Jewell on a water-quality sampling trip in a marsh at A.R.M. Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in the Everglades. All photos courtesy of Susan Jewell/USFWS
Susan Jewell conserves to restore harmony within the environment
p>More than a few times I have wondered how I came to be so enamored with the natural world. I grew up in flat, monotonous, suburban New Jersey. Although I probably inherited my penchant for science from my father, a physician, no one in my family had shown such an all-consuming affinity for the outdoors. In the early years, I doubt that my parents or siblings understood my career choice. To them, I was a forest ranger, or more likely, a forest stranger—an enigma—not quite a black sheep, but something more baffling. I was the green sheep of the family.
While coming of age in the 1960s, I saw news stories about water and air pollution, and I learned the connection between people and the natural world by the time I was a teenager. I joined my high school’s fledgling ecology class, started recycling at home, went on litter-collecting patrols, and have never let up on conserving natural resources since. My path was laid out for me after high school. I already knew what would give meaning to my life. Off I went to college and graduate school to learn how to take care of the earth.
In my university days, the faculty repeatedly drilled into our heads how demanding the field of wildlife biology would be, both physically and mentally. They were right. Even our curriculum required more credit hours than most other majors, including pre-medical. As budding scientists in the 1970s, we discussed all types of environmental issues, including the emerging news about how greenhouse gases from the release of fossil fuels could be causing the earth to warm.
Jewell, out at Loxahatchee, driving an airboat.
In addition to the occupation’s physical and academic demands, the faculty impressed upon us students that, as wildlife biologists, “You’ll never get rich.” Those who had enrolled with visions of a romantic career in the wilderness soon found their dreams extinguished. They dropped out, one by one, until only a few die-hards remained.
On the Job
We were then delivered into a life of grueling physical labor, shaky employment prospects and general uncertainty about the future.
I persevered, not anticipating the dim probability of succeeding as a petite woman in a so-called man’s occupation. Now, after early jobs with environmental organizations and the National Park Service and 25 years with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I don’t regret the path that chose me. I have worked in many hazardous field situations, endured chronic injuries and worked long hours to make deadlines. As an endangered species listing biologist, ignoring quitting time could mean protecting a species before it was too late. In my current position, I can write a regulation to designate species as injurious (usually foreign invasive species). Injurious species can’t legally be imported, except by permit for certain purposes. That is a truly efficient and effective way of keeping harmful species out of our country and from entering new regions if they are already here, and only the Service has the authority to designate an injurious species.
|Jewell shows off the Everglades rat snake she found while driving an airboat.
Far from Trivial
Throughout time, people’s lives have been entwined with the land and the natural world. In the past we didn’t need to know why herons move their nesting sites around the Everglades or why alligators are smaller in the Everglades than in Louisiana, as long as herons still nested and alligators lived. But in today’s world, we do need to know why the herons relocate and why the gators are smaller, to ensure there will always be herons and alligators.
As the senior biologist at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge in the Everglades, I learned that herons have a keen insight into future water levels, knowing before we do when a marsh will go dry. And the alligators in the Everglades are smaller because of the changes to the food web caused by people draining, diverting and otherwise tampering with the surface water. While these tidbits of information may seem trivial, collecting them represents a tremendous amount of work—long, backbreaking hours in the field, sometimes at a risk to a biologist’s life. This is what it takes to find the answers needed to restore harmony within the environment.
Sadly, many people spend their whole lives never comprehending how deeply entwined we all are with the natural world. I am grateful that I do comprehend, and I know that, by working for the Service, one person’s actions can help restore the harmony of the environment that is the foundation of all life.
SUSAN JEWELL, Fish and Aquatic Conservation, Headquarters