Diversifying Conservation

As strongly focused as we are on biological diversity, conservationists have done a pretty poor job of focusing on diversity within our own ranks.  Quick – think of a famous conservationist.  Got one?  Chances are good the person you just visualized is a white male, or at least white.  If you want to explore this topic further, take a look at Wikipedia’s List of Prominent Conservationists.

This is an issue I have long been aware of, but a workshop I recently attended helped crystalize some things for me.  As a straight, cisgender, white man in an affluent country, my perspective on this topic is clearly limited, but I’ve also been granted some advantages I feel obligated to take advantage of.  At the end of this post, I’m sharing a few strategies I’m personally hoping to employ toward diversifying conservation.  I’m hoping others will chime in with additional ideas and information.

Because the majority of conservation professionals in this country (and across much of the globe) fall within a fairly limited demographic range, we represent a limited range of perspectives and experiences.  If only a narrow slice of humanity is designing conservation strategies, those strategies won’t apply equally well to everyone.  That’s problematic, because it means only a fraction of the public sees conservation as relevant to them.  To combat climate change, public apathy, habitat loss, and other major threats to the earth and its inhabitants, we need everyone pulling together, or we don’t stand a chance.

This is a photo showing the participants in a Grassland Restoration Workshop in Missouri. It was a bunch of great people, and we had excellent discussions, but the diversity among us was pretty limited. What aspects of grassland restoration and conservation were missing from our conversations because of our limited diversity?

A 2016 National Public Radio story discussed the lack of ethnic diversity among National Park visitors.  One example they shared was that less than 2% of annual visitors to Saguaro National Park self-identify as Hispanic.  That’s particularly striking because roughly 44% of nearby Tucson, Arizona residents identify as either Hispanic or Latino.  Do some people feel less welcome, or even less safe, in parks and other natural areas?  The answer is yes, and it’s not limited to ethnicity.  Gender, sex, age, wealth, geography, and other many factors play into whether people enjoy, or even visit nature sites.

There are numerous and well-documented problems that arise when people don’t have exposure to nature.  People without positive experiences in the outdoors tend to think nature is boring, scary, and/or irrelevant.  They certainly won’t be interested voting for, or otherwise supporting conservation initiatives, let alone pursuing a career in conservation.  Finding ways to get more of our population, across all demographics, positive exposure to natural areas needs to be a high conservation priority.

Increasing visitation of natural areas is only part of the issue.  Conservation should increase quality of life for people, regardless of where they are.  Clean air and clean water should be universally available, for example.  Knowing that there are pristine mountain tops where the air is clear and water is pure doesn’t help someone living in an urban food desert surrounded by lead pipes and smog.  To touch down in people’s lives, conservation needs to happen where those people are – in addition to wilderness areas where people are scarce.  Most importantly, to recognize and address the needs of a diverse population around the world, we need the field of conservation to be representative of that population. 

Let me quickly address one related issue.  Some in the conservation world get nervous about the proposal that conservation actions need to benefit people.  I get that.  There are certainly cases in which it is difficult to connect the survival of a particular snail or frog species to human welfare.  That doesn’t mean we should ignore those conservation needs.  We should absolutely be doing conservation for its own sake, but that doesn’t mean we can’t also work to make conservation relevant and valuable to people.  Most of the time, the two are connected anyway.  It’s unlikely that the habitat loss, water quality, or climate change issues that are the ultimate drivers of snail or frog declines don’t also have an impact on humans.

Conservation affects everyone’s quality of life, but we need to make sure everyone understands that – especially in cities, where most of the population lives.  As we make the argument, it would sure help if the demographic profile of conservationists was representative of that of the planet we’re working with.  When it isn’t, it is much more difficult to make sure that conservation messages and strategies are designed to be relevant and helpful to everyone, regardless of ethnicity, race, sex, gender, age, or any other characteristic. 

There are no downsides to including more voices and perspectives in conservation – only upsides.  As conservationists, we had better successfully address our internal diversity problem so we can successfully address the world’s biological diversity problem.

Here is a list of things I’m personally going to work on, related to this issue.  I hope it’s helpful to others.  Please add your own suggestions in the comments section below.


1. Be actively aware of the lack of diversity within conservation.  Pay attention to who attends, leads, and is vocal at meetings, conferences, volunteer work days, fundraising affairs, and any other conservation-related event.  Share your observations with others.

2. Listen to understand.  Talk to colleagues, partners, and others who are different from you, and learn about their stories, perspectives, and ideas. Make sure those are included in discussions, conservation-related or not.

3. Amplify voices of those less well represented within the conservation field.  Make sure their perspectives are heard and considered.  This can take a lot of forms.  It can include calling attention to points made by colleagues in meetings, sharing social media posts, helping to train and enable people to get in front of media cameras and microphones, and much more.  While I’m on this topic, here’s just one small specific step on the social media front:  I would encourage you all to check out the social media posts of Laura Connelly, who is on Facebook as Laura Lux and on Instagram as @prairie_godmother.  Laura is a brilliant and engaging voice for conservation and ecology, and someone whose perspectives and stories need more attention.

4. Examine job descriptions and career paths from the perspective of underrepresented groups.  Are you asking for skills that are found predominantly within certain demographic groups?  As an example, many land management career paths in the central U.S. start with seasonal positions, for which job requirements emphasize experience operating and maintaining tractors and chainsaws.  Those skills tend to be much less prevalent among women than men, especially early in careers, and are less common in people who grew up in urban areas than in rural areas.  By making those particular seasonal jobs the primary entry point for land management jobs, we’re cutting out a lot of people who have many other skills and perspectives.  Why can’t we build more training into those positions or develop multiple entry points for land management careers – or both?

5. Look for ways to build up conservation interest and outdoor skills within communities you want to recruit from so candidates from those communities will be more competitive.  That can mean volunteering to speak about nature and conservation in schools or other venues, but it can also go much deeper.  It might mean reaching out to community leaders and advocates to learn more about those communities and their challenges, regardless of whether you see an immediate tie to your conservation work.  The conversations that ensue might lead to some surprising potential partnerships.

6.  At a broader scale, don’t exclude poverty and other social issues from conservation discussions – they are often tightly linked.  Many global issues are strongly tied to poverty, for example.  It’s hard to stop deforestation when local people are cutting down trees for basic cooking and heating needs, or to clear space for subsistence farming.  It’s also pretty foolish to expect people and their leaders to support species and habitat restoration projects if their primary concerns revolve around basic healthcare and food/water/shelter needs.  Of course, conservation can sometimes be relevant to those basic needs, but other times, addressing those primary concerns can be a necessary preamble to conservation discussions.  See numbers 2 and 5 above…

I would love to hear what you think about this topic.  Please include your responses, suggestions, and other thoughts in the comments section of this post.  Thank you.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

26 thoughts on “Diversifying Conservation

  1. Thanks Chris for this post. I’ve shared it with our volunteers along with this note:
    “Prairie Friends,
    As some of you know, getting greater diversity at our prairie has been something I’ve wished for and I’m so glad Chris has offered this thoughtful and extensive post on this need in all conservation efforts.

  2. Such an important post!
    Here in the East many of us Native Americans are very light complected, following five hundred years of genetic exchange. It is almost impossible for folks to identify us in a crowd, a trait that has helped us survive but also sometimes marginalizes us. Often diversity is invisible.
    That said, racism plants the greatest negative environmental impacts squarely in the living places of people of color and Natives. Too often we are expendable, and our home places are marginal and deemed worthless until someone in power wants them. Environmental justice and the fate of Earth are intertwined..

  3. This a post that needed written, and Chris puts it out there. Many excellent points for discussion and introspection. This question has been on my mind: Do we, we meaning people who live in any area of the United States, place any great value on the art and skills involved in nurturing people, plants, animals, soil, etc.?

  4. Thank you for this post, Chris! Diversifying the ranks of those who are conservation-minded is essential – for conservation and for the public. Thank you including this list of specific actions we can take – let’s take them! I know that it’s all too easy to just keep connecting with groups of people we’re already connected to – and for so many of us white people (and I’m one of those), we’re in mostly-white spaces. Reweaving this pattern of interaction with each other, and with natural systems, all at the same time – this is where there’s so much hard work – and so much hope.

  5. Great post!

    Karen Wilson Baptist, Ph.D.
    Associate Professor
    Dept. of Landscape Architecture
    University of Manitoba

  6. Thank you for this conversation. A number of us have been having this conversation for at least the last 25 years. It continues to be (and will be) a gradual cultural change, for sure. How I initially got exposure to conservation was through a “Minority Internship Program” through TNC (1995) with one of the state natural heritage programs, but I am not sure these are specifically offered through TNC at this time. (I am aware that there are a wider variety of opportunities now with other conservation orgs, however.) I stayed with the NHP for almost 5 years before going on to graduate school. Following this, I clearly remember the frustration I had when searching for scholarships and grants (for graduate school) that were geared for underrepresented groups to go into natural resource management/conservation and finding it very limited – most of the scholarships I would routinely find were geared to getting representation into engineering, medicine, and business – all fields that will benefit from diversification, as well, but left natural resource management out of the mix. After graduate school, I went into public service with the National Park Service. I remain now with the National Park Service – this likely would not have occurred without that long-ago TNC opportunity. Among my peers in my age group, I am “one of the few”, and one factor may be because the opportunities were far and few way back when, and there wasn’t a lot of representation who could mentor. Now, however, I am seeing more representation among the younger staff members, but it still seems lacking, and conversations I’ve had with our younger cohorts indicates that conservation and stewardship are still off the radar when they are trying to find fields to enter when deciding on college majors. (“You’re great at math! How about engineering?!”) There are several groups out there that are providing natural resource opportunities for underrepresented groups, but I feel it’s sometimes more based on recreational access and enjoyment than on stewardship, though this is a good initial step to take. How best to make the connection between recreation and stewardship is the next thing to tackle…for any group.

    Also – just a thought – Wikipedia is also generally reported to lack diversity in its editorial ranks, which may reflect what/who gets represented among its pages, and what/who does not. :)

    Thank you again for your thoughts.

  7. Very well stated.

    As a representative of a University here in the States I went to a conference in Mexico a number of years ago. The general topic was inclusion of communities and community members. We all stayed at a Mexican 3 star hotel (where most meals were eaten), were bused to the conference, and told not to go out on our own (only attend the sponsored buying trip to the market).

    As we were talking in a breakout session one day about inclusion I mentioned that we were having an interesting conversation – in a very nice university setting where armed guards were at the gate, the walls were high and watched, and we could look out the windows at the the neighborhood women putting their laundry on lines in their dusty backyards. I said that if we were going to work on inclusion we ought to invite the neighbors. There were a LOT of initial comments, mostly of the “yeah” type and then the conversation went on as if nothing had been said.

    I wanted to briefly share that story because as others have stated, the ideas/suggestions are spot on – they need action.

    • I strongly agree with your comment and find your story rather accurate. I currently work for a State agency and the question of how to get more people outside, especially those who fall into the minority category. But at these discussions I never see people from the community brought in to ask. It is only ever asked internally, to what is dominantly a white and/or male crowd. People who don’t fully understand or have an idea as to why there appears to be a wall stopping our attempts to become more diverse. So thank you for your story and I agree as well that a lot of talk happens, but I have seen very minimal action take place to really understand why our lack of diversity is occurring.

  8. Chris you touch on some very good points especially the ones about taking part in the needs and problems of the communities we wish to include into whatever we are doing as privileged white Americans. How can we ask them to be interested in our concerns without being interested and involved in their concerns. I also like you touching on the idea that if you are barely surviving it’s hard to worry about whether the fish you just caught to eat is endangered. These issues are so interconnected that it becomes impossible to disentangle them one from the other. Perhaps the first step is to see everyone as members of the same race, human, and then we can work on inclusion. Institutional arrogance and racism can be a hard barrier to break down when you are attempting to get involved.

  9. Good post, and highly appropriate for this country, which has a diverse population that is not proportionally represented in the nature careers and advocacy groups. I would add, though, that in countries not dominated by those of northern European ancestry, even though with a history of European colonial dominance in conservation careers in the past (e.g. South American or African), there are now some excellent conservationists in the ranks of local ethnic majority ancestry.

  10. Your finger is on the pulse of the conservation community (as it usually is). This conversation has shown up in every organization and project of which I’ve been a part in the last two years. As you noted, we are grappling with it not as a matter of political correctness or attainment of a moral ideal, but as a primary barrier to success, however we define it. Whether it is ‘traditional’ objectives or newly expansive notions of conservation, implicit and explicit exclusion are at the heart of so many of our threats to success (declining public interest and support for conservation) and failures (i.e. wasted/inefficient conservation effort and resources, continued ecological degradation).

    Recent efforts within an Americorps job training and service program (one that generates a substantial proportion of the natural resource and conservation professionals in the region) highlight how deeply and broadly the barriers to participation extend. Despite focused and deliberate efforts to hire, train, and promote members of underrepresented communities, there remains a significant diversity gap within the program. Opening the door and reaching out a hand has not been enough. Contexts that many of us don’t think twice about like stable home lives, access to internet, transportation, and a level of independence of and support from friends and family, continue to prevent full participation from members of communities we ought/need to include. It requires herculean efforts by members of underrepresented communities to succeed in the program as it is currently configured. Achieving representative and necessary diversity may require substantially more investment in social support to participants, and fundamental alterations to program structure. What it takes to succeed in representation runs head long into institutional legacies and financial constraints. Continuing to articulate the connections between conservation missions/objectives and representative diversity in participation will be fundamental in ensuring diversifying conservation is not a passing theme characterized by half measures, but something weaved into the fabric of our practice.

    • My wife told me about one of her co-workers who mentors kids in an urban primarily black school. She told me that the black kids don’t get counseling on applying to college, they get told how to apply for welfare. My point is … the hurdles that have to be over come are higher than most of us can imagine.

  11. Here’s a good book for your followers who are interested in the issue of diversity and conservation, “Pembroke, A Rural Black Community on the Illinois Dunes.” One of the top conservation sites within the state of Illinois is located in Pembroke Township.


    It’s an interesting dynamic having a mostly white conservation group trying to preserve land located in a black community that was established primarily to escape oppression and maltreatment by white people.

    • Yes, that is interesting. But these were probably lands that were poor for farming, difficult to access, and no mineral wealth, making it of little value to whites, and thus a good place for the marginalized and persecuted to find safe haven. Because of that, these places were spared the most severe impacts of habitation, and, sadly, now retain the best of what’s left of our biodiversity.

      • Another interesting twist is the Department of Natural Resources wanted to use eminent domain to take land and make a preserve. A donor, who has bought land that was later transferred to The Nature Conservancy said that if eminent domain was used to take people’s land then “She was out.” It is interesting to see a white lady standing up to protect her black neighbors from government action.

          • When she said the aforementioned, it was not very popular at the conference as I am sure it is not very popular here. The way I think about the situation is the people at Pembroke have somehow protected these high quality natural areas for well over a hundred years. Whereas, Starved Rock State Park (voted the #1 attraction in the state) has mostly been trampled by nature lovers. It kind of makes you think.

  12. Excellent article. Working as a minority in the conservation field, I have definitely witnessed the lack of diversity (although it appears to be getting a little bit better). Although the discussion was primarily focused on people working as conservation professionals, I just wanted to share a few efforts that are being made to reach female landowners and involving them in the land management on their property. Typically, this is geared towards women who own farmland, but rely on tenants to farm it. The thought is to educate and empower these women about the importance of conservation, and the impacts of different types of land management. These programs are discussion-based and allow participants to learn from each other’s experience. Conservation professionals are available to answer questions and facilitate the meetings. Many of these meetings focus on agriculture, but they’ve also been successful covering forestry, wildlife habitat, and invasive species management. These programs help to diversify the types of people that visit their local conservation district, Extension, or USDA office looking for more information.


    • There’s a lot of diversity in conservation at the Forest Preserves of Cook County. However, there is not as much (if any) in certain municipalities or in surrounding counties. Having lots of minority populations and a black woman county board president surely helps. One of our burn bosses is hispanic. He is very serious. I don’t think he smiled for the first few years. If he can deal with the politics, with his work ethics I think he could be the director someday if he wants the job.

  13. Diversity is such an important word for our native ecosystems. We need a diversity of biota, a diversity of management strategies, and a diversity of people. Possibly more important than diversity, we need acceptance. Acceptance of new ideas, new perspectives and interpretation, and new research. I would love to have more discussions about this.

  14. Pingback: news round up – Ecological Relationships

  15. Pingback: Other Native Plant Blogs: The Prairie Ecologist | New Moon Nursery

  16. Pingback: #BlackBirdersWeek – Ecological Relationships


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.