Go play outside. It’s a phrase many children hear from their parents. I’m willing to bet most anglers and hunters heard those words growing up. Enjoying the outdoors also started early for me. I grew up in the house my mom grew up in. It wasn’t in a traditional neighborhood, we lived adjacent to a farm which was donated to the County and turned into a park. Ball fields were built on the far side of the farm, but near my house it was an abandoned farm, and my playground.
There were many times I longed to ride my bike to a neighbor’s house or play football with a large group of friends at the park. There were three nearby houses and one friend my age who moved away in middle school. Once the farm was dedicated as a park, a fence was put up around the property, creating what seemed like an unknown, forbidden world just out my backyard.
I found a hole in the fence I could squeeze through and explore. At first, I was afraid to stray out of sight from my escape route and any sound I couldn’t quickly identify sent me scrambling back home. But with time, and having some visiting friends join my adventure, my courage and confidence grew. Eventually we found an abandoned farm pond, teaming with turtles and bluegill with a few largemouth bass and at least one toothy pickerel.
My time crawling through the fence in my outdoor adventures built a foundation of outdoor enthusiasm. Even though I was ignorant of it at the time, the conservation of the farm and limited conversion to active recreation ballfields allowed agricultural fields to lay fallow and change before my eyes. I watched as nature took over what was once cropland and pasture. In some cases, invasive species, such as bamboo, established and thrived. Other fields were slowly enclosed by a canopy of growing box elders, black willows, and red maples. Abandoned drain tiles filled and farmed wetlands reestablished rushes and sedges. Scars of the former land use remained but I observed the changing trajectory of the vegetation over the 7-8 years I explored the park. Fishing in the pond and spending time on the farm built an optimism in me for conservation and environmental advocacy in my future.
National Geographic defines conservation as the practice of caring for air, water, soil, minerals, plants, and animals so all living things can benefit from them now and in the future. Caring for our resources involves preservation, protection, and management. Within a developing world, with opposing viewpoints on property rights, government oversight, and even science, nurturing natural resources is a complicated endeavor. Lots of teamwork, skill sets, and optimism are required to meet the challenge.
Fishing and conservation are deeply connected. In 1922, The Izaak Walton League was established by anglers in Chicago, Illinois who wanted to preserve fishing opportunities for future generations. In 1959, Trout Unlimited was founded in Michigan, to conserve freshwater streams and rivers. Each of these organizations have completed many projects and connected thousands of people to educational, recreational, and conservation efforts nationally.
Nonprofit organizations are a vital cog in conservation. Nonprofits of different missions and sizes serve different purposes, all driven by donations intended to benefit society. Watershed associations and Riverkeepers serve as watch dogs advocating for protecting local resources. Land trusts facilitate the preservation of land through conservation easements and long-term stewardship, including financial management needed to complete the required activities. Larger nonprofit organizations support advocacy through policy development, legislation, and project development.
Government agencies are often ridiculed as overly bureaucratic and ineffective by our cynical society. It’s been my experience that environment staff in Federal, State, and Local Government are committed to caring for the resources of their jurisdictions and responsibilities. They are passionate, well-educated, and hard-working. Responsibilities of policy development, regulation enforcement, and capital improvement delivery are not always popular, but necessary. These dedicated conservationists deserve respect and appreciation.
Engineering, applied science, planning, and landscape companies also fill a role in conservation by performing monitoring, assessment, design and permitting services. Colleges, universities, and research entities advance scientific understanding and educate future conservationists.
Within nonprofits, government agencies, and corporations there are countless roles needed to continue to care for our natural resources. These groups must work together to implement effective policies and projects. Growing populations strain housing and food availability. Climate change will impact natural resources, infrastructure, and land use. Balancing development and land use with resource management takes discipline, knowledge, and effective communication. My time outside during my childhood established a conservation ethic within me and my continued time on the river fly fishing reinforces it. For all living things to benefit from our natural resources in the future, I hope we can find more people who care and can collaborate with all the partnerships in conservation.