A Conservationist's Journey
How does one measure success in a career? As a conservation biologist, I commonly think in terms of number of acres, number of endangered species, biodiversity, watershed integrity, population size, value as a wildlife corridor, dollars raised and invested, etc. Each year, I look back on the victories and defeats, the geographies and the politics, the threats and the commitments. Sometimes, decades go by before another conservation target that I invested time in years ago is acquired. The acres add up too slowly for my impatient soul.
I have experienced so many iconic and irreplaceable landscapes in California and Baja California, one of the most renowned hotspots of biodiversity on the planet. The stark natural beauty of this world overwhelms me; it transcends time. It has been such an incredible journey—on foot, by truck, by boat, by helicopter—in urban refuges, working landscapes, unending processions of rocky mountains and serene valleys, patchworks of verdant grasslands and arid shrublands, cactus and ferns, golden eagles and horned lizards—and in hundreds of meeting rooms across the states.
But each gain, and each loss, is accompanied by a story. And within each story lives the memory of a place and time and a community of talented and dedicated people from all walks of life, focused on a common goal.
· An 85-year old rancher who has sold off pieces of his ranch over the years, until the last 1,000 acres remain. His children are not interested in ranching, they have left home to work in the cities, but he wants the land to stay always as it is now, and so he sells the development rights before he dies.
· The Mexican fishermen who live by a pristine bay of hemispheric importance to fisheries, waterfowl, and migratory birds. Their livelihoods were threatened by a huge tourist marina with hotels lining the peninsula that, because of the efforts of a coalition of Mexican and American scientists, never came to be. The dramatic landscape of clouds, waves, dunes, and dark volcanic cones will remain as it has been for thousands of years.
· A renowned 90-year old archaeologist who pointed out ancient fish traps formed by the Cahuilla Indians in the Colorado Desert. The rock enclosures blend into the landscape along the topographic contour that once was the ancient shoreline of the Salton Sea, now protected forever.
· Researchers studying the paths of Peninsular bighorn sheep and mountain lions along the Peninsular Ranges, threading their ways across and under interstate highways and an international border lined with militia men protecting their land ownership rights. Now wind turbines compete for space along this same corridor.
· The Los Angeles medical doctor who quit his practice to join environmental groups in opposing a housing development and golf course that would destroy a 9,000-acre plateau of Engelmann oak woodlands, riparian wetlands, coastal sage scrub, chaparral, bunchgrass prairie, and some of the largest remaining vernal pools in Southern California. He went on to establish one of the most powerful environmental organizations in the state that has protected hundreds of thousands of acres of native habitat.
· All the dedicated land managers that passionately steward and protect their preserves, even watering new seedlings by hand. They welcome the songs of neotropical migrants each spring and monitor populations of plant and animal species that occur nowhere else on Earth. They give of their lives to educate the public about the importance of ecological processes that sustain the resources that we as a society depend on, such as clean air and clean water.
· The environmental groups and biologists that worked together for 2 years with attorneys, developers, ranchers, and land planners to craft an agreement that would preserve forever 240,000 acres of four historic Mexican land grants that support San Joaquin oak woodlands, Mojave Desert Joshua trees, Sierra Nevada fir forests, coastal chaparral, and grassland habitat for the California condor, arguably the greatest success story in the history of the Endangered Species Act.
· The ski resort, county officials, land owners, developers, and environmental groups that implemented the mitigation policies and raised the funding to protect a crucial landscape linkage between wilderness areas in the Sierra Nevada and those in the Carson Range of Nevada.
So it is more than just conservation metrics that we score. It is the conservation community, ever growing, ever learning, ever determined against all odds, that has enriched my life and makes a “career.” Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning embraces the philosophy that success in life is achieved only as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. What a singular privilege it has been for me to work for 18 years with CBI and within a community who lives by this maxim, through decades of extraordinary conservation, new legislation, accessible funding, emboldened grassroots organizations, and spirited scientific research.