Bill Ulfelder is the New York state director for The Nature Conservancy.
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.
(Image: The Nature Conservancy’s New York state director Bill Ulfelder. Image credit: ©Erika Nortemann)