Finding the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders

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Published on July 8th, 2010  |  Discuss This Article  

Last week, The Nature Conservancy formally announced a commitment to connecting urban youth to nature, with the expansion of its LEAF program into urban high schools across the United States.

This is a big deal — for the Conservancy and for conservation:

  • First, because the Conservancy has a reputation, partly deserved, for not caring about cities.
  • Second, because LEAF is clearly something of an environmental education program, and “education” has also been something the Conservancy has gingerly tip-toed around as perhaps mission drift.
  • Lastly, because the program brings a remarkably diverse population of student interns to work on Conservancy lands – an ethnic and cultural diversity that is almost never seen in U.S.-based environmental organizations.

Cities, youth, and diversity (of people, not species): These are the ingredients of what might be the most important conservation strategy we could pursue for North America.

It should be old news to everyone that the world is racing towards urbanization, with profound social and ecological implications. When my grandfather was born, 20% of the U.S. population was urban, and 80% was rural or small towns. Now it is the reverse — 80% is urban and 20% rural. What connection can urban kids feel to nature when they never see nature?

The Conservancy’s membership is old and getting older every year. Data tell the story. The mean age of the Conservancy’s new members by calendar year is:

2004: 61.1

2005: 62.0

2006: 62.9

2007: 63.9

2008: 64.7

2009: 65.6

2010: 66.8

And while over one-half of the U.S. population is under 40 years of age, less than 5 percent of the Conservancy’s membership is.

It is great to have these mature supporters — I am feeling pretty mature myself these days. But clearly we need a pipeline of youth if we are to have any hope of being vibrant 20 years from now.

And lastly, there is that well-known embarrassment of the U.S. conservation movement — its total lack of diversity. I have always found it ironic that a movement dedicated to diversity, that talks endlessly about the value of species diversity, is itself about as lacking in diversity as any other social movement or political party one can find in the United States.

Books have been written about this. But this flaw is becoming more serious year-by-year because the U.S. population is itself becoming increasingly diverse. The front page of USA Today on June 11 had as its lead headline: “Diversity grows as majority dwindles. Minorities make up almost half of the births.”

If we conservationists do not become relevant to cities, engage with youth, and diversify, our ability to shape national or state policy and land-use decisions will become nonexistent. I do not understand why we have had so little sense of urgency about this internal shortcoming.

LEAF might be the best thing that could happen for North American conservation. If it can generate a cohort of young, urban, diverse conservation leaders for the next generation, then prospects look good. And, I should emphasize LEAF is not some untested idea — the Conservancy’s New York program has been running this program for several years with a tremendous record of success.

All this is possible thanks to a generous $800,000 gift from the Toyota USA Foundation to expand the New York City program and lay the foundation for its growth to other cities in 2011. The Toyota USA Foundation, which for 20 years has supported K -12 math and science education, was drawn to LEAF because of its emphasis on environmental science — the students work alongside Conservancy scientists and learn about ecology and conservation in the process.

While LEAF might seem like a huge break from Conservancy tradition, it succeeds because of one of this organization’s oldest traditions — stewardship of lands and waters. The student interns in LEAF work on Conservancy lands.

In the end, LEAF is about demography. All current demographic trends in the conservation movement versus the U.S. public at large portend coming failure for conservation.

An undiverse, aging conservation movement that relates only to backpacking and wilderness has no future. A diverse, youthful conservation movement that tackles environmental issues of interest to city-dwellers has a future. LEAF promises to help the Conservancy and conservation in general have a bright future.

(Image: Allan Adams (right), and his mentor, Phillip Davis (left), enjoy the outdoors while participating in a Osprey nest check at the Eldora Nature Preserve in New Jersey. Photographed on assignment for the Spring 2009 Nature Conservancy magazine. Image credit: Amy Deputy.)

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One Response to “Finding the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders”

  1. Greg says:

    Quoting from Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,”

    “In 1978 Thomas Tanner, professor of environmental studies at Iowa State University, conducted a study of environmentalists’ formative influences…’Far and away the most frequently cited influence was childhood experience of natural, rural, or other relatively pristine habitats.’ …’But for some reason, you don’t hear many environmentalists expressing much concern about the intimacy factor between kids and nature.’”

    July 2010 (32 years later): TNC expands its LEAF program outside of New York City.

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