11 August 2007

15/15: Favorite Memories in Conservation, Part 2

Okay, Part Two of my favorite memories in conservation over the past 15 years...(see Part One)

9. Pribilof Islands, Alaska: We've flown from Anchorage to Dillingham. At Dillingham we are to board a plane to the Pribilof Islands, in the middle of the Bering Sea, famous for its fur seals, bird life, and spectacular yet difficult existence. From Dillingham, you have a fifty-fifty chance of getting to one of two islands: St. Paul or St. George. The pilot says we will be landing on St. George today, because a thick fog has stationed over the other island. A sigh of relief comes from the woman seated next to me; she's a school teacher and has been trying to get back to St. George for a week, each time disappointed. We fly but about 3/4 of the way there the pilot informs us that the fog has shifted over to St. George and we will now land on St. Paul. My seatmate is visibly shaken by this news, but a few moments later, she is resigned. We are over open ocean, but the plane -- an MD-80, I believe -- is descending. I can see the ceiling is extremely low, it seems we have maybe 50 feet from the water's surface. Suddenly, below the plane I see a strip of black basalt. Within moments, the pilot downs the plane almost as if the engines were cut. We slam onto the basalt. I'm told it is a fairly routine landing.

10. Pribilofs (again): I meet Candace Stepetin for the first time. She and the National Marine Fisheries biologist are stalking a sub-adult male fur seal that has a very fashionable, but dangerous bit of neck wear. Fishing nets, packaging materials and other flotsam can wreck havoc on sub-adult males. When they catch one, Candace gently removes the twine and plastic with sheers. The next day, Candace is working at a computer that we sent earlier, cataloguing fur seal census data, especially the number of entangled seals and where they were sighted. NMFs has enlisted Candace and other stewardship camp participants in this research. The next time I see Candace is at a surprise fur seal harvest; she is an integral member of the crew that is gathering the subsistence stock of meat in a very careful, controlled manner. I am in awe. Candace, who was then maybe 18, becomes one of my heroes. We are still in touch. (For a more detailed account of this story, see my web site under essays: Candace and the Fur Seals.)

12. West Branch Wilderness, Northcentral Pennsylvania: In late 1998, I transferred from Alaska to Pennsylvania to help the chapter expand its efforts across the state. "To fill the hole in the doughnut," as John Sawhill used to say, referring to the western half of the state, virtually the only place in the U.S. where TNC was not working. Then State Director Randy Gray and I heard about 3,00o acres of forest land in northcentral Pennsylvania, a private inholding in the Sproul State Forest, along and above the West Branch of the Susquehanna River. We were looking for a big landscape project like this and when we visited it for the first time, looking over the seemingly endless expanse of "wilderness," we said to each other "How could we not do this?" It wasn't an easy road, but it was the start of bigger landscape-scale conservation for TNC in Pennsylvania. We dubbed it the West Branch Wilderness, which is another meme that has stuck.

13. Podocarpus National Park, Ecuador: Our sights were set not just on expanding into new territory in Pennsylvania, but in connecting PA conservation to international projects and global issues. Together with Roberto Troya, currently director of international external affairs, but then Ecuador Country Director, I had the pleasure of managing a partnership between TNC (in PA and Ecuador) and Fundacion Ecologica Arcoiris in southern Ecuador to help protect the park, build capacity, and share learning between our programs. The focal point was shared migratory birds between the Pocono Plateau (one of the Conservancy's "Last Great Places," and Podocarpus.

Being in the Park and meeting the local people on the ground who were striving to apply the latest conservation tools and techniques to protect this resource was one of the most rewarding and enlightening experiences for me. Podocarpus supplies water to Loja, the largest city in southern Ecuador, as well as livelihoods and sustenance for many surrounding villages and towns. I could easily suss the deep connection between biodiversity conservation and human well-being, which I had also seen in the Pribilofs and would see again in Indonesia (see below).

Bringing the staff and board of Fundacion Arcoiris to the Poconos was almost as enlightening. First of all, some of them had never seen some of "their" birds, such as the scarlet tanager, in their breeding plumage and singing their mating calls -- a real eye-opener! But for the Arcoiris board members, an equally eye-opening experience was the camaraderie and collaboration between the staff and board of TNC. Back in Ecuador, they followed a more strict protocol; the board really only had a relationship with the President. As one of the board members told me, "This could have tremendous impact on our effectiveness in conservation, but perhaps in NGO governance overall." (That's systems-changing.)

14. Raja Ampat, Coral Triangle, Indonesia: When I first went to Indonesia, working with our Global Marine Initiative, I was on a two-fold mission. First, to see this place that is a true gem of marine biodiversity and be able to communicate its value directly to investors and others; second, although I didn't know it at the time of planning, to reconnect my father-in-law to this place that had meant so much to him. The place lived up to its billing -- the most amazing diving and snorkeling experience of my life -- but again, it became more about the people. The Indonesians I met and their deep passion for protecting and living and working in this area. It was, again, a demonstration of the interconnectedness of place and people, of biodiversity and human well-being. Our local partners and local staff, local government officials and elder council members. Together, we were trying to find ways to make the triple bottom line of economy, environment, and community sustainable and viable for the long-term. It was no longer about protecting parks from people but for people and, more importantly, with the very people who stood to gain or lose so much if we got it wrong.

For my father-in-law, Harold Dubuisson, Indonesia, and in particular the region around Papua and the Bird's Head, was the place where as an land man for Continental Oil (now Conoco) and later with his own company, he has spent the middle part of his career, helping the people there bring their oil resources to market in a way that considered the needs and benefits of the people of the region. Sadly, my father-in-law died a few months after my return, but I felt my journey there had brought him full circle. (For more on Harold Dubuisson's story, see my post "A Tribute to Two Fallen Fathers.")

15. Finally, two short takes on systemic issues and change: Over the past six years I've been involved in a powerful transformation at TNC. From an organization whose stock-and-trade was land deals, mostly in the U.S. ("We protect land the old fashioned way," John Sawhill used to say. "We buy it.") to one that perceives fulfillment of its mission at a global scale and, simultaneously, at a local scale. As part of that move, we began shifting our fundraising efforts, under the direction of David Whitehead and Stephanie Meeks, to an unprecedented scale. The result was the largest capital campaign in the history of conservation US$1.4bn and one of the most effective and efficient fundraising organizations in philanthropy.

We also started to shift the organization to embrace and articulate the connections between biodiversity and human well-being, identifying and, through storytelling and better quantifying those connections, articulating those connections. It hasn't always been easy, nothing important ever is, and we've probably lost some good folks along the way who weren't ready to move so fast to be a truly global institution in the service of a new kind of conservation. And TNC is by no means there or at the end of its journey to fulfill its global mission. But, in the words of current TNC chairman John Morgridge, "Don't underestimate the ability of the Conservancy to make big things happen." I'd expect no less from this group of talented and committed individuals. I have been honored to be a part of it for so long.

I have many more memories of my 15 years with TNC. These are just a bunch that occurred to me on the train home Thursday night, and I'm not sure I've done these stories justice in the space this form allows. Oh well.

What remains for me is the power of my collective experiences at TNC; the relationships I've built with passionate, empathetic, sometimes hard-headed brilliant people such as those identified in my earlier post (and many more who were not called out therein).

And that collective power has caused a shift in my focus as well, a need to be even more connected to what William Easterly calls the "Searchers," the people devising innovative, local solutions to problems that may have a global impact if they are given the resources and freed to bring their enterprises to light. That's what I hope to bring to Ashoka when I get there in September, along with a striving for excellence and commitment to values that John Sawhill expected of us all those many years ago.

No comments: