Where Have All The Naturalists Gone?

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.

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.)

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


  1. Funny, I started my career as a naturalist and trained for practical conservation overseas.

    We all need to work together but I find that in many cases some of the people spouting a lot of garbage have no personal knowledge about the animals or the environment that are passionate about.

    Working together works out better in the long run but sometimes it is hard because there are also fruitloops too.

    I find it interesting to ponder the ripple effect–people such as Carson and the many others responsible for my passion and career has rippled over to others–hopefully it does make a difference.

  2. There’s a wonderful camp for adults in West Virginia. It’s been training naturalists for 80 years. It’s called Mountain Nature Camp, affiliated with Oglebay Institute, and it was started specifically to train naturalists. We study birds, mammals, plants, insects, stream ecology, and anything else that comes along. It’s usually the last two weeks in June; ages 16+ are welcome. It’s a wonderful place filled with wonderful, creative, sane people who care about nature. Come join us! http://www.oionline.com/environmentaleducation/index.htm 304.242.6855

  3. Perhaps the vitriol expressed by the conservationist for the naturalist is a response to the growing trend of dismissing the scholar in favor of the amateur. Now that “Larry from Milwaukee” can video a tornado from his iphone, is his account more worthy of airtime than the experienced, educated meteorologist’s?
    Don’t we get the fullest account, reckoning and course of action, when we listen to both?
    Perhaps the world would benefit most from conservationists who are also weekend naturalists.

  4. Are these terms, conservationist and naturalist well defined and consistently used as distinctive types of people? If so, what is the difference and why is there tension between them?

  5. Not to be cynical, but in England a study recently showed that being “green” was more about keeping up with the joneses. So it goes that people deride anything that they haven’t seen deemed as socially acceptable. But as anything moral in the world you need to to do the right whether or not its cool, and regardless of whether it benefits human beings directly. The really dumb thing is that most wildlife initiatives do benefit human beings in the long run, so people need to stop being such cynical idiots. Yes the prarie chickens deserve to be here too.

  6. I am a surgeon , but involved in many conservation groups. I am specially concerned about birds in my area. I had introduced nest box in my state 3 years back .I do this because I used to hunt birds till 30 years bak, and I understand the lives of birds,and how they had disappeared.I had replaced guns with cameras , and traps with nest boxes. How exciting it is to shoot the baby birds growing inside the nest boxes!I agrees with guys who say people who know about wildlife are important in conservation.

    Dr Chawngthu Lalhmingliana

  7. I wonder what does the modern naturalist look like. Is it your typical REI shopper? As an early 30’s naturalist, I don’t have any problems finding fellow young naturalist. There is a huge disconnect between today’s young naturalist verses your typical older naturalist, but trust me…we are out there. We do need to find ways of getting the young naturalist together with older generations…bring back the types of relationships that were developed during W. Frank Blair’s days and Aldo Leopold’s days.

  8. The thing is, and I think this is sort of a spiritual principle: we are all connected. We cannot glibly decide which of the members of the living community matter and which ones don’t. We make this planet work or we don’t. I hate it when we find reasons to make divisions among ourselves. There is plenty of work to do, to help this world be as good as it can be, so if one person is a doctor helping people to be healthy, and another is a conservationist and another is a naturalist, each is contributing in a way that suits his/her best.

  9. I want to teach students the difference and similiarities between a naturalist and a conservationist. It is cloudy to me. It seems a person may start young enjoying wildlife, start to realize a bigger picture of the habitat the animal lives in and what it’s role is in that habitat- thus growing from appreciating the animals to becoming a naturalist. As time and experience goes on, the naturalist begins to see a need for conservation of these animals and their environment. Without being a trained scientist, the naturalist can play their part through careful recycle, reuse and reduction of consumption of products extracted from those enviroments, thus protecting the very life that had first caught their attentions as a young person. I am thinking conservation is careful usage of the natural world; while preservation is protection through no usage until a further time in history. Can anyone give me more clarification of differences and similiarities between the naturalist and a conservationist?
    Dawn, Nov. 14th 2016

    1. Hi Dawn, I would say that there is overlap between the two (a person can be both a conservationist and a naturalist), but the two don’t always go together. For instance a naturalist might continue on the path of appreciating, observing, and studying the natural world without ever getting involved in conservation and a conservationist might have an interest in only one area of conservation (like renewable energy, clean water, or protecting a specific patch of land) without ever becoming a naturalist. As you say one can lead to the other. Your example of the naturalist turned conservationist is a common trajectory and there are also those who become passionate about a conservation cause (like clean water) and as they spend time on the cause, learn more about nature & become naturalists. I will also let Matt know about your comment & see how he would describe the difference. Thank you!

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