The woman was practically spitting she was so mad.
“I am so sick and tired of hearing about prairie chickens!” she pronounced. “Let’s face it; nobody cares about prairie chickens.”
Was I encountering an anti-conservation zealot? A developer who wanted to pave over a thousand acres of prime prairie chicken habitat? One of those “Wise Use” activists who display bumper stickers about eating whales?
None of the above, actually.
I was attending a meeting of professional conservationists, and this woman was an experienced conservationist who has completed significant projects that benefit both people and nature.
Her point has become an oft-repeated refrain: that conservationists too often care more about wildlife and wild places than people, and that old-fashioned naturalists have become irrelevant.
Lately, it’s become fashionable for conservationists to diss naturalists — amateurs and professionals with field skills and field experience, and a significant knowledge of and passion for wildlife.
After all, they’re apt to be a bit, well, uncool, given their predilection towards wearing earth tones, and their strange excitement over dragonflies and warblers.
As conservation becomes increasingly populated with spatial ecologists, climatologists, policy wonks and green living advocates, is there any room for old-fashioned naturalists? Or has there time in this movement passed?
Not so fast.
As someone who admittedly (and unapologetically) cares a great deal about prairie chickens, I think it’s time to acknowledge that naturalists have lead — and continue to lead — the conservation movement.
Historian Mark V. Barrow Jr., in his recent book Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology, makes a compelling argument that it has so often been naturalists who have become aware of impending ecological crises, and who have fixed them:
- The reason we still have bison, elk, great blue herons, egrets and bald eagles are because amateur and professional naturalists observed the declines of these creatures, and used their passion for wildlife to mobilize others into action.
- Our system of national parks, national wildlife refuges and national forests owe much of their existence to one of our great naturalist presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, a leader who could also identify shrew species and discuss intelligently the evolutionary biology of insects.
- While pesticide-related issues do indeed affect human health, it was an accomplished naturalist — Rachel Carson — who brought these issues to the broader public.
- Before Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson was coming up with such key conservation ideas as island biogeography, he had his nose in the soil studying the ecology of ants.
But what of the argument that such naturalists aren’t accomplishing enough, that they’re essentially out of touch and irrelevant in today’s society?
Without doubt, we need more people involved in conservation, including people who don’t know a pigeon from a widgeon. But that doesn’t mean that those passionate and knowledgeable about wildlife should be ignored.
Poll results repeatedly show that “clean water” is the environmental issue that resonates with the largest number of people. Everyone needs clean water.
But is that widespread recognition of the need for clean water enough? I don’t think so.
After all, while people will turn out in droves to vote against marriage rights for fellow citizens, I rarely see a similar enthusiasm for clean water initiatives. Nor do I see most citizens expressing outrage when the Clean Water Act is gutted, or even when a local river is polluted.
Often, though, the people standing up for rivers — for the clean water we all need — are the fly fishers, salmon lovers, birders, duck hunters and field biologists. The people who have actually stood in that river, who know where the herons roost, where the trout spawn, where the mayflies hatch.
Direct knowledge and field experience still count. Prairie chickens — and those of who care about them and other wild creatures — still matter in the conservation movement.
(Photo: Male prairie chickens. Credit: gainesp2003/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)