Kids love the ecosystem services provided by rivers.

I was tucking my five-year-old daughter into bed and, as kids tend to do, she launched into a series of questions  — part curiosity, part stalling tactic. Her topic that night was employment, and she asked why various people did what they did, such as: “Why is Aunt Amy a doctor?”

I mustered a response and then added: “You know, Daddy’s a doctor too,” with a tongue-in-cheek tone — presumably lost on her — that acknowledged Americans’ different perceptions of M.D.’s and Ph.D.’s.

The difference evidently was not lost on her. She responded: “Yeah, but you’re not the kind of doctor that makes people feel better.”

Ouch. An unexpected reminder of how some occupations are widely regarded as helping people, while the value of my job — conservation of rivers — is not always obvious. In fact, I’m sure my daughter isn’t my only family member who doesn’t really “get” what I do.

Which isn’t just a problem for me. It’s a problem for conservation.

And it’s not just those who share my genes. I’m reminded of a decade-old interaction while I was in graduate school.  Out in a San Francisco bar one night, I found myself talking to a very pretty woman.  Searching for a way to describe what I did (and sensing that ‘riparian ecologist’ — and one just in training, no less — might somehow fail to impress) I seized upon a recent Congressional authorization to restore watersheds that support salmon.  If Congress devoted $50 million to what I do, I reasoned, it must signal some sort of importance.

When I told her about the Congressional appropriation, she clutched her stomach as if she’d been hit. “Doesn’t that make you sick?” she said.  Hmm, not quite the reaction I was looking for, unless perhaps she thinks that’s an insultingly paltry sum for such important work. She finished her thought: “I mean, just think of what that money could do for education or sick children.”

People: 1; Salmon (and my prospects): 0.

I wish I’d had a snappy reply such as, “Would you rather that $50 million go for a quarter-mile of a new four-lane highway” (reflecting the staggering per-mile cost of many highway projects), but a beauty contest between all the ways our society chooses to spend money isn’t really the point. A better response would have been to explain that, in California alone, the annual economic value of the salmon fishery — a mere remnant of its historic might — can be measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Investing in healthy, functioning ecosystems often supports people’s livelihoods and grows the economy.

These two conversations are instructive.  As many writers for Cool Green Science have pointed out, conservationists must do a better job describing the linkages between their work and the well-being of people. This linkage is a theme that I’ll try to weave throughout my postings on this new blog, which will focus on water and the conservation of freshwater ecosystems. Rivers, lakes and wetlands provide some of the most impressive examples of how healthy ecosystems provide direct benefit to society.

For example, the Mekong River supports the largest freshwater fishery in the world, valued in the billions of dollars annually and providing the primary source of protein for 60-70 million people in Southeast Asia. What makes this crucial harvest possible? The fact that the Mekong is a relatively healthy, free-flowing river. Fish can migrate long distances to spawning habitats and, every year, the monsoon rains inundate vast  — and phenomenally productive — floodplains along the river. This incredible environmental, economic, and cultural resource is now threatened with plans to build 11 large hydropower dams on the Mekong, and fish biologists say that there is no way the fishery can be maintained if those dams are built.

While conservationists should emphasize these economic values of healthy ecosystems, this concept — that conservation and the well-being of people go hand in hand — must not rely only on dollars-and-cents comparisons. That may work for the Mekong or California’s salmon fishery, but nature’s values are myriad and at times difficult to capture with traditional economics. Conservationists shouldn’t apologize for advocating vigorously for those cultural, spiritual and aesthetic values.

Expecting nature to always pay its way, in a strict sense, would be no different than suggesting that the National Gallery should sell its most valued paintings to private collectors because the most economically efficient use of those hundreds of millions of dollars would be to reinvest them in health care or education.

While jobs and dollars are important, beauty, serenity and inspiration are also essential to our well-being. From jobs to clean water to joy and reverence, there are many ways that the conservation of nature makes us feel better.

Even if people still don’t “get” what I do.

(Image credit: Jeff Opperman/TNC.)

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.


  1. Well said.
    Amazing photo.

  2. Thank you from a fellow conservation biologist.

  3. Jeff, you put the all matter very very well! I love it. It added quite a bit to my elementary knowledge of conservation and eco-system.

  4. Good job, Jeff! Proud of you.

  5. Ah yes! I have four little mouths that spout off with profound wisdoms from time to time. It’s great to see someone ‘in the field’ so to speak, recognizing nature’s ability to make us feel better. There are tons of studies, but my favorite is the one that showed something as simple as a view of nature out the window reduced pain and improved recovery in hospitals patients. We’re only just scratching the surface when it comes to our knowledge and application of nature’s healing power. Thanks for reminding us.

  6. I get it Jeff. Thanks for doing a thankless job. Save the Steelhead!

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