Optimism: The Heart of Conservation Past, Present and Future

Conservation, at its core, has always been the ultimate expression of optimism. When we replant a bottomland hardwood forest or release a captive-bred Mexican wolf into the wild, it’s understood that we may not be around to walk that mature forest. Or encounter recovered wolves roaming the landscape.

But we take these kinds of actions anyway, because we’re optimistic about the future.

I believe strongly that we can, and must retain that optimism as a conservation community, despite the staggeringly complex challenges we face across the globe. 

It’s no secret what we’re up against. Increasing drought and other ecosystem disruptions caused by climate change. Widespread habitat loss and destruction caused by development and the spread of invasive species. Spreading wildlife disease facilitated by global trade. Growing water scarcity driven by expanding cities and agriculture. A global epidemic of poaching and wildlife trafficking that is devastating some of the world's most iconic species, imperiling fragile ecosystems and undermining regional security and stability.

These are challenges created by humans. And they will only grow in scale and complexity as human population and affluence grow.

The earth’s human population is now about 7.2 billion people. By 2050, it is expected to reach 9.6 billion. And all of those people will have aspirations for greater access to electricity, affordable food, clean water, secure housing, safe transportation, quality education and health care, and all the blessings that create quality of life.

This means, frankly, that humans will occupy more and more of the planet's ecological space and demand more of its resources. 

Think about the example of the North American Bison, which once thundered the continent in great herds totaling 60 million or more. Today, there are fewer than 30,000 wild bison.

We can envision a future with more space for wild bison. But we cannot restore them to their historical abundance and distribution, because humans now occupy and use the Great Plains and prairies that once supported them. Our gain has been at their expense.

Given the stark reality of human economy and ecology, it’s a virtual certainty that in the future there will be less biodiversity on the planet.

I say this not because I welcome such an outcome. In fact, I’m committed to doing everything possible to avert it. But we can’t succeed in creating a better future by pretending that it isn’t looming over us. We must confront this threat honestly and unflinchingly.

Recognizing hard truths does not require us to abandon our optimism. Quite the contrary, we need to retain our optimism and use it to make the greatest possible difference for wildlife and natural systems. 

However, we also need to recognize that if we try to "save everything," we risk saving nothing of consequence. We’re already spread too thin, and losing ground every day.

We can't do the impossible. We can’t save everything, in all its historical abundance, geography and diversity. But if we have the strength to make difficult choices – guided by the best science and disciplined, strategic thinking – we can achieve the improbable.

We can envision and create a sustainable future for wildlife and natural systems.

In the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we are preparing to meet the challenges of the present and future with honesty, integrity -- and yes -- optimism. We will increasingly target our limited resources to conserve our priority species by managing to protect and sustain healthy ecosystems at landscape scales.

We can better align our work with that of our partners, and magnify the impact of our collective actions at ecologically meaningful scales.

Our species-focused, landscape-level conservation efforts are already underway, with encouraging results.

In the West, for example, the effort to conserve the greater sage grouse has brought together 11 states, multiple partners, and spurred the investment of nearly a billion dollars to improve the health of the landscape on a significant scale. Conserving sage grouse habitat will also benefit hundreds of other species – including the pronghorn antelope, mule deer, elk, sage sparrow and pygmy rabbit. 

Hellen Keller once said, “Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement. Nothing can be done without hope and confidence.” The Fish and Wildlife Service, and the work we do, will continue to embody that spirit. 

That’s why we’re working hard to ensure that our organization is fit and capable to meet the challenges in front of us. And why we’re building and strengthening partnership-driven conservation efforts across the nation. 

If we work together and act now – and if we make disciplined, science-driven decisions that focus our resources on sustaining healthy ecosystems at a landscape scale, I’m optimistic that we can, and will succeed.

Let's see the world for what it is, envision a future for what it can be, and act with confidence and optimism to make it so. 

Latinos Help Make Conservation Happen

In Spanish, hecho means “made.” We’ve all seen the lettering on countless products from Latin America – Hecho en Mexico, for example. Hecho a mano, denoting things made by hand. 

HECHO
A HECHO poll shows strong Latino support for conservation. Photo by HECHO

It’s uniquely fitting, therefore, that one of the nation’s most prominent organization for conservation-minded Latino Americans is called HECHO -- Hispanics Enjoying Camping Hunting and Outdoors

Why? Because in the most elemental sense, we are all hecho por la naturaleza – products of the natural world around us. Like the world’s fish, wildlife and plants, we depend on the Earth’s natural systems for clean air, clean water, food, shelter, jobs and economic growth. 

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We Can, and Must, Help Natural World Adapt to Climate Change

The National Climate Assessment released a few weeks ago puts it bluntly.

“Evidence for climate change abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans. Scientists and engineers from around the world have meticulously collected this evidence, using satellites and networks of weather balloons, thermometers, buoys, and other observing systems. Evidence of climate change is also visible in the observed and measured changes in location and behavior of species and functioning of ecosystems. Taken together, this evidence tells an unambiguous story: the planet is warming, and over the last half century, this warming has been driven primarily by human activity.”

The scientific debate over whether climate change is disrupting the natural systems that support life on Earth is over. But two questions remain to be answered by human society: How catastrophic will the effects of this disruption be if we do nothing? And what can be done to avert the worst impacts?

 Neal Smith NWR
Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell (second from left) learns about the work going on at Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge in Iowa. Photo by Doreen VanRyswyk/USFWS.

Fortunately, we still have time to act to help wildlife and natural systems cope with a rapidly changing climate – and to protect the web of life that sustains the Earth’s human population.

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Last updated: August 31, 2011