The following essay is written by Phil Hoose, a conservation planner with the Conservancy’s Canada Program. He is the author of 11 books, including “The Race to Save the Lord God Bird” about the ivory-billed woodpecker and the National Book Award winning “Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice.” His forthcoming book “Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with B95” tells the true story of a red knot whose lifetime migratory flights exceed the distance between earth and the moon.
By Phil Hoose
When I joined The Nature Conservancy’s staff in 1977, our literature routinely declared that we did our work “for future generations.” But the benefit was abstract. There were few if any programs to educate the members of future generations about what we did or why we did it.
In my early years, I and several other Conservancy staff members made informal attempts to kindle interest in a programmatic initiative for youth within the organization. We heard a lot about “mission drift.” Environmental education was what the Audubon Society did. And Ranger Rick. We saved land, preserved habitat and prevented extinctions.
But today the youthful experience of nature itself may be headed for extinction. Children living even in remote villages experience life through headphones, plugged into gadgets whose reach knows no end. Without help, our descendants may not even notice nature, let alone continue our conservation work.
“Nature Versus Nintendo,” a workshop held at a Vancouver conference in 2008, marked a turning point for the Conservancy. For the first time, a large and far-flung group of staff and volunteer leaders gathered expressly to consider how the Conservancy’s work might serve to reconnect youth with nature. One thing we all found out in that jammed room was that many state and country programs had long been working with youth.
- Since 1995, the LEAF program had been providing summer conservation jobs on Conservancy preserves.
- Starting in 1998, the Kirtland’s Warbler Research and Training Program had been teaching Bahamian students field sampling techniques to document the wintering population of the extremely rare Kirtland’s warbler. Several of these students, including Leno Davis, have gone on to careers in biological sciences.
- The Canada Program had been supporting Koeye Camp, a summer camp within the Great Bear Rainforest to help Heiltsuk First Nation children value their natural and cultural heritage.
Again and again in Vancouver, our colleagues reported that purposeful, focused work with youth had not only transformed the lives of young participants, but had also energized our staff and catalyzed the financial support of those who yearned to invest in evidence of a hopeful future.
Glimpse into Eternity
As the pace of species extinction has accelerated, a few children have actually attended the end of an entire life form.
In 1943, Billy and Bob Fought, ages 12 and 10 respectively, hiked with artist Don Ecklesberry to an ash tree in Louisiana where the last known ivory-billed woodpecker returned to roost each night. Around dusk, the great bird came winging back from a day’s foraging, hitched her way up the tree and rapped repeatedly with her gleaming beak for a mate that was no more and would never be.
Eckleberry implored the boys to try to remember every detail of what they were witnessing. “You will both outlive me,” he told them, “You may be the last people ever to see an ivorybill.”
The glimpse into eternity jarred both boys. “I’ve never been quite the same since,” Billy Fought told me when he was in his seventies.
Some young people today are no longer content to wait for the funeral. Fifteen-year-old Mike Hudson, who organized a club called Friends of the Red Knot at his school to save the bird he loved, was invited to speak to a gathering of adult conservation leaders last May at a celebration of Delaware Bay. He addressed them with intensity.
“I never saw a passenger pigeon or an Eskimo curlew, but a part of me aches every time I read about them,” he said. “When people ask me, ‘Why are you fighting?’ I tell them I want my grandkids to be able to see a red knot, or a sanderling, or a turnstone. I want them to have what I have.”
The Conservancy’s work has always been for future generations. During the past half-century we have built a worldwide system of protected places that can be used to teach every aspect of biological diversity, ecosystem function and the art of conservation. Our network of scientists, naturalists and stewards know just how to bring these places to life — even to urban youth. We’re doing more than encouraging children to go back outdoors. We’re giving them technical skills and a conservation identity at an early age.
As a veteran staffer, I’m thrilled to see the Conservancy’s growing programmatic commitment to youth. We are moving forward with characteristic energy, cheer and pragmatism. Far from mission drift, we know that passing on our tradecraft, love and commitment to young people is our very best hope.
(First image: A young Phil Hoose. Second image: Phil Hoose today. Image credits: Phil Hoose.)