Sunday, January 26, 2014

The suits and ties and real conservation

This is a recent newspaper column of mine

Being retired and not having to worry about setting the alarm clock at bedtime every night does indeed pay off when the yodel, “The bird walk starts at zero-dark-thirty,” sounds in one’s sleepy ear.
More noteworthy is this: Business suits, ties and slick-shiny dress shoes are out, and attire that goes with rambling in the out-of-doors is in.
The last time (or close to it, at least) I sat through the afternoon session of a meeting of the board of directors to one of our big national conservation clubs, the badge-of-honor very clearly went to those seated around the boardroom table who were clad in those very suits and ties. Their most recent outdoor experience appeared to be nothing more (or less) than the arduous trek from parking lot to receptionist’s table where, in turn, each attendee received their “hello, my name is . . .” lapel name tag.
But more importantly, the conversation I heard from the suits’ mouths that day wasn’t about conservation and the kind of set-asides our fellow inhabitants of Earth need.
No, it was all about money and how best to get it from Foundation X and Charitable Trust Y. It was, in short, a five-minute, well-rehearsed plea from a director. This fellow was a friend of Big Oil and, yet, here he was serving on the board of the National Audubon Society.
I had journeyed a couple of hours to the board’s meeting site at a ritzy Kitty Hawk, Outer Banks, inn at the invitation of a Pennsylvanian then serving on the national board.
The Big Oil apologist pleaded that day with his fellow board members for their support for the opening of the last-great-wilderness of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, northeastern Alaska, to oil drilling.
Most members of National Audubon and its state and local chapters are birders; the kind of people who’re quick with a smile and travel about with binoculars hanging from their neck and a tripod with spotting scope attached waiting for deployment from the trunks of their cars just in case a bird of prey decides to make an appearance by perching in yonder tree.
My attendance at this board meeting was made possible by the fact that I was already going to be at Langley Air Force Base near Hampton, Va., and motoring to the Outer Banks of North Carolina wouldn’t chew up too much of a weekend day.
I had another experience of similar likeness around the same time when I took up an offer to experience some of the big shindig meeting near Stroudsburg, Pa., (also in the early 2000s) of the board of honchos overseeing the Pennsylvania chapter of The Nature Conservancy.
I shook a lot of hands that day, having been honored by the Conservancy several years before as its volunteer of the year in science. But absent – again – were the weathered faces of field naturalists, botanists, birders and flat-out conservationists who hike around Wild Places, not sidle up to the buffet table while dressed in suit and tie.
In the room that day were good people, but they were persons picked to serve on a board due to their fund-raising prowess, not their skill at identifying the last Hobblebush plant in a given nature preserve, or noticing the demise of a colony of trilliums to whitetails hungry for a botanical ice cream cone.
I’ve had just the opposite experience of late; joining citizen members of the Rutland County Audubon Society, central Vermont, on monthly monitoring walks through the West Rutland Marsh next to the town of that same name.
Here are sweatshirts picked up as souvenirs from this or that national wildlife refuge. And many also wore a ball cap adorned with the logo of a birding hotspot or other place where, amazingly, Wild Nature still calls the shots.
Frumpy, wrinkled and frayed at the edges with 5-o-clock shadows perhaps, but these are some of the Americans who know the real value of a wetland, or creek, or forested mountaintop, or cattail marsh, or a forest of big trees, all of them native to the region.
These are the people who make conservation happen today. And you’re not very likely going to find them at the country club or sitting through an endless agenda marked by pleas to destroy wilderness with oil derricks.
They’re part of a vanguard of conservationists who know – personally – the difference between “resourcism” and a good pair of dirty hiking boots.

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