Dearth Day, or the Erosion of the American Conservation Conscience (Part 1)

Better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.
– Edward Abbey

A new HuffPost/YouGov poll reports that Americans are less concerned about the environment than in 1971, the year after the initiation of Earth Day. According to the article in HuffPost,

…the 1971 Nixon poll found that 63% of respondents said that it was “very important” to work to restore and enhance the national environment, with 25% saying it was “fairly important” and only 8% saying it was “not too important.” But in the 2013 HuffPost/YouGov poll, only 39% of respondents said it was very important, while 41% said it was fairly important and 16% said it was not too important.”

“Similarly, 56% of respondents to the Nixon poll said that federal spending to enhance and restore our national environment should be increased, while only 4% thought it should be decreased and 30% said it should be kept at present levels. In the HuffPost/YouGov poll, only 29% said that such spending should be increased and 33% said it should be decreased, while 26% said it should be kept at present levels.”

The U.S. population grew dramatically from 1970 to 2012, from 203 million to 313 million. A slight decline in market share can still represent an increase in an absolute number when the market itself is growing. Yet political power is about body count. According to this survey, the environment lost market share in the forty years since Earth Day began. Why?

In 1955, 10% of the U.S. population age 16 and older hunted; by 2006, that number was just 5% (again, market share).In 1971, there were 2.4 million U.S. waterfowl hunters; in 2011, there were around 1.2 million. There were 2.4 million duck stamps sold in 1970; in 2011, 1.5 million were sold.

In 1955, 33.16 million Americans fished. Fishing grew to involve 49.8 million Americans by 1985, yet the most recent survey, 2011, shows that fishing is now at 1955 levels (33.1 million). The US population almost doubled in the same period.

Amendments to the Pittman-Robertson Act were passed in the 1970s that “created a 10% tax on handguns and their ammunition and accessories as well as an 11% tax on archery equipment. It was also mandated that half of the money from each of those new taxes must be used to educate and train hunters through the creation and maintenance of hunter safety classes and shooting/target ranges.

The Sport Fish Restoration Act (Dingell-Johnson Act) has been amended numerous times during this period. Monies from DJ can also be used to educate and recruit anglers.

Since the 1970s agencies and organization have spent tens of millions of dollars on hunter and angler recruitment. Entire industries have been constructed around the idea that we need to develop new hunters and anglers. Yet, when viewed through the lens of engagement and the percent of recreational involvement, it is hard to imagine an industry under performing to such a degree. Simply put, this strategy has failed.

Trends in Hunting and Fishing (in millions)
Trends in Hunting and Fishing (in millions)

For example, in 1970 there were 2.4 million waterfowl hunters. If the growth in waterfowl hunting had simply kept pace with population growth, there would be around 4.4 million waterfowl hunters today. The hunters would be purchasing 4.4 million duck stamps. Yet in 2011 there were only 1.2 million waterfowl hunters and 1.5 million duck stamps sold (the difference of 300,000 being birders and other recreationists, I suppose). What have been lost are 3.2 million potential waterfowl hunters in the same period that waterfowl populations rebounded.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) didn’t begin measuring what we would recognize as birding (wildlife watching away from home) until 1991. Previous surveys were found to be too liberal in the definition of wildlife watching. We can only look at birding in the aggregate (lumping at home and away from home together). However, the aggregate estimates do indicate a similar (if less precipitous) trend.

In 1991 there were 60.6 million birders in the US. In 2011 this declined to 46.7 million. I do question the 1991 estimate; the 1996 number (49.3 million) seems more in line with what we have experienced. If we use the 1996 estimate, then birding has marginally declined over the past two decades. As with hunting, this decline is magnified by population growth.

For comparison, there were 76.1 million wildlife watchers in 1991, with 30 million traveling more than one mile from home to watch, feed, and photograph wildlife. By 2001, that number had dropped to 66.1 million, with 21.8 million away-from-home watchers. In 2011, the number of wildlife watchers had risen to 71.8 million, with 22.5 million travelers. The population in the US grew by approximately 10% between 2001 and 2011. Wildlife watching grew during the same period approximately 9.2%. At least wildlife watching is keeping pace with population growth.

During the same period (1991 to the present) birding benefited from the initiation of Partners in Flight, eBird, Sibley’s field guide, birding trails, The Big Year, Pledge to Fledge, International Migratory Bird Day, and the Internet. The American Bird Conservancy and the ABA came into being as well. Where is the impact? Where is the real growth?

Conservation funding and outdoor recreation are inextricably linked. Conservation funding depends on the continuance of this relationship. Yet the risk that comes from such a dependency is when one fails the other fails with it. If outdoor participation decreases, specifically hunting and fishing, then so does conservation funding.

We can’t ask the general public to help. Look at the numbers. More people say we should decrease funding “to enhance and restore our national environment” than would increase it. The swing between the 4% that would decrease funding in 1970 to the 33% today is stunning, although certainly the economic condition of the country has an impact.

What about our organizations? ABC will say its business is bird conservation, not birding. Audubon is a broad-based conservation group as well, as are the Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, numerous land conservancies, and others. All do wonderful, productive work. But if we can’t grow the recreations or the resultant funding, or gather a political consensus,

How is the current model sustainable?

We have discussed this matter for decades. Nothing here is new. I remember this same discussion at the Partners in Flight conference in Cape May in 1995. The resource agencies and nonprofits focus on habitat and monitoring (both important), while engagement, outreach, and communications (even marketing) languish. The limited funding is invested in the former, while lip service (at best) is paid to the latter. The result is obvious. Read the numbers. This strategy too has failed.

Wildlife Watching (millions)
Wildlife Watching (millions)

Businesses often use the PDCA (Plan–Do–Check–Adjust) method of iterative implementation. W. Edwards Deming (who devised this approach) believed that rather than working to get it (a process) perfect the first time, it is better to be approximately right than exactly wrong. With the improved knowledge gained from an iteration, we may choose to refine or alter the goal (the ideal state).

Is the current model sustainable? No. Will minor tweaks, nips, and tucks be enough to get conservation back on track? No. The time has arrived for a new iteration.

Consider this example. The success of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan is undeniable. Waterfowl populations have soared since historic lows. Yet as waterfowl populations have risen, the number of waterfowl hunters has fallen. Hunters purchase duck stamps, and the revenues are invested in waterfowl conservation. The fewer duck stamps sold, the fewer dollars that are availablefor wetland restoration and conservation. Habitat restoration and population monitoring have succeeded, only to fail to engage the public.

What exactly has engaged the public during the ensuing years? The virtual world is tramping down the real.

In 1970, the first Earth Day, video games didn’t exist. Not until 1972 did Pong wheel into bars, the first video game to gain mass popularity. Pac-Man didn’t hit the market until 1980. In 1996, the U.S. entertainment software industry accounted for 74.1 million units sold and $2.6 billion in sales revenue. Fifteen years later, video game companies sold 245.6 million units, leading to an astounding $16.6 billion in software revenue and $24.75 billion overall.

In 1950, only 9% of American households owned a television set. By 1970 that percentage had grown to 97.1%. In 1970 American households spent 5 hours, 56 minutes per day watching television. By 2009 that had grown to 8 hours, 21 minutes.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post,

“today’s teens spend more than 7 1/2 hours a day consuming media — watching TV, listening to music, surfing the Web, social networking, and playing video games, according to a 2010 study of 8- to 18-year-olds conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Edward Abbey once noted that when the situation is hopeless, there’s nothing to worry about. I am worried, so the situation must not be hopeless. But where exactly do we find hope for nature, for the outdoors, given these ominous trends?

Trends as percentage of the population

Let’s return to wildlife watching. Next I will try to understand its successes, even if admittedly marginal. By wildlife watching I am obviously including birding, but we should also focus on those activities (such as wildlife photography) that are showing robust growth. Why should wildlife watching be so much more popular than hunting and fishing? What aspects of wildlife watching rend it fertile for growth?

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