In his stirring remarks to conservation leaders and journalists attending our 14th annual Western Media Summit, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director challenges us to stay optimistic, fix dysfunction, and keep fish and wildlife issues relevant
It’s an honor for me to speak to you at what is truly a make-or-break moment in conservation history.
I’m going to cover three topics: First, and briefly, the nature of the challenge we face today, and will increasingly face tomorrow. Second, the growing dysfunction in the conservation community. Third, a specific part, or symptom, of that dysfunction – the growing irrelevancy of conservation.
Many of you have heard me say this: Our challenge in conserving wild creatures is human ecology. The Earth’s population continues to grow. Today, we share the planet with 7.3 billion others of our species. By mid-century, we will be approaching 10 billion. And it’s not just our growing numbers, but our expanding affluence.
The world’s population is growing to be more like us, and increasing its demands for access to things like electricity, education, transportation, and health care. These people will require more fuel, more fiber, and more food, and we will all consume more of the planet’s ecological space just to keep pace. Though we wish it were not so, that means less and less for the rest of what we collectively call biodiversity.
This exploding demand for resources is altering the biochemical processes of the planet. 2014 was the warmest year on record – until 2015. This year could eclipse even that record.
The evidence is all around us:
- Scorching temperatures and rampant wildfires are bedeviling the southwest.
- Record high temperatures were recorded in the Arctic in January and February—who would ever have imagined the now routine need to truck in snow for the Iditarod?
- More than 90 percent of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has experienced bleaching in the past several months.
- PLUS: The great prairies of North America 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 of the West. Every native trout species is imperiled. Grassland birds are declining precipitously. And on, and on.
And yet, I don’t know if we’ve ever been less prepared, as a conservation community, to cope with these enormous challenges.
And that’s a good transition to my second point. As a community, we have a significant and growing dysfunction. We seem to increasingly view ourselves as an island in a rising sea of change, seeking to armor ourselves against the momentous tides of transformation around us. We are reflexive, defensive, and increasingly angry at the growing proportion of the population that just doesn’t get it.
Easy things seem hard. Hard things seem impossible.
Case-in-point is what we call “The 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. Instead of marshalling our resources and asking for Congress’s support to confront these challenges, we ask Congress to address the import of 41 polar bear trophies, killed in 2008, all 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 regulations in the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), well-knowing that lead bullets are not being regulated by TSCA.
It’s a failure of imagination, vision, and unity that will continue to cost us, if we don’t address it.
Across the West, the very concept of public lands are under sustained assault from federal, state and local politicians and the special interests who fund them. The illegal occupation of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge earlier this year was just the latest escalation in an ongoing effort by armed extremists to intimidate public employees and keep them from doing their jobs.
I’ll pause here to thank the TRCP and its grassroots advocates. You stood with us during the occupation, and continue to advocate forcefully against the transfer and sale of public lands. We are enormously grateful for the support.
We need all the help we can get, because these ideologues are waging a relentless campaign to undermine the legitimacy of public lands, public resources, and wildlife held in trust for the public. They 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.
They’re doing what we used to do so well. They’re playing the long game, and they are succeeding in their larger aim—to undercut public support and confuse the issue for voters.
The Malheur occupation didn’t occur in a vacuum. It happened because there are people, many of whom occupy positions of power and influence across the West, who share their values and beliefs, even if they recoil at their methods—for now.
Sadly, the public doesn’t seem to realize the stakes.
We’re heading into the heat of a pivotal election season, one that will likely determine the fate of those public lands and North America’s wildlife for years to come. We will need more strong voices during this election and beyond, as we see this cancer growing in Congress and state legislatures across the nation.
Which brings me to my third point. Conservation is increasingly irrelevant in today’s changing American society.
Relevance is the noun form of the adjective relevant, which means important to the matter at hand. To us—anglers, hunters, and outdoor enthusiasts—and our predecessors, conservation has long been relevant, because it sustains the things we care about. The matters at hand. But fewer and fewer people are fishing, hunting, and spending time outdoors. More than eight in ten Americans live in urban and suburban environments. Urbanization is accelerating, and the nation will soon be made up of a majority of minorities.
You, me, our organizations, others in our profession and our community, we do not look like America. We do not think like America. How then can we even understand, let alone achieve, what is important to the matters at hand in a changing America?
This is a crisis for conservation. We simply must address it. We must change and change rapidly. And yes, change comes hard. But, as General Eric Shinsheki teaches us, If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less. We are seeing the early stages of the irrelevance of conservation.
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 have built and that have 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 politicians, at all levels of government, who support divestiture of public lands. No candidate should be able to call themselves a sportsman unless they defend, loudly and at every turn, the benefits and importance of public land ownership and professional stewardship. It’s an election year, and we need a true Sportsmen’s Platform. Not platitudes about rights to hunt and fish. We need sportsmen to make it a priority to support—in every sense of the word—candidates who embody this platform. And to oppose those who do not. We need to support politicians who will stand up for clean air and water and 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 need a professional ethic that unites us as a community. President Ronald Reagan united his political party in the 1980s, and coined what he called the “Eleventh Amendment”: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican. We need our own Eleventh Amendment: Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow conservationist. Sure, we may disagree from time to time, but these need to be professional, courteous, and respectful differences of opinion. Those in our community who sow seeds of anger and adversity must meet with what Aldo Leopold called social disapproval. If we let these people divide us, and play us off each other, then we, and the resource we love, will lose. 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 set measureable goals and attain them. We can’t just welcome families and children from urban and diverse communities to the outdoors – we have to actively seek them out and make it easier for them to experience their natural heritage. We have to recruit them at a young age and expose them to careers in conservation.
The reality is that right now, we look in all the same places, we do what we have always done—and we settle for what we have always gotten.
This has to change.
It’s an issue of leadership, and it’s time for leaders to step up and lead. There’s a new generation of potential conservationists out there. They’re in cities. They’re using iPhones and Androids. They don’t hunt or fish. They’ve never spent a night outdoors. Their skin is red or brown. English may be their second language. They are the voters and leaders of tomorrow. If we lose them, there will be no tomorrow for conservation.
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 continue to expand our public lands and open them to new opportunities for Americans of all backgrounds to enjoy with their families.
We’ve made this a central priority in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, creating urban wildlife conservation partnerships in more than two dozen cities across the nation. These include cities where we have a land base—like Philadelphia, San Diego, Albuquerque, and Denver—as well as those where we don’t—like Atlanta, Houston, and Baltimore. Through these partnerships, we’re working with community leaders to help thousands of kids and families develop a personal connection with nature.
We’re partnering with organizations like the League of United Latino American Citizens and historically black fraternities and sororities, like Phi Beta Sigma and Zeta Phi Beta, to mentor young people and help them explore STEM careers.
Wherever and whenever we can, we’re expanding hunting, fishing, and outdoor recreation programs on our refuges. In fact, I’m pleased to announce that we’re proposing to expand hunting and fishing opportunities on 13 national wildlife refuges across the United States. This will include sportfishing and hunting for migratory birds, upland game, and big game. Right here in Colorado, we’re proposing elk hunting for the first time in designated areas of Baca National Wildlife Refuge, as well as in expanded areas of Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.
Expanded relevance. Less dysfunction. More ambition and creativity. Those are the keys to success, and we have to start today. Most of all, we have to act together and focus on the core values that unite us, not the comparatively trivial matters that tend to divide us as a conservation community.
None of this is easy. It requires us to leave our comfort zones and take risks. But nothing great was ever accomplished by playing it safe, or accepting the status quo.
Thank you for listening.