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Remarks on Leadership to the Conservation in Action Summit
Jim Kurth, Deputy Chief, National Wildlife Refuge System
National Conservation Training Center
Shepherdstown, WV
May 26, 2004

Jim Kurth I remember the first time, many years ago, that I needed to find information on who owned some tracts of land adjacent to the refuge. I went to the courthouse and began searching through the plat books. I wonder if today's technology and the proliferation of high powered GIS is denying young wildlife managers the joy of looking through old maps and plat books. When I found the right map, I began to study it looking for the refuge boundary. I was surprised, at first, that the name of the refuge was not in the plat book. There was no reference at all to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Nothing said that the Government owned any land whatsoever. The plat book and the deeds showed the owner as the "United States of America," as in "We the People."

I have always remembered that lesson. I have always considered it a privilege to help safeguard and manage these lands and waters for the American people. I believe public service is an honor.

I hear a lot of my colleagues talking these days about their concerns for the future. They are worried that our important work and our form of public service will not continue to be a priority, that we will loose ground and see progress that we have made erode away. American's do have a lot on their minds. We are bombarded everyday with troubling news. The war on terrorism and in Iraq have the nation's attention. The economy, although improving, still has many worried. There are clearly more important things that need to be done than there is money to do them. Things in our country seem uncertain.

While I understand their concerns, I'm really not worried. We should not be afraid. We have a great mission, we have heard it repeated many times this week so I won't read it to you.

Wildlife Conservation

I suggest that there is only one strategy that will allow us to succeed in this mission: we must focus on people. I'm tempted to say, "people must come first!" But I worry the curtain would be torn in two and charges of blasphemy filed. Yes, I know, wildlife conservation is our mission . . . and my life's work. But who accomplishes that mission?

Remember, we have said it for years, ducks don't vote. The American people do. It is through our elected representatives that we decided that we should have this wildlife conservation mission.

And by the way, ducks not only don't vote, they do not farm, mow, or disc. They can't handle a drip torch, a backpack sprayer, or a mark III pump. They don't know a thing about timber stand improvement. They aren't able to pull stop-logs nor turn a screw-gate. They have never backed the old crisafulli pump down the dike. They cannot operate a dozer, excavator or grader. They won't pull a shift in the visitor center, they don't where a badge or arrest poachers.

They can identify plants, and likely have some idea of how to identify and count one another – but they have no ability to communicate that information to the rest of us – as they have no computers nor email.

People do those things. Wildlife conservation is a human activity. It is all of you – our employees, volunteers, conservation partners, Friends and community supporters that accomplish the mission.

And I'm really not worried about the future, because I know we have evolution and the ages on our side. Our species has a hard-wired connection to the land, ancient ties and instincts that took eons to evolve and that only eons can erase. I know this ancient yearning for a close connection to the land remains within us, I have been fortunate to see it time and again.

I have witnessed and learned of the close relationship between the Inupiat and the sea and the bowhead whale. I have seen the kinship of the Gwich' in with the caribou. I have visited the Toda people of the Nilgiri Highlands of southern India. Their sacred buffalo remain central to their spiritual and economic sustenance. All Toda spiritual values revolve around their wilderness.

Last fall I visited Imfolozi, the home of the White Rhino, in South Africa,. It was the exclusive hunting preserve of the Zulu kings who protected the area by proclaiming conservation laws long before any formal protection. There are places throughout the world, across cultures and across time, that have served humanity as sacred places. Places where we find a connection with the land and with each other

I have felt those connections around countless campfires.

I felt them as I watched the ancient ritual of the wood storks as they built their nests at Pelican Island.

I have felt those same connections in many other places that have enriched my life, giving me precious moments to remember and draw strength from. I cherish memories of Bogue Chitto Refuge, where I discovered a secret place where prothonatory warblers flitted about like so many golden darts. The Sheenjek River and her moose, and the Firth River valley where a solitary hawk owl spoke to me, are two places that changed my life. I want to share just one short one story with you.

It was May, and we were flying back to Fairbanks from a meeting of the International Porcupine Caribou Board at Ft. McPherson in Canada's Northwest Territories. We were flying low along the Porcupine River, which lends its name to that great caribou herd. The caribou were heading north to their ancestral calving grounds on the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge. The river was in break up, large sheets of thick ice were hurrying downstream. An ancient call was urging the caribou to head north to the land where green tussocks would provide the nourishment the new mothers would need to nurse the next legion of caribou calves. Despite the dangers of ice and current, the caribou crossed the mighty river. We saw small bands standing on the ices sheets in mid-river, determined to make their way north. I turned in my seat and saw Isaac Akootchook beaming a broad smile. Isaac is an Inupiat elder from Kaktovik, Alaska, a village on the northern coast of the refuge. He said "I have heard of this all of my life, but I have never seen it before." It was humbling to witness this spectacle with him.

I believe there is a transforming power in refuges. They have the ability to awaken those ancient instincts, evoking a sense of wonder. Terry Tempest Williams told us the Bear River Refuge saved her life, it was the transforming power of that place that helped her get through her mother's bout with cancer.

I am not worried about the future because I have faith in you, faith that we will maintain our tradition of extreme optimism in the face of great challenge.

I was recently listening to a cassette tape a colleague gave me that recorded the festivities at the retirement party for Marcus C. Nelson in 1979. Mark was Chief of Refuges when he retired. He talked with joy of his first job at Medicine Lake Refuge in 1937 during the Dust Bowl days.

Mark told his friends what he had learned was that the way to make progress, to get things accomplished, was to "never quit digging, never quit hacking away." He told them to never give up. Because if you stop, and you were the only one trying, all progress stops.

When I first listened to his remarks, I didn't think of them as particularly eloquent. But as I thought about it, I realized what a perfect metaphor Mark had used. For those of you who have ever made a living in manual labor, who have used a shovel or machete as your tool, you understand what he meant. You keep digging and digging and sooner or later you have a ditch that can move water or footers for a building. You have a boundary line that is marked or a trail that is blazed. You persevere and create something of lasting value. But you can never quit until it is done.

Mark and his contemporaries made progress during difficult times, because during those trying times they pressed on. These building here at the National Conservation Training Center are full of pictures of conservation leaders who did just the same. Think of the namesakes of the lodges where you are staying.

Some of you are staying here in the Ding Darling Lodge. Ding Darling, "the man who saved ducks," was a newspaper man and cartoonist who used his craft to raise awareness about the plight of waterfowl during those Dust Bowl days Mark spoke of. He was also Chief of the Bureau of Biological Survey in 1934 and 1935. Three million acres of land were set aside as wildlife refuges during his watch.

While Ding was our Director for only two short years, he never gave up on conservation. He made it his life work, and he never quit digging, he never quit hacking away.

Others of you are staying in the Aldo Leopold Lodge. We have heard a lot this week about Leopold and the Land Ethic. I like you to share some thoughts with you about one of Leopold's other essays that is a personal favorite of mine. He began this piece by reflecting on all the good things the continent of South America had given him – coffee, rare woods, pleasant fruits, and a variety of other things that enriched his life. He went on to say, "But more than all of these, it has given me the River of the Mother of God." Leopold could not recall how he had first heard of this place and he wrote, "All that I remember is that long ago a Spanish Captain, wandering in some Andean height, sent word back that he had found where a mighty river falls into the trackless Amazonian forest, and disappears. He had named it el Rio Madre de Dios. The Spanish Captain never came back. Like the river, he disappeared. But ever since some maps of South America have shown a short heavy line running eastward beyond the Andes, a river without beginning or end, and labelled it the River of the Mother of God."

"The short heavy line flung down upon the blank vastness of tropical wilderness has always seemed the perfect symbol of the Unknown Places of the earth."

Leopold went on to conclude that the time had come where, geographically speaking, there were no Unknown Places remaining. He wondered what would happen to the human character if we lost from the human experience the opportunity to venture into and explore Unknown Places.

He asked the fundamental questions, "Is it possible to preserve the element of Unknown Places in our national life? Is it practicable to do so, without undue loss of economic values?" He answered his own questions. "I say "yes" to both questions. But we must act vigorously and quickly, before the remaining bits of wilderness have disappeared."

Leopold never gave up, he never quit digging, he never quit hacking away.

Still others of you are holed up in Rachel Carson Lodge. I am struck by how adept Rachel Carson was at making everything she said profound, whether a letter to a friend, a speech to a garden club, or her famous Silent Spring. The essence of her brilliance was her ability to put into words the elusive obviousness of things.

While Rachel Carson is most known for her contributions to protecting the natural world, now more than ever what is most remarkable is her success in making people part of the equation. She awakened people to the natural world in ways that provoked consideration, not only through her forewarning about environmental issues that affected human health, but also her perspectives on the intricate living world and its evolution.

Through her eloquence in describing her sense of wonder at the seasons and rhythms of nature, her respect for the fragility of ecological processes, and the scope of evolution she often called the "stream of time," Rachel Carson humbled us in a way that was welcoming, too. Remarking on mail she received following publication of The Sea Around Us, she said, "It has come to me very clearly through these wonderful letters that people everywhere are desperately eager for whatever will lift them out of themselves and allow them to believe in the future. I am sure that such release from tension can come through the contemplation of the beauties and mysterious rhythms of the natural world."

In another example of her views on the value of relating science to the public in general, she said, ". . . scientific truth has power to improve our world only if it is expressed . . . one of the most important functions of the writer today . . . is to describe and to interpret, for the average man, the world that lies about us." In a speech to a more scientific audience, she said, "I am convinced that we have been far too ready to assume that these people are indifferent to the world we know to be full of wonder. If they are indifferent it is only because they have not been properly introduced to it – and perhaps that is in some measure our fault. I feel that we have too often written only for each other. We have assumed that what we had to say would interest only other naturalists." That statement remains one of her most valuable and timeless lessons to all of us in the conservation community.

Perhaps more than any Service employee, Rachel Carson never gave up, she never quit digging.

My favorite lodge is the Murie Lodge. Those of us who make our life's work in the conservation cause, are blessed by remarkable opportunities to see some of earth's most special places. One of my most cherished memories is of Last Lake on the Sheenjek River, where Olaus and Mardy made their famous camp in 1956. My golden retriever is named Sheenjek. Our life's travels take us to such rare and special places, burning memories in our heart which serves as bright beacons of our hopes for the future. Mardy was blessed the gift of being able to share her memories through her writing, so she served as a bright beacon for millions who never met her. Her book, Two in the Far North, is a great inspiration to me.

I felt so fortunate to meet Mardy a few years ago, and even though we really couldn't share a conservation, I was able to hold her hand and say thank you to her.

I visited the Murie ranch last November, I was there for her memorial service. In the silence of the freshly fallen snow in the shadows of the Grand Tetons, I sat quietly and stared at a painting Olaus had made of a hawk owl.

The Muries never gave up. Mardy kept digging, kept hacking away for more than 100 years. Her life spanned the entire first century of the Refuge System and she had her hand in on establishing more than half of the acres in the System.

There is an intangible quality about these conservation giants, and their leadership. I believe they felt a fundamental responsibility to give and give back. Leadership is about giving. They each became aware of their own unique talents and special gifts, and they used them to share their incredible experiences with other people. They wrote, taught, drew, painted, rallied, spoke and spoke out. They shared, they shared their special gifts generously. They shared deeply personal experiences and the deep meanings associated with them. It takes courage to share. Leadership is about giving.

Our conservation heroes serve as examples, but they would be the first to tell us that there is very little anyone does alone. I talk about our conservation heroes not to hold them up on a pedestal as people far above and different from all of you. I hold them up as a mirror, because I see so much of them in all of you. There are so many facets to leadership. We all have a contribution to make to the cause. Each of us must share our special gifts and talents. Leadership shines through in:

  • The patience and persistence of Paul Tritaik and Bruce Creef and Molly Krival

  • The positive outlook and can-do spirit of Jan Taylor and Barbara Boyle and Maggie Anderson and Ann Smith

  • The eye to the future of Mauve Taylor and Scott Kahn and Mary Stefansky and Mike Boylan

  • The showing of respect for our neighbors like Steve Kallin and Kelby Ouchley

  • The steady wisdom of Mike Hedrick and Mark Musaus

  • The contagious laugh of Hannibal Bolton and Nancy Gloman

  • The writing, the scriborial prowess, of David Klinger and Martha Nudel and Ben Ikenson

  • The unrelenting kindness and sincerity of Dean Rundle and Bob Byrne

  • The calm, careful professionalism of Ken Edwards and Anne Morkill and Evan Hirsche

  • The creativity of Cathy Curby and Kevin Kilcullen and Jeff Michael

  • The generosity of Karen Hollingsworth and Greg Siekaniec and Kathy Maycroft

  • The loyalty of Allyson Rowell and Marshall Jones

  • The compassion and faith J. C. Bryant

  • The willingness to personally sacrifice like Steve Joyner, Beau Sauselein, Scott Maness, and Rich Guadango
Leadership is about giving.

I am not worried about the future, because I have faith in our young people. When we think about leadership as giving, the most important consideration should be our young people. I mean both our young professionals and our young children.

Last September in south Africa, I was fortunate to listen to Nelson Mandela deliver a speech to the opening session of the World Congress on Protected Areas. He said:

"I have been asked in my address today to reflect on challenges for the 21st century as it affects conservation and protected areas. You may very well be a little curious to hear what an old man without a job, office, power or influence, and with his roots far in the past, is going to say about challenges for the future! The future is after all, in the hands of the youth."

"If this seems ironical, I know that I am not alone in this situation. It is well known that, among those who are preoccupied with the future of protected areas, there are a great many grey heads and far too few youthful ones. I am told that under-representation of the youth is a widespread phenomenon in many fields associated with protected area management. This is of course a matter for concern because without the involvement of the youth, the future cannot be secured."
Shortly after Mr. Mandela made his remarks, his sentiment was heartily endorsed by a young South African Junior Ranger. This teenage boy, said that he agreed, and that we needed to prepare the next generation, because, he stated bluntly "you are getting old and might die soon."

He was right of course, we must prepare our children for the challenges of tomorrow. In the course of the past century, our country has changed in many ways. There are 200 million more people inhabiting the America landscape than there were 100 years ago. An increasingly small percentage of today's children grow up in a rural environment. As our cities sprawl, suburbs become surrounded by more suburbs, with fewer children living near forests and fields and streams. Exploring shopping malls and video games has replaced exploring the outdoors for many of our kids. Crime, drugs, and other dangers of an increasingly urban environments require parents to keep closer watch on kids, rather than letting them roam free like was so common a generation ago. These forces combine and contribute to a new generation with a diminished understanding of the natural world.

Fewer kids know where the water they drink and the food that they eat come from. They do not understand the relation between timber and lumber, pulp and paper. They would see purple loosestrife as a flower just as beautiful as a pasque flower, without a clue as to why they are so different.

National wildlife refuges are places where a child can be filled with wonder as they watch a bobber slip under the water for the first time. Where kids can see the sky filled with wild birds from far away places and fill their imaginations wondering where they came from and to where they will fly. They will hear sounds like the piping of a plover sung against a chorus of wind and surf that cannot be downloaded from the internet. And in more than one special place, they can discover a pasque flower and immediately know its special magic, which they will never forget. These are moments of sharing that can bind families and friends together, gently soothing our ancient urge for a connection to the natural world. In our frantically paced world, opportunities for adventure and exploration coupled with moments of solitude and reflection are a perfect prescription for the modern stresses we all feel.

We can teach our children about the land and the natural world or perhaps learn along with them. Finding the time to spend in the great outdoors with children is our greatest challenge and opportunity – it is where we will raise the next generation of conservationists. We can instill in them a sense of what it truly means to be an American by teaching them about the natural history of our land.

Conservation is an exercise in democracy. If people don't want to protect wild places and the wild creatures that inhabit them, or if they simply don't care, they will surely disappear. Our job, the collective job of all of us gathered here, our shared priority must be to assure that never happens.

Thank you for letting me share this time with you. God bless you.



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