I earned a graduate degree in Marine Affairs from the University of Washington in 1982, and I went back there this week to give the 2012 College of the Environment Annual Dean's Lecture.
What an honor!
I got to tell folks a little about some of the tremendous conservation work that people might not know we do.
For instance, did you know the Fish and Wildlife Service is responsible for more than 200 million acres of ocean in the Pacific? In fact, we manage more marine acreage than any other conservation organization in the world.
An underwater shot of a reef at Tern Island in the Hawaiian Island National Wildlife Refuge. Credit: Sarah Youngern/USFWS
I then got to my main topic -- “Wildlife in the Modern American Landscape.” Where do you see wildlife in the modern American landscape?
It’s an important question, because the world is changing rapidly.
In 1982, when I graduated from UW, there were about 4.6 billion people on the planet with about 232 million in the United States. Now, 7 billion people inhabit the Earth, more than 300 million in the United States. In 2050, it is expected that there’ll be more than 9 billion people.
There's only so much food and cover and water in the world, and people are going to be asking for more of it. We're going to ask the land and the water to produce more food, more fiber, more fuel for us. That means wildlife will get less.
So unless we all commit to conservation, the only wildlife we may soon have are raccoons, possums, pigeons and things that do well in the confines of human society.
And no matter how dedicated we are, we cannot save everything. With limited resources – from money to habitat – we will need to start making some hard choices.
No one wants any animal or plant – from the simplest grass to the most magnificent mammal – to go extinct. Extinction is forever, and every loss threatens untold consequences for the web of life that supports us all.
But if we let ourselves be consumed with a crusade to save everything, then we'll save nothing.
What we must do is apply the best available science in a form of triage for wildlife.
If we use the best science to focus on the most strategically important conservation, we can actually minimize our extinction losses and put the right kind of conservation in the right places to achieve the greatest benefit for a host of other species.
If our ancestors failed at conservation, they could always point to vast undeveloped areas that still offered plants, fish and wildlife safe havens.
We don’t have that luxury.
If we fail now at conservation, there just might not be much wildlife left for the next generation besides pigeons and raccoons and the like.
I am reminded of what anthropologist Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
The conservation world is full of thoughtful, committed people. I am confident we won’t fail.