The Future is Bright

LEAF interns in Keene Valley, New York © Amy Deputy

The other day I saw a glimpse of The Nature Conservancy’s future – and it didn’t look like the present, but it was bright.

The Nature Conservancy in New York, as part of a larger overall Conservancy effort, is looking for ways to broaden our base of support for conservation and environmental sustainability for all life on earth. The Nature Conservancy has a million dedicated members who are primarily white, college-educated Baby Boomers. They have historically been the backbone of the organization and their support has helped us for the past 60 years become the largest conservation organization in the world and the eighth-largest charity in the United States. Our members are deeply passionate about and fervently committed to conservation. Without them, the Conservancy could not do what we do.

As the world sees a rapid change in national and global demographics, we need that passion and commitment to blossom and grow a new generation of conservationists like never before. We must seek to create a larger conservation consciousness that resonates in the 21st Century as New York, the United States and the world become increasingly young, urban, and more diverse.

New York City skyline © IslesPunkFan / Creative Commons

By 2050, the median age of the world’s population is projected to be 37 years old and 68 percent of us will live in cities. In the United States, people of color are projected to represent 54 percent of the population by 2050. Even with the Conservancy’s tremendous track record of success conserving lands, freshwater and oceans we run the risk of becoming quaint and irrelevant in the next 40 years if we don’t connect with younger audiences, people of color, and youth. This isn’t just about growing the membership of the Conservancy. This is about building a consciousness — in America and throughout the world — that appreciates the importance of conservation, wildlife and nature for economic prosperity and human well-being. It’s about inspiring people who refuse to allow the U.S. Congress to reject critical climate-change legislation. A people who insist we use public resources to protect our lands and waters for the benefit of people and nature.

In New York City we are launching an effort to look at ways that the Conservancy can bring its strengths (science, collaboration, partnerships, non-partisanship and a solutions-oriented approach) to a place we have too long ignored. We have some valuable contributions, including the Leaders for Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) a 15-year-old program that puts urban (and predominantly New York City) public high school juniors on Conservancy preserves all across the country. The experience is often the students’ first paid job, and I believe, a powerful combination of Fresh Air Fund, Outward Bound and Civilian Conservation Corps. We have also created a Young Professionals Group with more than 300 active members. But given New York City’s role as a global capital, it has, for too long, been the Conservancy’s “hole in the doughnut.”

Young Professionals Group canoing at Great Swamp © TNC

For decades, we’ve worked around New York City, but not in it—conserving lands and waters on Long Island, in the Adirondacks and Catskills, and around the Finger Lakes. These are all critically important regions and great work, but it’s not enough anymore. It’s time we found ways to better reach out and resonate with New York City. We need to set and achieve urban conservation goals, to influence conservation policy, to engage young adults and the broader audience who will become the conservation leaders of today and tomorrow. There are many successful organizations working in the City and we approach this knowing that partnerships are the way to go, working with others who know the socio-political and physical landscapes, bringing the Conservancy’s scientific expertise, financial resources and collaborative approach.

Not too long ago we held a meeting of New York Conservancy staff and trustees. Victor Medina, a LEAF alum, spoke to the gathering. He told the group how he was so inspired by his summer in nature that he lost 60 pounds and has spent the last several years climbing as many high peaks as he can find, including Pico Duarte in his native Dominican Republic. He spoke about his LEAF experience, his passion for conservation and how his LEAF summer internship helped him become the leader he is today. After he closed his remarks, Victor headed to his seat. As he walked past, someone shouted, “Bill, you’d better look out—here comes the next New York Director of The Nature Conservancy!”

Got that right.

Earthrise

Earthrise

Earthrise © NASA

Whenever I visited my granddad I would stare at a picture on the wall in his office.  He was a geographer who worked in remote sensing and geographic information systems when they were in their infancy, so he often used images taken from high flying aircraft and spacecraft.  The picture that captured my attention was taken in December 1968, the year I was born, when the Apollo 8 astronauts orbited the moon.  It was an image of the Earth rising over the horizon of the moon.  The Apollo 8 astronauts, essentially, discovered the Earth.

For the first time we were able to see Earth from space.  Ironically, for the first three orbits the astronauts had their backs to Earth each time it rose over the moon’s horizon  On the fourth orbit they turned around and said, “Oh my God!  Look…over there!” and snapped a photo.  It was then, in 1968, that a new perspective and appreciation of the Earth was born.  Shortly thereafter, thanks in part to heightened awareness from that Earthrise photo, the Clean Water, Clean Air and Safe Drinking Water Acts were passed, the Endangered Species Act was passed unanimously by the Senate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created, and the first Earth Day took place.

At the time the photo was taken the Earth’s population was 3.5 billion people. Today the global population has doubled to close to 7 billion. It is projected that there will be 9 billion people by 2050, and a new U.N. report suggests it could reach 10 billion by 2100.  Increases in demand for food, water and energy have accelerated our impact on the Earth’s natural systems, and the resulting effects of climate change are broad, pervasive and unpredictable.

We know that enduring prosperity for people depends on the health of the natural world and conservation is vital to sustaining progress.  The scale of our solutions must match the complexity of the challenges we face.  This is one of the things that makes me most proud to work for The Nature Conservancy — we are tackling our planet’s challenges in the right places, in the right ways, and at the right scale.

We have come to appreciate the fact that wildlife habitat, wildlands and open space in remote locations and right here in New York City are essential to our well-being, including our economic growth.  Nature provides us with our clean drinking water.  Our clean air. It offers the chance to adapt in a world with changing climate. And it is the foundation for what are here in New York multi-billion dollar industries — tourism, recreation, farming, forestry, hunting and fishing.

In Long Island’s Great South Bay, our restoration of sea grasses and hard clams will not only bring back decimated wildlife, but also help restore a way of life and economic livelihoods that disappeared with the decline of an ecosystem.  Our conservation of Adirondack forests provides the opportunity for the sustainable harvest of timber and recreational opportunities while protecting the lands, waters and wildlife of the region.  And our efforts to conserve the watersheds that provide drinking water for millions of New Yorkers around the state helps stave off the need to build multi-billion dollar water treatment plants where nature already provides the necessary filtration.  These are big projects at scales that make a difference.

In 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts wouldn’t have been able to see any of The Nature Conservancy’s projects from their spacecraft.  Forty acres can’t be seen from thousands of miles away.  But our projects today can be seen from space.  Lake Ontario is the size of New Jersey, the Adirondack Park is bigger than Massachusetts, and Great South Bay is unmistakable.  Overseas the Yangtze River in China, the indigenous lands in the Amazon and the Northern Rangelands of Kenya can all be seen from the heavens.

These places give us hope.  They are what sustain us.  Perhaps in my lifetime people will travel into space and marvel at these conservation successes, just as the Apollo 8 crew marveled at the Earth. They will exclaim, “Oh my God!  Look over there!”  And they will name a protected landscape, a healthy river, a conserved lake or even an entire continent that they can see from space, and they will say, “We did that.  We conserved that for our and future generations.”

My Story

Rock Creek Park.  Battery Kemble Park.  Growing up in Washington, DC, even the small, half-acre triangular park with a labyrinth of azalea bushes a few blocks from our home in the city was “wild” to me.  These were the urban parks where I grew-up, the places where I spent time outdoors. At home, my interest was further fueled by evening television shows, like Nature. Every week I waited in the living room for Wild Kingdom’s Marlin Perkins in his safari khakis and ascot to talk about wildlife, while his assistant, Jim, ran around in the mud, mosquitoes and heat in pursuit of crocodiles, anacondas and tigers.  Before I was 10 years old I had fallen into a lifelong relationship with nature and it wasn’t through experiences growing-up on a farm or family trips to national parks, although those would come later.

During my junior year of college, thanks to a scholarship at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I had the opportunity to go anywhere in the world for my final summer vacation.  Friends suggested scuba diving in the Red Sea and backpacking in Europe, but my granddad sat me down.  He had been stationed by the US Army in Rio de Janeiro during World War II and had used early remote sensing technologies to map the Amazon in case it became a theater of war.  He regaled me with stories of caiman, piranhas and capybaras, of being chased by locals as he attempted to ground truth in the field images taken from the air. He did this work only a few decades after the Brazilian government had launched its more modern geographic expeditions and Theodore Roosevelt had traveled down the River of Doubt. He told me, “If I could go anywhere in the world it would be back to the Amazon before it’s gone.”

I went on to have a remarkable summer conducting research on the ways settlers along the rivers of the Peruvian Amazon, called ribereños, developed livelihood strategies based on indigenous practices that took advantage of dramatic annual changes in the water levels of the region’s rivers to farm, hunt and fish.  This was a much more sustainable approach than what was being pursued in other parts of the Amazon.

What I remember best about that summer is listening.  Listening to the sounds of the forest as I paddled my dugout canoe in the early morning or late afternoon.  Listening to villagers talk about life in the forest.  Listening to the earth breathe, and to my life permanently changing course.

Years later I would return to these very same villages.  After spending six months working in Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, then nearly two years in Panama and Costa Rica before graduating from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University, I returned to the Yarapa while working for The Nature Conservancy.

The Yarapa River lies inside Peru’s Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve, a protected area the size of Massachusetts, that would occupy much of my attention for the next decade; first as I worked with the Peruvian government, conservation organizations and local communities to identify conservation strategies that sustain the region’s wildlife and natural communities while providing economic benefit for local residents; and then as The Nature Conservancy’s Peru Director, where my proudest moment was the successful negotiation of a debt-for-nature swap between the US and Peruvian governments that in exchange for the US forgiving Peruvian foreign debt to the US, the Peruvian government made commitments to provide a steady stream of resources towards the management and community-based conservation efforts of the Reserve.

I worked for nearly a decade in South America for The Nature Conservancy before my wife, Natalie, and I moved to the American West.  In some ways there were dramatic changes – the high deserts, grasslands and pine forests of the West were, at least ecologically speaking, a far cry from the Amazon.  And yet, at the heart of the matter, nothing in my life had changed.  My work with ranchers, farmers and local communities echoed all my previous work – answering the question, “How do we find ways to protect our lands and waters and provide people with the opportunity to thrive economically?”

In the last few years I have traveled and worked on behalf of the Conservancy in Mongolia, the Dominican Republic (where my wife is from), Northern Kenya and Tanzania. As someone who is now living in the United States and who continues to spend time abroad, New York City is the ideal place to call home.  From the time of Theodore Roosevelt, New York and New Yorkers have played historic leadership roles in the creation of our modern, American conservation consciousness.

Sixty years ago this year, The Nature Conservancy itself was started just outside New York City in 1951. Of the 3.5 million acres of conserved lands in New York, The Nature Conservancy has played a direct role in nearly a million.  In that same vein, the Conservancy’s supporters in New York City are eager to engage and support our work around the world.  Talk at our meetings is of China’s Yunnan Province, the highlands of Ecuador, coral reefs in Micronesia, and the savannahs of East Africa.  When the opportunity arose just over two years ago for me to become the Conservancy’s New York Director I thought, “This is a role I have been preparing for my entire life.”  A life that started in the urban parks of our nation’s capital, and that now sees me in the largest metropolitan area in the country.  You never know where safaris in the concrete jungle will take you.