I was privileged to attend the Albuquerque 50th Anniversary celebration of the signing of the Wilderness Act by President Johnson. There were two days of local area field trips or a pre-conference training at the Rio Grande Nature Center, followed by four days of panels, keynote speeches, and exhibits at the downtown Hyatt Regency Conference Center and the Albuquerque Convention Center.
I’d like to share some of the thoughts that the Celebration gave me about Wilderness, the Wilderness Act, and lands protection in general; and what they mean to the Sierra Club, as well as all conservation organizations, as we go forward into the 21st Century in a very changed political and public reality.
But first, a bit more about the Celebration.
The Wilderness50 planning team was created as a corporation with 30 members, including all the key government land agencies and national conservation non-profit organizations. More than a 100 additional organizations, foundations, and businesses provided funding and resources for the celebration. For more on this, go to: http://www.wilderness50th.org/about.php. This resulted in a six day event in Albuquerque and the surrounding area featuring field trips, training, exhibitions, 84 presenter panels, 20 keynote speakers, and many social events that connected together a broad range of government employees, activists, academics, and business people in celebration of 50 years of Wilderness for the American people. It was exceedingly well planned and executed, a tribute to the many people in our country who care about our natural legacy.
With so many exciting events all happening at the same time, no one person could be at even a small percentage of them, so every attendee likely came away with different message. Here’s what I came away with:
• Wilderness, and lands protection in general, is in trouble! Even the Wilderness we already have!! As Keynoter Chris Barns (Arthur Carhart National Wilderness Training Center) so eloquently stated: all three support legs of the Wilderness stool are broken. Those are 1) public support, 2) government agency funding and training, and 3) non-profit focus. The latter two are a reflection of the first – a broad erosion in public support for the concept that our pristine public lands need to be protected for future generations.
• Lands stewardship is being broadly neglected by the government agencies. This is a result of a lack of funding from, and in many cases, downright hostility by members of Congress to the concept of public lands protection, even to those already protected. This is resulting in an increasing number of destructive activities occurring without preventive action, and even authorization by government agencies of illegal activities on protected lands.
• Climate change is threatening the health of all public lands. There is very little planning and no funding to mitigate this threat. The “management” of Wilderness Areas is a controversial issue, but climate change, as well as the century long exclusion of fire, are dramatic human “trammels” upon the naturalness of Wilderness, so we need an intelligent conversation about how we deal with these situations.
• Young people!! I looked around and couldn’t believe my eyes – there were young people everywhere. Woo-hoo!
• There were so many energetic, intelligent, and eloquent activists from all persuasions: government; non-profit; academic; and public. It gave me great hope.
• Universal recognition by all sectors represented that we must do more, much more, to educate and sell the need for lands protection, especially Wilderness, to the Public. It must be our focus, otherwise we will fail in this century to keep the protected lands that we have.
So, what to do?
• Educate the Public – We must educate the Public, not just on a generic need for Wilderness or lands protection, but about what it does for them at a personal level: clean water, clean air, solitude, a connection to nature, a home for their favorite animal or tree or flower, or preservation of their favorite place for hiking, hunting, fishing or camping. This education effort needs to become part of everything we do.
• Connect with Young People – We need a greater focus on connecting with young people. This can happen by reaching out to the schools, but is becoming an increasing challenge with the narrowing focus on “curriculums”, such as Common Core, and falling public school funding around the country. We must be creative in tailoring our appeal to be part of the school’s curriculum needs. Also, see the next item on stewardship.
• Become Stewards – Stewardship must become part of our conservation advocacy program. Sierra Club has not traditionally focused on stewardship, but we must add this to our portfolio. I heard many wonderful stories of agency/non-profit stewardship collaboration that’s making a real difference. It’s a highly effective way to connect with young and old, and get them engaged, educated, and trained. Plus, it creates publicity and legitimacy for all our conservation goals.
• Lobby – Every lobbying effort with members of Congress needs to include advocacy for increasing funding for protected lands stewardship. The Wilderness Act and many other laws require the lands agencies to do this, but without funding and direction from Congress, it is not being done.
• Use Economics – I was astonished to see photos of Bend Oregon’s Old Mill District on the screen in Albuquerque, but John Sterling of The Conservation Alliance and Ben Alexander from Headwaters Economics used Bend as their primo example for how protected lands can rejuvenate a community. Even where the other benefits from protected lands are rejected as “wasting our resources”, the $ still changes minds. Go to http://headwaterseconomics.org/ – the amount of locale specific information available there for free is truly amazing.
• Open Minded Thinking – We need to question old attitudes about Wilderness management and future lands protection models, as well as our willingness to work with those with whom we disagree. We are facing new challenges with climate change and a burgeoning population. Our old protection models may no longer be possible in many places, but new models may gain acceptance and accomplish our protection goals. Blindly demanding no commercial activities on federal lands or total passivity in Wilderness Areas immediately eliminates us from the conversation about how these areas will be managed. We must be willing to reason together with other interests, or we place ourselves in the same box as the right wing whackos.
A time of hope:
I came away really uplifted and energized from my six days in Albuquerque. There are many challenges before us, to even retain what we have, but there is a great opportunity to recreate the lands protection movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Climate change will eventually demand a great rethinking of how we interact with our natural world. That will be our opportunity. We must prepare and be ready to take that opportunity.
Larry Pennington, Oregon Chapter Chair