Speech by the Director, U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service to: Leopold Conference

[NOTE: delivered on May 14, 1999 in Shepherdstown, West Virginia]


For those of you not familiar with the seasons in the Mid-Atlantic, you could see today that spring is one of the best times to be "East." I hope everyone has had a chance today to take in the sights, sounds, and aromas of an Appalachian Spring at NCTC. The kaleidoscopes of colorful wildflowers and the symphonic rhapsodies of Indigo Buntings and Wood Thrushes. I've heard that in the late spring and summer, during the evening, the meadows around the campus come alive with thousands of lightning bugs.

How many of you folks, as a kid, ran through a field illuminated with the green glow of lighting bugs? I'm sure many of you even captured them in a Mason jar. I did...

Last summer, my husband and I took an evening stroll through our neighborhood in Leesburg, Virginia. When we moved there six years ago, we had 50 homes in the community. Now there are more than 450. Most every field has been cleared and now, in early spring, we no longer hear woodcock peenting or doing their acrobatic aerial displays. What bluebirds remain in the area seem to be confused as to where to go and the goldfinches, well, they are searching for more fertile ground elsewhere. Our most common songster these days is the mockingbird it's repertoire of melodies of the other birds that should be around gives our neighbors a false sense that our few remaining fields and woodlots are full of birds. The spring peepers aren't peeping as much and the fireflies, as evidenced by our stroll that evening, are quickly becoming a memory as well.

I believe each and every one of you here tonight is well aware of our responsibilities as public land managers to take care of our nation's natural heritage. I also know that many of you have been embracing a land ethic approach to resource conservation for many years. But for some reason, I keep thinking about those fireflies and I wonder, are we doing enough, as much, for the fireflies as we have for the other critters that keep us company?

There should be no misperception that we are doing good things for the critters and the land. Our profession is full of proud individuals who have dedicated their lives to protecting our wildlife heritage. We, as a profession, have started incorporating into our work those simple steps that Leopold so gracefully wrote about. But is it enough? Not really. Can we do more? Definitely. Is this an easy approach to take? Not in the least. But are the rewards great? Well, if you like fireflies in the meadows and spring peepers in the ponds, then you know the rewards are infinite.

Government should be responsible for exemplifying the best in land stewardship. But it's not something that should come from a statute or a regulation. And it's not something that just came to forefront from the publication of ASCA, or the celebration of the original Earth Day, or the passage of the ESA.

Let me quote a passage:

...Before we plow an unfamiliar patch
It is well to be informed about the winds,
About the variations in the sky,
The Native traits and habits of the Place,
What each locale permits, and what denies.

This quote is from Virgil; the Georgics, circa 30 B.C. Quite a bit of time before Leopold, Muir, and Thoreau arrived on the scene. And this quote doesn't just apply to public land managers. I doubt there were many of them in 30 B.C.

Long before Leopold, the land ethic was and it still remains a matter of personal responsibility. For us, a land ethic requires a renewed perspective, a progressive attitude on how we look at and care for our natural world. A land ethic requires a fresh focus and approach in how we protect and conserve our natural heritage, and it requires a commitment on our part to take a much broader look at our wildlands. Just how do all the pieces fit? Should we really be doing something to the land before we really know what was there before we arrived on the scene? Government, private, corporate, and individual we all have a responsibility in some form to practice the land ethic.

For many of us here, we entered this profession because of our interest in the science of life. For a budding biologist, there is nothing sweeter than to be in the middle of marsh or a forest, counting things, watching things, and analyzing things.

But a land ethic involves and requires much more than just counting "widgets." It demands from us a passion from the heart for all things natural, wild, and free. For us in this profession, the heart strings should remain sensitive to the touch - to the touch of a stunning sunrise, a flock of sandhill cranes taking flight over a marsh, or an alligator basking along the shoreline of a cypress swamp. Each of these should create a sense of excitement in everyone of us.

Does it for you? Do you still revel in the splendor of a foggy morning along the coast? Are you still fascinated by the wonders of bird migrations? Does your heart still retain that sensitive touch to the natural gifts that each season brings to us? Are you still catching fireflies?

Sadly, I think at times, we have become too busy to notice that the passion we need is missing from our hearts. But I believe the spirit hasn't disappeared, instead it has gone into hibernation, waiting for us to re-ignite the spark that makes the heart soar for nature. As Leopold wrote, "One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds." For many of us, we do live in world of wounds and I suppose, we do become a bit weary from battling those that deem clean air, clean water, and wildlands as mere inconveniences. I know I certainly get weary at times. But there's a simple remedy to this; a way to renew the spirit: You guessed it: A summer evening, a sky filled with the diamond sparkles of a billion stars, a wild meadow, and fireflies. A Mason Jar is optional. But a child-like curiosity is required -- our spirit can't survive without it.

One of the most difficult things for us to accept is change, and our profession is no exception to this. Leopold wrote: "To change ideas about what land is for is to change ideas about what anything is for." With these words, he let us know that a change of attitude toward the land is a change so profound that it must take root in the human conscience. As I said earlier, this is not something the government can mandate. Nor should it. But as land managers for the stewardship of our nation's public lands, we do have a responsibility to care for our trust resources. For many in our public lands agencies, the change from a traditional view of the land to Leopold's land ethic was and remains a challenge. For some, it was a threat.

For the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we have made a commitment to ecosystem conservation. In 1994, the Service adopted the Ecosystem Approach to Fish and Wildlife Conservation, answering Leopold's call to treat the landscape as a community; a whole much greater that the sum of its parts. I am continually heartened by our folks in the Service that already have ingrained a sound land ethic in their hearts.

Our National Wildlife Refuge System, the largest and most comprehensive collection of lands in the world dedicated to the sole purpose of wildlife conservation, has made a drastic and positive transition in how they are managed. All species matter: from wading birds to waterfowl to neotropical migrants. From alligators to turtles to frogs. From trillium, to cacti, to koa. Instead of just creating and enhancing habitats, we are restoring and protecting the last of the best and the best of the rest. We have a long to go, but I'm proud of how all segments of the Service are working together for the refuge system.

As much as we the Service can do as an agency, it's still not enough. And as much as the Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service, and the Department of Defense accomplishes as public land managers, it's not enough either. We clearly cannot do it alone.

We as public land managers don't hold any special magic potions or keys to cure all that ails our landscapes. That we cannot do it alone is a concept that isn't new to any of us in this room, but it bears repeating. Without the support and participation of private landowners, the protection of our nation's wildlands and wildlife will be for naught.

Private landowners, after all, are important players on the landscape. Instead of conservation by the government, Leopold advocated a better alternative -- conservation by the people.

The proper role of government, therefore, is not to lead forcefully by imposing a land ethic, but rather to lead in another, more subtle way ... by promoting a land ethic and encouraging good stewardship practices. It is a role similar to the one Leopold assumed as professor. To his students, he would say: "I am trying to teach you that this alphabet of 'natural objects' (soils and rivers, birds and beasts) spells out a story, which [one] may read -- if he knows how. Once you learn to read the land, I have no fear of what you will do to it, or with it. And I know many pleasant things it will do to you."

Our challenge, then, is to encourage the public to embrace the land ethic. This is no easy task, considering more and more Americans are living in urban and suburban landscapes, where the comforts of civilization make it easier to take for granted the priceless value of the land. As Leopold noted: "There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace."

These spiritual dangers are growing increasingly prevalent as more and more, the daily land connection of our citizens is either limited to a suburban lawn or obstructed entirely by asphalt. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we re-connect the public to the land, so that the wisdom of the land ethic will be clear and meaningful to them.


That brings me to the central challenge we and our successors in conservation will face in the next millennium. With the growing human population and its need for resources, how will we preserve the landscape and its wild creatures? I heard recently that the carrying capacity of our planet is 11 billion, and that the world population has already topped 6 billion and is increasing exponentially. In a society where we protect the rights of individuals to lead their own lives, make their own decisions, and do what they wish on their own land, how can government save wild places and wild things -- especially with this booming population?

First, I believe it is our role to promote the land ethic by setting a good example ourselves. We need to manage our lands as models of conservation. Second, we need to give people good, accurate information about the state of our resources. Document changes, conduct research, get the information out there. And third, we need to find innovative ways to allow people to get involved in conservation.

The public desire to get involved in conservation is blossoming. It's all about joining forces, leveraging our expertise and our resources to effect maximum gains on the ground for long term natural resources conservation.


Innovative partnership efforts across the country are stimulating individual and community involvement in conservation, and in that way we are helping to instill a national conservation ethic. Although Leopold intended the land ethic as an individual and personal credo, we are strengthening its power by joining together to face the common moral obligation it sets forth.

We are now counting down the days to a new millennium. Are we on the right track? There is an essay in "ASCA" called Good Oak. In it, Leopold tells of sawing through an old oak tree. He describes the blade cutting into the trunk, traversing through the rings of history with each biting slice. What has this tree seen? The bootlegger of the Great Depression who destroyed the soil. The systematic draining of wetlands for the sake of agriculture. Wisconsin's farewell to the cougar in 1908. The death of the last passenger pigeon in 1899. The saw cuts through the past ... a mostly unhappy past from the point of view of a conservationist.

Have we made a difference since "ASCA"? What have the trees around us seen? Out on the edge of campus there is an old oak. If you'll follow me down to the river in your minds, we'll take the saw in hand and get to work. We'll cut into the 1990s, a decade that began with the northern spotted owl conflict and moved towards a greater focus on ecosystem conservation. We'll slice into the 80s, when the brown pelican became the first recovered endangered species to be de-listed, and when 54 million acres of some of the most spectacular lands in Alaska were set aside for national wildlife refuges. We'll cut into the 70s, the decade of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the first Earth Day celebration. In the 60s, we'll cut into the year when the National Environmental Policy Act led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, when Silent Spring was published, when the Wilderness Act was signed, when the first men on the moon brought us back pictures of our planet, and we saw it whole for the first time. In the 1950s, waterfowl populations, perilously low in Leopold's final years, rebounded to 39 million breeding pairs, and ecology departments emerged in universities throughout the country. And then our saw blade will arrive at 1949, fifty years ago; the year "ASCA" was published.

How have we done? Would Leopold be proud of how far we've come? There are still daunting ecological crises to address: declining bird populations, disappearing natural landscapes, invasive species, and a still un-naturally and frighteningly high extinction rate. I do believe, however, that we've got a good start and we are on the right path.

What lies ahead? Maybe we won't cut down that oak at the edge of campus. We'll let it stand to see the new millennium, to see us de-list the bald eagle and the eastern timber wolf; to let us see what else the future holds.

Leopold once wrote: "We shall never achieve harmony with land, any more than we shall achieve justice or liberty for people. In these higher aspirations, the important thing is not to achieve, but to strive."

Let us keep that in mind when things seem impossible. It is up to us, private citizen and public servant alike, to take the land ethic into our hearts and to strive to make a difference. Fifty years ago, one man did -- he set the course for the future of land management. Now each of us in this room must rise to the challenge he set forth for us in his land ethic, and to leave our own legacy with the rings of those faithful recorders of history, the growing good oak trees. Because, in the end, it is still important for us all to be able to catch those amazing fireflies.

Thank you.