Women in Conservation: Blogging for Women’s History Month

Making Conservation Relevant (and Fun!)

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WCS’s Annual Cycle Adirondacks bike tour provides a glimpse of the beauty of New York’s Adirondack Park while immersing riders in the nature, culture, and history of the region. Photo ©WCS.

By Julie Kunen
March 30, 2017

Not long ago I attended the 82nd annual North American Wildlife Management and Natural Resources Conference in Spokane, WA. This is a major annual gathering of State, Federal, and Military fish and wildlife management agencies and a sprinkling of partner organizations, such as my institution, WCS, that work in close collaboration with these agencies to conserve wildlife across North America.

The theme of the week-long meeting was what the organizers call conservation relevancy: what to do about the dwindling connection between Americans and nature. Several conference sessions were devoted to the subject. One I participated in was the most diverse — not only because it featured six women (a previous session featured 2 women out of a slate of 13 speakers) but also in terms of institutional affiliation, including: state agencies, a federal agency, NGOs, a university, and a cultural institution.

The demographic of the participants skews toward older white men. As a younger woman in attendance, I got my fair share of glances, but I eagerly sought out and met with a group of powerhouse female leaders on the rise within agency ranks, including several inspirational USFWS regional directors. These women are on the leading edge of a cultural and generational shift in the professional ranks of wildlife managers that is key to the question of how to begin re-connecting Americans with wildlife and nature.

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For a recent panel on Women in Conservation moderated by actress, filmmaker, and philanthropist Isabella Rossellini (far left), Julie Kunen (second from left) joined WCS’s Melissa Nelson Slater, Assistant Curator of Behavioral Husbandry (second from right); and D. McAloose, Head of Pathology for WCS’s Zoological Health Program (far right).

I’d prepared four key points for the panel I’d be participating in that I believe are critical to engaging diverse constituencies around this issue. First, we must meet people where they are. By this I mean connect with people by building and investing in relationships with them, whoever they are and wherever they are. Meet them culturally, meaning on their own terms, whether that’s a generations-old ranching family or a family of new immigrants. Meet them in their rural or urban homes — bring conservation to them. Meet them in their online “homes,” including the digital sphere of Twitter and Facebook that people inhabit.

Second, don’t just write about nature. Show it and tell it with powerful images and accessible language. Conservation is awash in words at a remove from nature as it is experienced — whether through abstruse scientific papers, convoluted land use regulations, or wonky policy speeches. Despite the glory of nature, as a discipline we are lousy at telling stories. And when we share stories, we still tend to rely overly on words. More and more, we need to share images, beautiful portraits of nature, candid camera-trap photos, and videos that take us to wondrous places.

A colleague from Ducks Unlimited Canada showed a 30 second video more powerful than many lengthy nature films I’ve seen, let alone talks I’ve sat through. We need to use gaming and digital futures creation. My colleague Eric Sanderson’s Visionmaker NYC tool enables the public to develop and share climate-resilient and sustainable designs for New York City. Other WCS colleagues in the Arctic have been working with indigenous youth in Alaska to make and share videos documenting their interactions with local wildlife on Facebook.

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Using archaeological records, modern principles of ecology, and computer modeling, WCS’s Eric Sanderson was able re-create the forests of Times Square, the meadows of Harlem, and the wetlands of downtown Manhattan at the time New York City was settled for his 2009 Mannahatta Project. Photo ©WCS.

Third, celebrate the emotion, joy, and wonder people feel in nature. Conservation professionals somehow manage to make our work seem dry and boring, and scientists too often seem to think the only valid approach to nature is a cerebral one, chock full of data. We’ve taken all the fun out of nature, but anyone watching Youtube knows that adorable wombat videos rack up tens of thousands of views, and people cry at the sight of touching animal interactions.

We should be inspiring awe for nature. Colleagues of mine did this recently via the Identidad Madidi expedition, which explored the fauna and flora of Madidi National Park — the most biodiverse landscape in the Andes-Amazon region of Bolivia (some say in the world!). As part of the expedition, a gorgeous photo exhibit was mounted to capture the strange beauty of many of Madidi’s plants and animals in a series of large portraits. This exhibit brought nature to La Paz’s dense urban center and instilled pride among the mostly indigenous guests for their park.

My final point is simple: Diversify the conservation messenger. The voices and faces carrying the conservation message should reflect the voices and faces of the people we are trying to engage. This includes women, youth, people of color, native Americans, new Americans, urban dwellers, rural residents — all of whom should be growing within the ranks of conservation professionals.

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The Puina valley was the setting for the third, fourth, and fifth Identidad Madidi survey sites in the High Andes of Bolivia. Photo by Rob Wallace/WCS.

On a recent trip in the Canadian Rockies, I met with the writer and former Parks Canada career biologist Kevin van Tighem. He told me a story of Parks Canada’s wonderful program to encourage New Canadians (Canada’s beautiful term for immigrants) to visit national parks and other protected areas.

To Parks Canada officials’ surprise, New Canadians enthusiastically flocked to parks, but used them in ways that at first were not identified as nature-based or outdoor activities. Families gathered for picnics and barbecues, children ran around and kicked balls. Nobody snowshoed or backpacked, but they were outside. New Canadians used parks at much higher rates than Old Canadians.

As Kevin described it, the success of this program lies in meeting people where they are. That means redefining what we think of as outdoor recreation to make space for people’s differing senses of wonder and fun. If we can do that, we’ll have won half the battle in the effort to conserve our extraordinary and irreplaceable natural spaces and the wildlife they support.

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Dr. Julie Kunen is Vice President for the Americas at WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society)

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WCS saves wildlife and wild places worldwide through science, conservation action, education, and inspiring people to value nature.

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