How to Be a Conservationist
Editors’ note: To promote Brad Meiklejohn’s courageous and insightful new book The Wild Trails, the Rewilding Earth editorial team has selected two essays from it, and we will run the second in a week or two. Brad serves on our Rewilding Leadership Council and has guided many in our community on fine wilderness excursions. He is a rewilding champion, who has led The Conservation Fund in successful efforts to secure hundreds of thousands of wild acres in Alaska and to remove several fish-blocking dams from Alaskan rivers. The Wild Trails is expertly crafted and will inspire readers to be more effective advocates for their wild neighbors – especially those big enough to weave Wild Trails across the land. Readers keen to have their own copy of Brad’s book can email him at email@example.com.
Or you can get the book straight from us: Until our supply runs out, TRI will send donors of $100 or more a signed copy of The Wild Trails as a thank you for your generous donation.
The most recent century brought much good news to humanity. The incidence of war, famine, infant mortality, illiteracy, and poverty all dropped dramatically in the 20th Century while the world became safer, healthier, and more prosperous. The human environment is much improved, too, as rivers no longer catch fire, the air is generally safer to breathe, and food is safer to eat. If you are an environmentalist, concerned mainly with human well-being, you have many reasons to celebrate. If you are a conservationist, hold the champagne.
As a conservationist, I focus on the well-being of the non-human community. I lend my voice and my vote to the critters that don’t have them. Swainson’s thrushes, spotted salamanders, and slippery elms are on my mind when I work, when I play, and when I meditate. The extent to which I am a conservationist is a function of how effectively and consistently I subvert my needs to the needs of my wild neighbors.
I am not a perfect conservationist. That would be tedious and make me even more prone to righteousness than I already am. Yet my intention is to have conservation permeate my whole life.
Most of us have been saturated by environmental education since we were kids. Despite all that we have learned, we keep electing know-nothings, we keep driving monster trucks, and we keep consuming too much stuff. Missing from environmental education is accountability.
If it were up to me I would say, “You are going to get all this environmental education for free, but we are going to follow up with you in one year, five years, ten years, and twenty years to find out how you voted, how you shopped, what you drove, and all the other ways you did or did not put your environmental education to work.”
As we have seen during the pandemic, Nature provides the ultimate and only reliable retreat when friends, family, and society are not available. We flock to Nature for solace. But our time in Nature does not necessarily make us better people. If it did, I would be the Buddha by now. Most great conservationists have been shaped by their time in wild Nature, but they are the rare exceptions. What you do after being in Nature matters more than what you do in Nature.
We have reached a point on the planet where conservation is no longer a nicety for some but a necessity for all. That urgency can feel heavy and intimidating. We can be paralyzed by a sense of overwhelm and our inadequacy to the task.
Taking care of Nature, which is how I think of conservation, is not about heroism so much as it is about quiet dedication. It begins with love for a place and for the things that you find there. Protect Nature because you love it, not because you want to save it, not because you want to be recognized, and not because you want to finish the job.
The work of conservation is never done. It’s a relay race from one generation to the next. Just put out your hand to accept the baton and carry it while you can, then hand it off.
That’s all that is needed.
Brad Meiklejohn directed The Conservation Fund’s work in Alaska for a quarter century, saving hundreds of thousands of acres of wildlife habitat. He still works part-time with The Conservation Fund but is taking extra time to pack-raft remote rivers and explore wild country. Brad’s previous articles in Rewilding Earth addressed the need for a wildlife crossing at Bowman Divide in northern New Hampshire, dangers to Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and the successful story of dam removal on the Eklutna River. Brad is a member of our Rewilding Leadership Council.