons learned throughout our careers, but also to hear them out on their own concerns and priorities as they prepare to launch their careers.
I am also able to rest a little easier knowing that when measured against the long arc of conservation history, the next 4 years is but a short blip, and progress will continue to be made. In the last century, our profession has weathered a financial depression, two World Wars, and numerous other setbacks, but has nonetheless continued to make progress in conserving fish and wildlife. I expect that we will continue that tradition as we move forward. With that in mind, it’s time for us to all roll up our sleeves and to work even harder to ensure that our next generation of conservation leaders have a conservation legacy on which to build.