From the Field

Earth Optimism: Reasons to Feel Positive in 2019

Blue Marble, Eastern Hemisphere. Photo © NASA Earth Observatory on Flickr through a CC BY 2.0 license

If you’re a fan of nature documentaries, you’ve probably heard about the unsettling images in Netflix’s new series, Our Planet. In one episode, the lack of sea ice forces walruses to rest on a steep cliff face… where many fall to their deaths.

This disturbing image is emblematic of so many environmental stories: not only are they dreary, but they suggest that we are heading for the cliff. All of us.

Earth Day originated as a way to bring attention to environmental issues. But it’s also fundamentally about hope. There has been great progress made on many conservation issues. While we need to be realistic about the challenges ahead, we can’t lose sight of what we have achieved so far. You can help make a difference.

Here is a selection of stories to feel optimistic about his Earth Day. Check out the Earth Optimism movement, and follow #EarthOptimism on Twitter for many more.

  • Foraging shorebirds. Photo © David Ledig / USFWS

    Migrating shorebirds can’t afford to be choosy about where they stop — whether the right habitat is there or not, they can only fly so far and so long.

    In California’s Central Valley, flocks of 20-40 million waterfowl once used the plentiful wetlands to rest and refuel. But today those flocks are a mere fraction of their former numbers, as more than 90 percent of these wetlands and riparian areas have been converted to agricultural fields.

    TNC’s California program came up with a creative solution to help the birds and benefit farmers. By temporarily flooding rice fields, they can provide “pop-up” habitat when the birds need it most. Now, science shows that this ingenious method is working, yielding the largest average shorebird densities ever reported for agriculture in the region.

  • NatureNet Science Fellow Zuzana Burivalova works with local community members to deploy acoustic recorders in an Indonesian forest. © Justine Hausheer/TNC

    Forget the old saw about a picture being worth a thousand words; when it comes to effective conservation, especially in tropical forests, sound just might be worth an entire library – words, pictures and all.

    Why? Because, as a new paper in Science by TNC scientists and partners explains, sound holds the potential to help fill one of the most vexing evidence gaps in conservation: How do we know – what’s the evidence? – that certification programs, zero deforestation commitments and similar interventions are actually achieving their goals when it comes to conserving animal biodiversity in tropical forests?

    Basically, the benefits of acoustic recording comes down to this: while scientists might not be able to see a family of gibbons or hornbills thriving in a certified forest on satellite imagery, with the help of an array of acoustic recorders, they could hear them.

    With the latest technology, recorders can be programmed to record continuously or at specific intervals. If there is solar power and network connectivity available, some recorders can upload data continuously to cloud storage.

  • Two brown dogs poking their heads out of a wooden kennel
    Two of the turtle dogs (Boykin spaniels) peer out from their kennels, eager to start their day on the prairie. © Cara Byington/TNC

    It’s a fine May morning, and until a couple of minutes ago, the search for ornate box turtles here at the Conservancy’s Nachusa Grasslands Preserve in Central Illinois was going extremely well. We are up to 16 turtles so far.

    Unfortunately, progress has come to a halt because the field assistants found the remains of something that might once have been a bison. And now they’re rolling in it. With glee.

    The field assistants in question are dogs — four female Boykin spaniels specially trained to sniff out and retrieve turtles. Join CGS reporter Cara Byington as she learns how these conservation dogs help scientists monitor and protect these rare reptiles in their native prairie habitat.

  • The humble sea cucumber is one of the most valuable natural resources in coastal Melanesia. Photo © Justine E. Hausheer / TNC

    How do you protect a species that’s so valuable it’s called the “gold bar of the sea”?

    Sea cucumbers are an incredibly important source of income for rural people in Papua New Guinea. But catastrophic overfishing forced the country to close their fishery for nearly a decade, causing great hardship amongst rural communities.

    Now, as the harvest resumes, TNC is working with a tribal network in Manus Island to help them sustainably manage the fishery. CGS reporter Justine Hausheer traveled to Manus to witness sea cucumber fishing first hand, and learn about how TNC is linking sustainable fishing with improved livelihoods.

    As scientist Pete Waldie says: “In places where people’s lives are so deeply entwined with the natural environment, you can’t work toward conservation in a vacuum if you want lasting success.”

  • Rappahannock Oyster Co in Topping, Virginia. Photo © Jason Houston

    Aquaculture is often portrayed as an environmental risk, and if poorly managed it can pose a serious threat to the surrounding ecosystem. But whether we like it or not, aquaculture is here to stay. Wild fish stocks just can’t support the demand for seafood, and we need a way to feed people without further depleting our oceans.

    Thankfully, new research from TNC scientists reveals that aquaculture doesn’t have to be an environmental liability. In fact, it could actually be a valuable tool for conservation.

    Shellfish farms can filter and clean seawater just like natural shellfish reefs. Seaweed farms can provide habitat for marine life. And marine macroalgae play an important role in coastal carbon cycling, potentially acting as an untapped carbon sink. 

  • Here kitty, kitty. Photo © Art G / Wikimedia Commons

    Wild predators are almost always painted as the villain in myth and popular culture. But the truth is that predators are key for healthy ecosystems, and even healthy people. A new paper gathered all existing data on how predators benefited humans around the globe.

    Their research found some surprising examples. For instance, in Mumbai, areas with urban leopards, contrary to what you might think, actually helped human health. These leopards preyed on feral dogs, thereby lowering the risk of rabies.

    The research found that vultures, hyenas and jackals clean up deadly waste, that cougars reduce deer-vehicle collisions and that raptors can protect the wine industry.

  • Photo © San Diego Zoo

    Like acoustic recording, camera trapping can help researchers better understand what is really there (or not there). In Kenya, there have been reports of black leopards for decades. Recently, camera traps scientifically documented that these cats do exist.

    San Diego Zoo Global, working with partners including The Nature Conservancy, launched an initiative to track and research leopards at Loisaba and Mpala Conservancies in Northern Kenya. The research was aimed at understanding the natural history of leopards as well as their population in the area.

    While much of the news around large wildlife today can be depressing, there are still great surprises out there. And still dedicated conservationists working to make sure these special creatures remain a part of the landscape.

  • Without the Land and Water Conservation Fund, some of America’s most beloved public lands might not exist, including Great Sand Dunes National park. The Grand Canyon. Acadia National Park. Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. Great Smokey Mountains National Park. LWCF was critical in protecting all these and more. Photo © Nick Hall / TNC

    In 1964 the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) became law, allocating a tiny fraction of federal royalties from oil-gas leases to fund habitat protection, public access, public recreation, and historical preservation.

    LWCF quickly became America’s main tool for protecting and restoring historic sites, like battlefields, and for providing matching grants to states for urban and suburban recreation facilities, like ballfields.

    Most importantly, it became a tool for acquiring wildlife habitat and public access — through purchase and conservation easements — to be managed and improved by states, the National Park Service, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.

    That history of conservation success appeared to end last September, when Congress declined to reauthorize LWCF and it expired. Luckily, due to action by Nature Conservancy members and many others, that setback was temporary. In January, Congress permanently reauthorized LWCF, a major victory for both wildlife conservation and public recreational access.

  • seagrass bed © Jimmy White

    Seagrasses are distributed across Earth’s salty and brackish shallows from tropics to Arctic. These “prairies of the sea” improve and protect water quality, support complex food webs, and sequester more atmospheric carbon per acre and for longer than terrestrial forests. They’re also being destroyed, mostly by human activity.

    But recent restoration efforts around the globe have been spectacularly successful. Take Tampa Bay, where nutrient pollution had coated seagrass beds with vile-smelling algae, also wiping out fish and shellfish populations.

    Despite an increasing human population, Tampa Bay has steadily reduced nutrient pollution – and restored nearly 40,000 acres of seagrass. Key fisheries have blossomed.

    From Virginia’s coast to Western Australia’s Shark Bay, similar stories of restoration and recovery are helping lead the way in restoring this vital ecosystem.

  • Photo © Mark Berry/TNC

    In 1998, The Nature Conservancy purchased 185,000 acres of forestland along the Upper St. John River in Maine, itself a dramatic conservation success. But TNC has continued to find ways to both improve management and achieve broader conservation goals with the acquisition.

    That has included using activities like maple syrup production conducted on the forest to fund restoration activities. Now forest carbon markets add a new source of revenue, while also making a difference for climate change.

    This year the property entered a 10-year agreement with Climate Trust Capita, which will monitor the forest management for carbon sequestration. The funding from the carbon markets will go into stewardship activities on the project. Additionally, the Conservancy plans to leverage funds to advance renewable energy projects and potentially other forest acquisitions in the state.

  • Aerial view of the Conservancy's Disney Wilderness Preserve. The Conservancy helps to protect crucial properties in the northern Everglades, bringing together a broad coalition of groups working to create a continuous swath of wildlife habitat and water connectivity from the Everglades headwaters down to Florida Bay. © Carlton Ward Jr.

    It’s a big question. Can the world actually meet people’s needs for food, water and energy while doing more to protect nature? Is it even theoretically possible?

    According to a recent study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, theoretically, yes. It is possible. But science also cautions that the caveats and the requirements for success are many and increasingly time-sensitive. The bottom lineis that the world needs to make significant changes away from business-as-usual within the next 10 years, and will have to overcome major social, cultural and political barriers.

    As the paper’s lead author and TNC lead scientist Heather Tallis says: “Our study presents a scientific test of a vision for the future where thriving human communities and abundant, healthy ecosystems coexist. A growing body of scientific evidence shows us that people and nature share many of the same challenges. The analyses we did here are encouraging because they show that we can also share success. We are not looking at an inevitable tradeoff—expected growth in GDP, population and its demands can be balanced with major improvements for climate and nature.”

Justine E. Hausheer

Justine E. Hausheer is an award-winning science writer for The Nature Conservancy, covering the innovative research conducted by the Conservancy’s scientists in the Asia Pacific region. She has a degree from Princeton University and a master's in Science, Health, and Environmental Reporting from New York University. Justine's favorite stories take her into pristine forests, desolate deserts, or far-flung islands to report on field research as it's happening. When not writing, you can find her traipsing after birds, attempting to fish, and exploring the wild places around her home in Brisbane, Australia. More from Justine

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Matthew L. Miller

Matthew L. Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matthew

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2 comments

  1. “This disturbing image is emblematic of so many environmental stories: not only are they dreary, but they suggest that we are heading for the cliff. All of us.”

    OK, I get it. You are in a country where your president tells you that Climate Change is a hoax. So you present a number of ‘feel good’ articles that you say gives hope. The fact that the reality is ‘dreary’ is disturbing but needs to be faced. We are heading for a cliff, all of us.

    Now honestly tell the truth and become a stronger voice for the change that nature and people need. There are hints at the destruction that awaits us all if we don’t act on scientific advice immediately but we must be screaming at the tops of our voices to get the politicians to act.

    These good news articles will mean nothing if we let the atmosphere heat up by 2 degrees Celsius and more in the coming decades.

    Greta Thunberg has said more to help our future.

    America needs to lead not deny and redirect.

  2. The biggest takeaway for volunteering at a Nature Conservancy Preserve is how that experience contributes our communities. Whether you volunteer once or come back year after year, you look at your neighborhood differently. The TNC experience effects what you do in your own backyard and how your activities impact your planet. Those effects make a difference. Any little thing that you do to make the environment a better place to live is multiplied by the number of people who are changing the way that they interact with the “wild” community. Changes do not have to be big to make a difference, they just have to be second nature to help Mother Nature. TNC gives you the training to make that difference even if you only “train” for one day.