Opening Remarks by Steve Williams at the 81st North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference

Opening Remarks by Steve Williams at the 81st North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference


Welcome to the 81st North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference. WMI thanks you and all the conference partners, special session chairs and speakers, exhibitors, and state agency sponsors, who are critical to making this conference successful. I also offer special thanks to John Arway and Matt Hough for their welcome to Pennsylvania address.

During the last few years, WMI has significantly expanded our conservation portfolio. We now assist in the administration of five Landscape Conservation Cooperatives and manage two Multistate Conservation Grants to enhance the industry/agency partnership and to help develop a National Hunting and Shooting Sports Strategic Plan. WMI has secured numerous competitive grants to enhance landscape scale conservation. We have developed contracts and cooperative agreements with state and federal agencies to assist them in conservation projects. WMI has also provided independent review and evaluation of agency programs for a number of state and federal agencies. These evaluations have identified program strengths and weaknesses and provided recommendations for agency consideration. Agency feedback has been positive and indicated that our efforts have enhanced agency performance. During the last eight years, WMI has transformed to become sustainable as an organization and to be more relevant to our profession and partners.

This morning's plenary session will focus on "relevancy" ? the relevancy of conservation. I believe that relevancy can be measured by the political and financial support for conservation. In spite of listening to most of the presidential debates, I have not heard any discussion of conservation issues. Federal spending on fish and wildlife conservation is one third of its level just 30-40 years ago. State agencies identify sustainable funding as their top priority. Society has become reliant on technology and social media and has become increasingly detached from nature. By all these measures and more, I believe our profession faces a crisis of relevancy, one that threatens sustainable funding and social and political support for the future.

Recognizing the urgent need for sustainable funding, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies designed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Sustaining America's Diverse Fish and Wildlife Resources. The Blue Ribbon Panel focused on identifying dedicated and sustained funding for the conservation of thousands of species identified in State Wildlife Action Plans. Former Wyoming Governor Dave Freudenthal and Bass Pro Shop's founder Johnny Morris co-chaired the Panel. Other members of the Blue Ribbon Panel included national leaders in fish and wildlife conservation, business, energy, manufacturing, and agriculture. This collection of diverse stakeholders was unprecedented and necessary to find a practical solution to the conservation funding challenges facing the nation.

The Blue Ribbon Panel's recommendations were to redirect a portion of the existing revenues from the development of energy and mineral resources on federal lands and waters, providing a sustainable trust fund capable of investing $1.3 billion annually for conservation. The Panel developed legislative language and identified opportunities for increased funding within the current congressional session. Conservation efforts focused on species at risk would increase species survival and habitat quality while reducing the risk and uncertainty for business and industry. In addition, Blue Ribbon Panel members will continue their work by evaluating conservation relevancy and the means to enhance that relevancy.

That brings me to my concluding remarks. For the last five years, I talked about the need for our profession to resonate with and be more relevant to the public. This year, I return to that message.

As I stated, it appears that conservation has lost some of its relevancy. Perhaps environmental legislation passed in the 1970s, such as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, have led the nation to believe that important environmental issues have already been addressed. Or, maybe the world has changed.

The world has changed dramatically since we started our careers. The human population has increased, demographics have changed, urbanization has increased, technology and social media have consumed our culture, and as a nation we have become largely detached from nature. As a profession, we have done an admirable job improving our biological science knowledge. However, the loss of relevancy is a function of our inability to understand the social impacts of a changing world. There are other disciplines to consider. The incorporation of economics, politics, sociology, demography, marketing, culture, and education will have more of an impact on the relevancy of conservation than do the articles in our scientific journals.

If we want to enhance the relevancy of conservation, we need to communicate the benefits of conservation in a way that gets people's attention. First we need to recognize that "people" and their needs and desires are the keys to the door ? we need to better understand what drives "people" to behave or act, and we need a stronger understanding and respect for economies, communities, and cultures. Our conservation programs should be culturally relevant, address issues of public concern, engage technology in outreach, base public opinion on scientifically sound surveys, employ marketing, and consider the economics of conservation. Natural resource conservation provides a large return on investment because of the multitude of public benefits that it provides.

I believe that our profession needs to transform its structure, programs, and messages to be relevant to the entire public. Our talk is wildlife-centric in a world that is human-centric. We need to explain habitat conservation by referring to ecosystem services rather than our ability to produce so many ducks per acre or bucks per square mile. We provide: clean water, clean air, flood retention, ground water recharge, biodiversity, climate moderation, pollinators, and recreation. All of these services ultimately promote physical and mental well-being. That is what people really care about. That is what makes conservation relevant and that is what will sustain and support our work.

These benefits resonate with the American public, rural and urban alike. These benefits will drive public engagement, political support, and financial support for conservation. They will provide public health benefits, quality of life benefits, and ultimately enhance further conservation efforts. It is a matter of increasing conservation's relevancy to the public.

It is very simple, if we are not relevant to society, we will be irrelevant. I leave you with this quote from General Eric Shinseki, "If you don't like change, you're going to like irrelevance even less." 

Thank you for participating in this conference and I thank you for your dedication to fish and wildlife conservation.

March 16, 2016