Photo of the Week – June 7, 2019

This was a great week, during which Kim and I attended the North American Prairie Conference in Houston, Texas. The conference was wonderful, and it was great to meet a lot of new people, including a lot of you who were nice enough to come up and tell me how much you enjoy this blog. Thank you for that.

Tuesday was field trip day, and Kim and I got to travel to a couple sites, including The Nature Conservancy’s Roy E. Larsen Sandyland Sanctuary. While there, we wandered through some pine savanna habitats and saw a WHOLE LOT of plants and animals that we don’t get to see in Nebraska. If you’re fortunate enough to live close to this property, I’m jealous – I’d love to explore it on a regular basis. It’s a beautiful site, and very well managed.

Longleaf pine savanna is essentially a prairie with scattered trees in it. It’s a fire-dependent plant community, and the Conservancy manages this site with frequent fire to keep brush subdued. I’d’ only seen longleaf along the eastern seaboard prior to this trip, so it was fun to see the more western end of the ecosystem in Texas.

I’m sharing just a small sample of the photos I took during the tour, and it was really hard to narrow the selection down. Just about everything I saw was new, and there were quite a few plants that are apparently endemic to a pretty small geographic area around the site. I wish I could share some good natural history stories about each of these, but the best I can do is pass along identifications generously provided by Matt Buckingham, a fantastic ecologist and photographer who has a blog you should all check out. Here are some images from Sandyland Sanctuary:

I can’t believe how many Mimosa species we saw in Texas. Matt told me which this one is, but I’ve forgotten, and I didn’t remember to send him this photo to identify after the fact.
Alophia drummondii is a gorgeous iris that drew a lot of attention from our tour members.
Young longleaf pines maintain a grass-like growth form for several years which allows them to develop a strong root system but weather frequent fires fairly easily. After those root systems are in place, they can shoot up very quickly to get tall enough to survive fire in their more typical pine tree shape.
This caterpillar and a friend (sibling?) was busily munching on the leaves of a young longleaf pine.
Commelina erecta, a native day flower, was one of the few plants I recognized from the longleaf savanna, though it certainly grows within a different context in Nebraska.
Delphinium carolinianum (Carolina larkspur) is also found in Nebraska, but I’ve only seen it in its white form there, and the flowers are smaller and pretty different-looking.
Callicarpa americana (beautyberry) is a plant Kim recognized from her horticulture background, but a new one to me.
Our tour group, venturing into a wetter portion of the site, where the vegetation grew a little more densely.
This green anole sat patiently while many of the tour members took its photo. I was the last, and it was patient enough to allow me a few quick shots before it finally scurried away.
Sabatia gentianoides (rose gentian) is related to the gentians I’m more familiar with, but is in a different genus.
I bet many of you are like me, and didn’t recognize this as a sedge. It is. Rhynchospora colorata has distinctive white bracts that makes it look more like a wildflower.
When we got into the wetter portion of the site, we started seeing a little more dense understory and more loblolly pines than longleaf pines. (I can’t tell the difference between those trees unless I can see the cones).
Polygala mariana (Maryland milkwort).
Aletris aurea (golden colicroot) was really striking, standing more than two feet tall, with gorgeous yellow flower spikes.
Kaytdid nymph with an ant on its foot for some reason.
We don’t get to see bracken ferns (Pteridium aquilinum) in my area, so it was fun to see them in abundance. This one had turned brown for some reason, which probably wasn’t positive for it, but made for a beautiful image.

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.

Actions

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.