Last month, I had the great pleasure of addressing attendees at the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference.
This annual gathering is significant because of both the number and breadth of conservation and wildlife management professionals who attend – from scientists of myriad specialties to policy-makers, advocates and legal experts representing federal, state, non-profit, for-profit and academic institutions. This year, I used it as an opportunity to talk boldly about what I believe are the paramount issues facing the conservation community today – not global warming or the sixth extinction wave, but our internal struggles to unite and to make the idea of conservation relevant to future generations of Americans.
I have reproduced that speech here in the hope it will provoke thoughtful discourse and positive action.
It begins with a simple math problem. In a world where our biggest challenge in conserving wild creatures is human ecology, we are faced with a human population that now numbers 7.3 billion. By mid-century, we will be approaching 10 billion!
And it's not just our growing numbers, but our expanding affluence. More of the world's population will be more like us in America, with increasing access to things like electricity, education, transportation and health care.
We will demand more fuel, more fiber, more food, and we will consume more of the planet's ecological space.
Though we would wish it were not so, that means less and less for the rest of what we collectively call biodiversity.
So, continued success will require that we be smarter, faster and stronger. Better focused. More unified. Collectively determined.
But as a conservation community, we have a significant and growing dysfunction. We seem to be armoring ourselves against momentous tides of change.
We are reflexive and defensive and increasingly angry at the growing proportion of the population that we think just doesn't get it.
Easy things are hard. Hard things are impossible.
Case-in-point is what we call a federal Sportsmen's Bill. And this is not a criticism of the congressional sponsors, because they are responding to us. We are the problem. This is our dysfunction.
Rome burns ... prairies are in crisis ... Asian carp assault the Great Lakes ... Burmese pythons strangle the Everglades ... Elephants, rhinos, and other wildlife are decimated by a global epidemic in trafficking ... state and federal refuges in California (anchors of the Pacific Flyway) are starved of water ... mule deer are disappearing from large expanses in the west ... every native trout species is imperiled ... grassland birds are declining precipitously ... and on, and on.
And yet we ask Congress to address the import of 41 polar bear trophies, killed in 2008, in the name of Sportsmen.
The Land and Water Conservation Fund expires.
But, in the name of Sportsmen, we ask Congress to exempt lead bullets from Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) regulation, well knowing that lead bullets are not being regulated by TSCA.
And early this year, we witnessed the armed, illegal occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge by extremists who deny the legitimacy of federal and state government, and the entire concept of public lands held in trust for the American people. All American people.
Some ideologues, while not agreeing with the tactics used at Malheur, continue to want the federal government to divest hundreds of millions of acres of public land – not for sportsmen or women – but for economic development, private use and corporate profit.
My heartfelt thanks to the organizations that stood up and spoke out publicly against the occupation at Malheur: the National Wildlife Federation, National Wildlife Refuge Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Trout Unlimited, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, Defenders of Wildlife, the Audubon Society and others.
And we will need more strong voices calling for unity, as we see our ability to conserve and protect our public lands and native wildlife steadily undercut by those in positions of power and influence who are hostile to the very idea of public trust.
Sadly, the public doesn’t seem to realize the stakes – nothing less than conservation of wildlife and public lands for current and future generations of Americans. And all the while, conservation is increasingly irrelevant in today's changing American society.
To us and our predecessors – anglers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts – conservation has been relevant because it sustains the things we care about. But fewer and fewer people are fishing, hunting and spending time outdoors.
More than eight in 10 Americans live in urban and suburban environments. And urbanization is accelerating.
The nation will soon be made up of a majority of minorities.
Most of us in conservation do not look like America. We do not, therefore, adequately represent America.
This is a crisis for conservation that we simply must address.
The solution? I believe it is that we must change and change rapidly.
And yes, change comes hard. But, as General Eric Shinseki teaches us, if you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less.
We are already seeing the early stages of irrelevance.
So, we're facing big challenges.
Here's what I believe we need to do:
We have to break out of the disciplinary silos that we built and that served us so well, in the 20th century. We can't do 21st century conservation if we see the world divided into fish, wildlife, range and forestry. We have to unite these great disciplines and see conservation in a larger context, and design conservation on a larger scale.
We have to have zero tolerance for those who support divestiture of public lands. No one should be able to call themselves a sportsman or sportswoman unless they defend, loudly and at every turn, the benefits and importance of public land ownership and professional stewardship. And we need people in positions of power who will stand up for clean air and water, for protection of habitat, and stand behind the professional public servants – local, tribal, state and federal – who dedicate their lives to conserving wild places and wild creatures.
We also need a professional ethic that unites us as a community. Something like: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow conservationist. Sure, we may disagree from time to time, but these should be professional, courteous and respectful differences. How can we expect the faith and confidence of the public if we do not reflect faith and confidence in one another?
We must diversify our organizations, our profession and our community.
This must be a collective priority. We need to better represent what America looks like. There's a new generation of conservationist out there. They're in cities; they're using smart phones; they don't hunt or fish; they've never spent a night outdoors; their skin is shades of red or brown; English may be their second language. We have to find them. We have to inspire and recruit them. They will become the best-and-brightest. They will make conservation relevant.
We have to start today.