By Mark Tercek, The Nature Conservancy's President and CEO.
Earth Day is tomorrow. Yes, people and nature around the world face grim threats due to rising temperatures, increasingly frequent and intense natural disasters and increased demand for food, water, land and energy. But before you get too depressed, let me explain why this Earth Day, I’m optimistic.
Poll after poll shows immensely broad and diverse support for conservation. We have seen a surge in protected areas around the world. More and more communities are incorporating nature into their planning to reduce risks from natural disasters. Outside the U.S., climate change is at the forefront of many national agendas and has transcended political divisions. And thanks to advances in science and technology, we know more about the environmental challenges we face than ever before—and how to address them.
So what can we do to build on this momentum to keep April 22 as a day to celebrate?
The complex challenges we face require a broad array of solutions. And I say the more solutions the better—it's encouraging to know that a diverse community of environmental NGOs is addressing these challenges from a variety of angles. While our approaches may differ, we are all working toward the same ultimate goal: a verdant, healthy planet where both people and nature thrive.
How are we approaching this goal here at The Nature Conservancy? I like to sum up our work in three words: protect, transform and inspire.
One of the environmental movement's main strategies has always been to directly protect and restore important places. That might mean rebuilding an oyster reef, replanting a forest or restoring a grassland. This work is critical.
Now we are increasingly focusing our efforts on whole landscapes, watersheds and seascapes, zeroing in on a handful of places around the world where we believe there is an opportunity to catalyze transformative change.
Take the Adirondacks, for example. In 2007 we completed a historic $110 million deal to purchase 161,000 acres of timberland in the heart of the park. Since then we have developed a complex plan for the land that balances the needs of wildlife, loggers, local businesses and the tens of thousands of residents and millions of visitors who use Adirondacks for recreation. The resulting combination of preserves, easements and working lands is increasingly what “protect” looks like in conservation today, where large-scale actions and close collaborations with local stakeholders are the keys to long-term success.
At the same time, we are always seeking new ways to accomplish our mission. Buying and protecting land—even at the scale of projects like the one in the Adirondacks—won't be enough on its own.
One of our newer strategies is helping others use nature more sustainably—including those with big environmental footprints. With smart science, we have the opportunity to help transform the way businesses, governments and communities use nature.
In Latin America, for example, bottling company FEMSA has teamed up with The Nature Conservancy, the Inter-American Development Bank and the Global Environment Facility to expand a successful model we developed in Quito, Ecuador. The strategy, which we call a water fund, provides a mechanism through which utility companies, breweries and other downstream users voluntarily provide funding for the conservation of forests and watersheds upstream. The result is a triple win: companies save money by avoiding the need for costly industrial water treatment, water is kept clean and flowing for local communities and important wildlife habitat is protected.
To scale up the strategies I've described above, we need more people on our side. Many of us, myself included, love nature for its own sake. That's an important reason for protecting it. But reaching beyond our core supporters will require tapping into other values and motivations.
The good news: most people already recognize the many benefits that nature provides to people. In one recent poll, 9 out of 10 Americans ranked nature's benefits as “extremely" or "very important." Leveraging this support may be as simple as changing the way we talk about conservation.
That's why we are increasingly framing our work around nature's value. In addition to its intrinsic worth, nature provides us with a whole host of benefits, from healthy air, water and soil to protection from floods and storms to green spaces that cool down urban areas.
And finally, we need to invest in tomorrow's conservation leaders. That starts with getting young people outside. For example, The Nature Conservancy's Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) program provides urban high school students with paid summer internships alongside The Nature Conservancy scientists in natural areas around the country. The program is making a difference. Surveys show that 34 percent of LEAF alumni go on to pursue careers in conservation, six times more than the national average. And over 50 percent go on to volunteer for environmental causes—a rate ten times higher than the national average. And, The Nature Conservancy’s Growing Leaders on Behalf of the Environment (GLOBE) program provides similar paid internships, only at the college level, in our offices across the country.
So what can you do this Earth Day to help protect, transform and inspire?
First, support the environmental organization of your choice. Even the best ones are severely under-resourced relative to the opportunities they face. According to the Global Canopy Programme, the current financial need to support global conservation efforts is approximately $290 billion per year. However, only about $51 billion is devoted to these activities annually, primarily from public and philanthropic sources.
Second, get engaged. Volunteer for your favorite conservation organization, or contact your public officials to show your support for public funding for conservation. Often when I visit with members of Congress, I get the impression that they don't think their voters care about environmental issues. This couldn't be farther from the truth. Make your voice heard—call your Congressman, write to your Senator or attend a town hall meeting. You can make a difference for the programs that protect our national parks and landmarks, our national wildlife areas, our coasts and waterways.
Third, get young kids outdoors. A recent survey funded by Disney shows that 82 percent of parents think nature is “very important” for kids, but most kids spend as little as two hours outside per week. If you want some fun ideas to get kids outside, consider The Nature Conservancy’s Nature Rocks program, which provides tips and outdoor activities for families.
This Earth Day, I hope you enjoy some time outside in your backyard, local park, or natural area. We can all feel good about the direction conservation is moving, but we can’t stand still. With your help, the next Earth Day will be even better.