Gertschen Interview: Jason Wilmot on conservation and building community

Jason

Interview by Chris Gertschen

Jason Wilmot is executive director of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative.

Jason was raised in Montana and South Dakota. He obtained a bachelor’s degree in Geography from the University of Montana and a Master of Environmental Management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Jason spent over 10 years living in the Glacier National Park area, where he worked in various capacities for the National Park Service. He helped develop and initiate the Glacier Wolverine Ecology Project, a partnership between the U.S. Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. Jason also helped the Nature Conservancy of Montana and the Blackfeet Indian Land Trust develop a conservation and stewardship plan for the Flatiron Creek Ranch on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, and worked as a backcountry ranger in Katmai National Park, Alaska. Jason is a Doris Duke Conservation Fellow and is also the lead field coordinator for the Absaroka-Beartooth Wolverine Project.

CG:  What brought you to conservation?

JW:  I was drawn to conservation at a very young age, having grown up experiencing the stark differences between the heavily used and domesticated landscapes of the Midwest and the wild, natural, and biologically rich Wilderness areas of Montana. My core value systems have always centered on those experiences of my childhood of backpacking, fishing, and traveling in Montana’s mountains, and a sense of freedom I was not able to obtain in the midwest. I remember like yesterday the first time I saw a wild Grizzly bear, and from that point on it was no looking back. To me, that bear was a magical presence, something I was awed by. I am compelled to put my absolute all into conserving the animals and places that mean so much to me personally, and that are a scarce, rare, and diminishing thing in today’s exploitive and human-centered world. There is something primal and fundamental about wild animals and places, and I just cannot bear to watch them degrade due to human choices. Somehow, I came to realize that what all people have in front of them every day are choices, and there are ramifications to those choices, and that by being deliberate and thoughtful in those choices, we could make a better world. I have a resolute belief that protection of nature is a choice humans can make and take responsibility for. The quest is to engage in conservation in ways that actually work to achieve our goals, and a lot of people are doing this.

I think we can do better. While I am relatively young, I have been earnestly engaged in various ways to conserve the Rockies and have learned many lessons along the way, and transformed my perspectives and strategies while holding close those core values that drive me. I am looking for better ways forward.

Conservation is a fool’s quest, really, because I doubt I or others would ever think “we’re done”. Wouldn’t that be the real goal, to feel that our efforts to help ourselves make better choices had been effective, and to know that the natural world was adequately protected for all time? Herein is the dilemma, how does a conservationist find resolution and reward (well, one way is to go outside and enjoy it)? It may not be in that the quest is ever over, and one needs to feel good about having tried. However, I argue that taken too far, the good feeling of trying often outweighs true goals that could actually be achieved if we let go of our need to feel that we are “warriors for the cause”, because it’s NOT about us, its about the world out there we are trying to protect. By being reflective and open to learning, I think conservation practitioners have a long way to go to become more effective. Constantly reminding myself of the true goal, not my personal goal of feeling good, is the focus, and strategic and betterment opportunities need to be discovered and implemented, not just for me personally, but also in conservation efforts in general.

CG:  When you speak of choices and the need to make them thoughtful and deliberate, are you speaking of choosing to live sustainably?

JW:  I think being thoughtful and deliberate is being attentive to the fact that how we live, and the choices we make (both individually and via institutions) have a direct bearing on the world around us. While personal choices are indeed important (in terms of our imprint on the natural world) I am more interested in sweeping institutional improvements that are more attentive not just to the desire to be good stewards (all kinds of free-market companies use the “green” model to sell things), but to be attentive to how we can make those institutional and governance changes necessary to achieve sound relationships between humans and the natural world around us. For example, while “living sustainably” on an individual basis is often understood as market choices in what we buy, I am more interested in how nonprofit, governmental, and other institutions can be smarter and co-create shared conservation strategies that attend to entrenched social values inherent in conservation conflicts around the world. The days of “our perspective is right and if we pour it on, we will ultimately win” are out-dated and at times an even counter-productive strategy today. I am NOT arguing for giving up on core values, and that is precisely my point, no one will! Instead, I argue that conservation needs to be much more attentive to reliable information, less conjecture and reactionary fear, and much more robust in terms of building trust and building bridges with people of other value sets to find common interests. If conservation of the natural world IS in fact good for all of us, there must certainly be some shared interests where people can achieve their own values (be they human-centered or nature-centered) AND enhance conservation of our world.

CG:  There are many reasons for not choosing to live sustainably, what do you think are the biggest barriers to thoughtful and deliberate choices?

JW:  I think a lot of people don’t have the perspective or the energy to think about how to reconstitute how we govern ourselves. It’s too heavy a burden and too complex and energy-sapping to engage in for many. To me, a key concept is that our cultural, political, and government institutions are simply human constructs, and that the assumptions and rules of how we govern ourselves are frequently taken for granted as somehow being “the way it is”.  We all live by rules and constructs of engagement, and these are in our power to define and redefine. We cannot forget that while we stand on the shoulders of some huge efforts, there are more to come and more ground to travel to secure healthy ecosystems and healthy human communities at the same time. Conservation is a human endeavor and is completely defined by HOW we engage each other and make up the rules and how we share values. It is time to re-envision the rules of how we live with nature, and how we go about making this change. We can’t do this with passion. We need to do this with skill.

I think that even conservationists who are “fighting the good fight” forget that the way they approach a conservation problem often has to do with fighting over bits and pieces, the crisis of the day, or trying to push value systems on other people. I find acute irony in the fact that many very eager environmental advocates seek to change the value systems of other constituencies, while when challenged to change their own rule sets they refuse to budge. Why would someone unwilling to even think about more diverse, nuanced, or sophisticated conservation strategies have any projection of future change with outside entrenched constituencies? If we can’t broaden our minds, why would someone else? In fact, I argue that non-conservation constituencies are emboldened and further entrenched when challenged on their core values. Progress requires substantial leadership, robust and regular exercises of appraising effectiveness, articulated goals that can be achieved and measured, and finding common ground.

Conservation, at its core, is about maintaining ecological health in the face of human needs. It is incredibly disheartening to think about the ecological “death by a thousand cuts” that occurs every day, around the world, and that we are not up to the challenges of sweeping, substantial, and immediate change in human behavior. Voicing our values is not enough. Reconstituting ourselves to contextual realities, being attentive to varying value demands, and being much more strategic in any conservation problem is required. The tough part is people do not like incremental change, or complex situations. I believe, cynically, that at this point, many conservation problems are so tangled up with conflicting value demands and nuance that we (conservationists) do not have the capacity to deal with these complexities. We need leaders who can “turn the ship”, and “turning the ship” requires much more substantial skill sets, appraisals, and nimble strategies than the resource-starved, skill-starved, but passion-rich conservation groups we are today.

CG:  So the changes you are asking us to consider run the spectrum from the community level to our institutions and how they are governed.  I wonder if we might be most effective at the community or regional level?  For instance, the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem Education Consortium has drawn together a regional community of those who care for the “Crown”.  NRCC’s work in reaching out to those who love the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem has certainly gone a long way to identifying the regional community members.  What do you see as the next step?

JW:  Building community around shared goals is a critical first and ongoing step. The work being done in the Crown is certainly necessary to achieve some sort of critical mass for further deliberation and focus. I and others argue that true progress means being very explicit and focused on not debating values, but instead, sharing power and goal clarification with others who have different perspectives but stake in the outcomes of any case. We need to build much more robust “arenas for discourse” that do not currently exist. Far too often, contention surrounding conservation issues takes place inside varying “camps” of like minded-people, and via the press, which tends to highlight acrimony rather than shared interests. All too often, when people are asked “what is the problem?” the “opposition” or perceived resistance is seen as the problem, when in fact “the problem” is indeed a ground-based practical conservation problem, not the “other”. This means there is room to engage “the other” in much more constructive ways. Importantly, I am fully aware of how naive this sounds and how difficult this is. It IS incredibly difficult for all of us to not express our value demands and identity via our associations and comfort with those of our camp, and it is very difficult to set aside the baggage of this and focus on problems that can be defined as being shared with the opposition. As I mentioned earlier, we need to reach out to find people who have the wherewithal to engage in difficult facilitation and leadership roles to REDEFINE how conservation problems are perceived and addressed. There are some great examples out there of bold attempts to reframe conservation problems, but PROCESS success is difficult to establish and maintain.  We need to continue efforts to formally and informally build community, and identify process intervention points via shared and open deliberation of more stakeholders. Building capacity for inter-organizational and inter-interest leadership remains an acute need (for example, we need people to promote better aggregate process in addition to the well-worn paths of promoting the individual organizations and special interests we traditionally promote). We need to convene safe, transparent, and pragmatic sessions to focus on goals, and embed inter-organizational appraisals on our collective strategies (if what we are doing does not work, do we understand why it doesn’t? What can we change to increase odds of success?). We need to increase our individual scope to include more comprehensive awareness and response to context-specific trends, other players, and continued value demands being expressed every day through the broken system of this all playing out in closed-door camps and in the media. We need to take more responsibility for the process.

CG:  If the process of conservation is to “build community around shared goals”, how do we go about that?

JW:  Identifying and securing shared goals is a very difficult proposition, particularly with conservation issues that tend to precipitate high emotion. Convening safe arenas for people to share perspectives and values is one way to do this, but this takes time since trust and openness are something that needs to be built, not assumed. By “safe” I mean venues where people will not be outnumbered or made to feel powerless or disrespected, but genuinely listened to.  Convening stakeholders and allowing people to express their standpoints and then move on to at least group consensus on procedural goals (transparency, fairness, openness, factual, follow through, etc.) and substantive goals (x acres of habitat conserved, X number of carnivore conflicts reduced, X growth in the distribution of native species, X less impact on a stakeholders values, etc.) is a place to start. We need many more safe forums to help people think critically about problems, and stay focused on the true goals at play, and not fighting over the process.

CG:  Educational programs that are geared toward learning about the places where we live might be a logical place to start.  And citizen science projects that identify, recognize, and monitor local wildlife and habitat can help to illuminate conservation issues on a local and regional basis.  Do you think that education about the places where we live might have a place in conservation?

JW:  Absolutely. But I don’t know if it is enough.

I argue this not to be problematic, but to ferret out some opportunities to enhance the impact of environmental education on conservation outcomes. One thing that is very difficult to achieve in many conservation contexts is clarity about conservation goals in the mileu of value demands and expressions of participants. These take the form of self-preservation (individually or organizationally), demands for respect, and outright goal inversion. In an off the cuff example of goal inversion, one could imagine an environmental group raising money by using the symbolism of animals like the grizzly bear to raise money for an organization that, yes, is theoretically involved in grizzly bear conservation, but the bulk of the dollars go towards maintaining the bureaucracy of the organization and more precisely, maintaining the organization’s promotional exercises (“help save the grizzly bear by supporting our organization” and producing more flyers) rather than directed consequences towards the assumed goal of preserving grizzly bears.  Promotion of a value position does not equal a conservation outcome.  I argue that the goal in the extreme example I made up here is one of organizational preservation, not fact-based or specific conservation outcomes. It appears that promotion exercises are mistaken for conservation consequence. I think every non-profit organization, including my own, struggle with this balance between promotion, standpoint, and measurable real-world results.

My point is that clear, widely understood goals and associated metrics of success towards those goals (increased promotional success-media outputs-does NOT necessarily equal the conservation of grizzly bears) can be difficult to define, and how environmental education can lead to measurable conservation success may be an area that can be attended to in a much more robust way, especially in the context of complex problems and the messy definition of those problems that exist independently of environmental education.

I DO intuitively feel the notion of helping people understand their environment may lead to better conservation outcomes (maybe in terms of personal choices), but when being pragmatic about it, the direct mechanism for change is difficult for me to see. The connection between the two seems vague and unmeasurable. I think leaders in environmental education have an opportunity to further define how environmental education efforts lead to sound conservation outcomes (with specific examples, for example, ‘we trained X number of people on aquatic diversity, and X people became involved in the management of X river, and the management of X river was changed for the better in the following ways based on the surge in activity of the X people we trained). These examples must exist, and I certainly stand to be better informed on this link.

CG:  I am wondering what the relationship is between conservation and environmental education and if there is a possibility of collaboration that might broaden the bases?

JW:  I presume that what you mean by broadening the bases is a process stage of building much more robust and active conservation constituencies, with the idea that this could ultimately lead to major management and human behavior paradigm shifts. I wholeheartedly agree that major shifts in how humans relate to nature need to occur in very significant and immediate ways. I am admittedly naïve in terms of how people involved in environmental education see their efforts as translating into conservation progress overall. There may be some opportunities for somebody or some organizations to take the lead on exploring the explicit intersections between environmental ed and conservation consequence, by convening forums that include environmental educators and conservation practitioners. These relationships can be explored in detail, highlighting past and current successes on the link between the two, and identifying current and future opportunities to make the link more robust and explicit. I don’t mean to go over the top here, but clear and persistence goal clarification could be important, such as convening a conference or interactive forum that explicitly states the goal of generating conservation success through environmental education. The key is being clear that a specific case is being made that conservation is the goal, and environmental education is and could be a great way to actualize this.  There may be a leadership vacuum on this exact course of action, and it may be difficult to get multiple organizations to participate regularly. It is difficult to get people to respond to things that appear to be beyond their day to day purview or job duty; maybe some thought can be given to how this kind of exploration can be institutionalized with some key groups, so that this effort is in fact a priority and resourced activity (part of someone’s job). This may require some thoughtful and strategic conversations with leaders of the key groups one wishes to involve in such an effort. Outlining a compelling need and plan is important to grab the attention of current conservation and environmental education leaders, to develop a shared vision on how collaboration can be accelerated and defined. As a start, one could inquire (in an active way through personal visits and phone calls) with existing leadership if people feel there is a need to accelerate the link between environmental education and conservation outcomes, and if so, how would we do this? Is it true that there is a latent and powerful relationship between the two that could have a significant impact? What opportunities are out there? A comprehensive and directed inquiry to environmental educators, I think would be first, conservation practitioners second. I presume that conservation oriented folks would say, yes, we need every opportunity we have, while I would guess that environmental educators would claim that their efforts do lead to conservation outcomes. The key is pressing env educators about how this is measured and how it can be improved.

CG:   Your work with wolverines is fascinating and I loved the program you presented at the library in Ketchum –  you packed the room!  Tell us about that work and the tour designed to reach out to northern Rockies communities with the program about wolverines and the organizations who helped sponsor the tour.

wolverineJW:  A handful of folks have been on tour around the Rockies talking to people about wolverines. What we’re trying to do is build a public constituency interested in their conservation, and that starts with an appreciation of the animal. I and my colleagues have presented in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado, and Canada, and we’re working on more speaking opportunities around the country. I’ve been lucky to be able to be a part of wolverine field research for over 10 years in Glacier and Yellowstone (in partnership with the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and numerous other agencies and independent partners), and in that time, we’ve learned a lot about these elusive animals and what makes them tick, but we have a long way to go.  A recent documentary came out and a book (The Wolverine Way by Douglas Chadwick), and with that and other information and imagery that was previously unavailable, we’ve been able to get wolverines on people’s radar at a level not seen before.  Wolverines are currently a candidate species for listing under the Endangered Species Act, but moving forward on a recovery plan may be difficult due to how hard it is to study them and learn about their ecology with enough detail to make prescriptive conservation policy. We are really trying to increase the profile of this animal to generate attention and resources to leverage enhanced research and subsequent sound population management policy. Wolverines are a naturally rare and widely dispersed species that roam across jurisdictional lines constantly. Sound stewardship of wolverines and their habitats will require conservation planning on a much wider scale than has been seen before with this species, and a much better understanding of how population level threats might affect this species.  We’re working hard to generate interest and resources to support wolverine research and conservation, and we hope to accelerate our reach. This is a native species that requires more attention.

Patagonia funded the tour. It was done in partnership too with Center for Native Ecosystems, Denver Zoo, NOLS, Winter Wildlands Alliance, Idaho Conservation League, Defenders of Wildlife, Colorado Mountain Club, REI, Walking Mountains Science Center, Wilderness Workshop, Wild Earth Guardians, and Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival.

CG:  Do you have any recommendations for the conservation community or environmental educators?

JW:  We need to keep our energy up and keep working hard, but we need to embrace opportunities to think with more strategic scope on what our aggregate efforts mean. Our colleagues have worked very diligently and very hard for many years and we need to keep it up. Learning opportunities are all around us, and we need institutional support to be able to actualize, embrace, and incorporate these. Capacity building needs to integrate learning and opportunities that are beyond the day-to-day grind.  Leaders need to emerge with new ideas, energy, scope, and resources.  Thank you to everyone!!

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Chris Gertschen is the founder and former director of the Sawtooth Science Institute. She is conducting a series of talks with the leaders of conservation in the west to get their perspectives on the relationship between conservation and environmental education. Read her introduction here.

NRCC conserves species & ecosystems by:

  • generating reliable ecological information
  • analyzing complex policy problems
  • bridging science & policy for practical solutions
  • building trust & facilitating dialogue among diverse interests
  • creating learning networks for conservation practitioners
  • developing leadership & analytical skills
  • fostering creative & interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving

The Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative is a public, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to the conservation of species, ecosystems, and human communities.  NRCC was created to illuminate changes in our natural surroundings and communities, and to encourage new strategies and partnerships for conservation that clarify and secure common interest outcomes.

Since 1987, NRCC has merged expertise from the ecological sciences with an understanding of human communities. This intersection between ecological science and social context is where NRCC makes its greatest contributions.

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