Cat Got Your Tongue?

A recent discussion about a new shorebird conservation strategy for the Caribbean, and the debate about the respective roles of the natural and social sciences in such a “business” strategy, is apropos beyond this argument of the moment. The House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee has contributed its portion of a draconian budget that will be used in negotiations with the Obama administration. The Republican-led committee has made no effort to hide the most significant assaults on conservation and environmental protection programs in the past four decades. Here are a few of the cuts that are being proposed.

  • Cuts funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which supports land acquisition, habitat protection, and outdoor recreation, by 80% compared to the current year. This cut bars agencies from acquiring any land, including in-holdings within the boundaries of existing national parks or wildlife refuges.
  • Reduces funding to operate and maintain national wildlife refuges to $455 million, which is nearly $38 million less than this year and $47 million less than the Fish and Wildlife Service requested. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Service would be forced to close as many as 140 wildlife refuges nationwide if the final refuge budget is cut by this deeply.
  • The Fish and Wildlife Service would be barred from listing any new plant or animal as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act or from designating habitat that is essential for the recovery of species that are already listed.
  • EPA would be blocked from issuing, revising, or implementing any guidance or regulation to restore Clean Water Act protections for streams, wetlands, and other waters.
  • Eliminates all funding for the State Wildlife Grants program.
  • Cuts the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Budget by 27 percent. That’s a total of 34 percent cut in the last three years.
  • Eliminates all funding for the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.
  • Eliminates all funding for the Neotropical Migratory Bird Fund.
  • Eliminates all funding for Landscape Conservation Cooperatives.
  • Eliminates funding for wildlife refuge expansions and new wildlife refuges.
  • The bill includes $967 million for the USGS, a $101 million cut below the fiscal year 2013 level (-9%). Reductions are in climate change, ecosystems, and administrative accounts, while programs dealing with energy and minerals, mapping, and water are prioritized.

This budget will not pass the Senate or be accepted by the administration. However, this is a marker that will be used in negotiations. Without a ball-busting outcry, the administration will assume that there is little concern about these cuts and therefore will not hold the line and defend these programs.

Here are links to additional information about these budget proposals, and a link to comment directly to the House subcommittee.

Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

The Izaak Walton League of America

Outdoor Life

Contact form for House Appropriations Committee

The natural sciences are not going to save us from these nimrods. We can continue to monitor and study and plan until nothing is left to monitor or study or plan for. But if we sincerely believe that there must be a more effective response, a way to engage the public in these important policy debates, then the social sciences are demanded.

Politics is a social science. Communications is a social science. Economics is a social science. Interpretation is a social science and an art. The debate we face over conservation funding will demand all of these. The fact that conservation agencies and nonprofit organizations have struggled with embracing this notion does not absolve them from action in the future. You can only play stupid for so long.

Brad Andres of the USFWS recently charged (in the context of the nascent shorebird conservation plan) that I “bring issues and think a bird trail answers the communities [sic] questions.” Yes, I bring issues (or at least elucidate them). Yes, I believe that a birding trail in the Caribbean does answer a few important questions, although not all that a community might ask. Yet, here is an example of where the natural scientist has missed the social importance (and intent) of one of Society for the Conservation and Study of Caribbean Birds (SCSCB) keystone projects (all trees, no forest). More importantly, this is a SCSCB project that is provably successful. Provably.

A birding trail is a way to engage the public in birds. Period. I am perfectly willing to ignore the economic impacts in the context of the discussion. But I am not willing to pass on the opportunity to clarify the underlying values of an interpretive platform such as a birding trail. Want other examples in the US? Try scenic byways, national heritage trails, national recreation trails, national historical trails, blue water trails, hike-and-bike trails, rails-to-trails, etc. All function with essentially the same strategy in mind. Get people engaged in the resource; invite them to become involved in the conservation of these special places.

The Caribbean Birding Trail (CBT) has already acted on this promise and premise. When we began the CBT, the SCSCB Facebook page had around 600 followers (“likes”). Today the organization is nearing 1600 “likes.” The CBT Facebook page did not exist until this project started, yet today we have over 600 “likes.” In the communication and engagement profession, these are metrics that matter. In order to interpret, we need an audience to interpret for.

In the past two years the CBT team (Lisa Sorenson, Holly Robertson, and myself) has worked in the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, and Grenada. Why these three nations? Simple. This is the only funding available for beginning this work. The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) funded our work in a select number of Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) in those countries, and without any additional funding we were (and are) limited to those locations. Without CEPF we would be exactly nowhere.

We still were able to find other ways to help with community development, interpretation, and engagement, however. I returned to Jamaica last November and worked with Michael Schwartz and Windsor Research Centre to help Falmouth better understand the need for sustainable economic development and planning in that region. Recently I developed an avitourism plan for Antigua & Barbuda and conducted a workshop with the Environmental Awareness Group for local outfitters and public officials. Even with little funding, we have found ways to continue to engage the public, through the CBT, in bird conservation.

Lisa, Holly, and I have been able to meet directly with a diversity of elected officials about sustainable development and bird conservation in every country where we have worked.   We have participated in dozens of workshops and meetings around the Caribbean with the same consistent message. The CBT has opened doors and provided the interpretive platform for delivering that message,

And how do we get this done with so little financial support? Simple. Do you like the CBT webpage? Pro bono. We now have thousands of images that we have made available to our partners for their needs. Pro bono. Facebook? Pro bono. Web hosting? Pro bono. Organizational tools to keep the project moving forward like Basecamp and Formstack? Pro bono.

Has it worked? The public that we engage has grown by orders of magnitude. SCSCB has already conducted its first NAI-certified guide training workshop in Grenada. I recently wrote an article about birding in Antigua & Barbuda for the Nature Travel Network, and I am planning on writing about the Cockpit Country of Jamaica next. Our partners around the Caribbean are asking when they will be included in the CBT. Need help with identifying those shorebirds in the conservation plan? The CBT has already created a gallery of more than 150 shorebird images to help. Cost? Pro bono.

With all of this going on we still found the time to write a 200-page report on the CBT for our funders and partners. The report contains the interpretive strategy, an assessment of the sustainable and birding tourism markets in the Caribbean, and a framework for integrating bird conservation into the CBT interpretive strategy.

Now bird conservation is faced with a concerted effort in the US to undermine many of the programs that the Caribbean has depended on for funding. This is not about CBT funding. To my knowledge the CBT has never received a cent from any of these programs administered by agencies such as the USFWS. I know that the USFWS has helped fund Lisa (executive director for the SCSCB) in the past, but I believe that is ending or has ended as well. But if the CBT is an interpretive platform to engage the public in bird conservation, then an attack on bird conservation is an attack on the CBT. And, trust me, this is an attack.

Where does the CBT go next? In this moment when outreach platforms such as the CBT are so critical, how do we expand on what has been accomplished? Good question. I hope that Lisa, Holly, and the SCSCB will continue to scrap for funding to keep the effort afloat.

Funding from agencies is obscured, shrouded in an unspoken rule that “hush-hush” is the accepted business practice. If you are rejected, keep your mouth shut. You will be punished should you step beyond the  QT (I love that Danny Devito line from LA Confidential;  “off the record, on the QT, and very hush-hush.”

Now we come full circle. Ironic, isn’t it. Without a public outcry, without a political blow back, these very programs that fund the natural sciences and these scientists may disappear. The CBT is in place, and, to be blunt, those in the natural sciences are nuts to not take advantage of what it has to offer. Lisa and Holly are more than capable of taking the CBT to the limits of its potential. The platform is in place (at least partially) and the audience is waiting for someone to speak.

Still doubtful? Do you remember Rachael Carson’s scientific publications, or Silent Spring? What about Leopold’s copious papers, or Sand County Almanac? Teddy Roosevelt at one time wanted to be an ornithologist, but his foray into politics is what set the stage for conservation in this country.

Cat got your tongue? Who’re you gonna call? A biologist?


One thought on “Cat Got Your Tongue?

  1. The accomplishments of your team with the establishment of the CBT are laudable. I do not see your being financially compensated for some of your effort as an issue. What does concern me is I see (perhaps I am missing something?) the approach to bird conservation in the Caribbean as a disjointed, fragmented effort. Are all the various projects creating a synergistic force that will result in real change? While normally I believe to much time, money and effort is devoted to plans in this case I think such a road map is needed. Saving a wetland here, have a school program there, and a trail on a few islands by themselves does not do much. Uniting all the efforts into one holistic effort and then approaching financial juggernauts like the tourism industry might provide the movement with enough momentum to enact regional change….my two-cents.

Leave a Reply