Biodiversity Without Boundaries 2010
Bob Jenkins—NatureServe Conservation Award Speech
Part 1 of 5
On April 26, 2010, NatureServe presented Robert E. Jenkins, Ph.D., with the first-ever NatureServe Conservation Award. As the founder of natural heritage methodology and what has become the NatureServe network, Jenkins spearheaded our innovative approach to conservation. In accepting the award, Jenkins shared stories of the process and people he engaged to bring it all about.
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In thinking about how to accept this award, two basic alternatives suggested themselves. One was the always popular, gracefully succinct, accepting-an-Oscar approach. Or maybe just the Elvis, “Thank you, thank you very much.” Or perhaps some variant of my all-time favorite, the Milton Berle, who looked long and soulfully at his plaque, like I’m doing now, turned to his audience and with great emotion and sincerity said, “Of all the awards I’ve ever received, this is the most recent.”
However, I’ve chosen the less popular long option, the Nobel laureate speech. This isn’t the way it’s usually done, I think, but I’m going to try to explain to you why you’re giving me this award. I’ll do this by recounting some of what I can remember of the history of Heritage and my part in it. Of course I could do it blind-folded but then it would be disordered and filled with Freudian slips, so I’ve written it down. I tried to borrow President Obama’s teleprompter but he wasn’t giving it up, so I hope you’ll forgive me for looking down at the paper. I’ll have to read fast, so pay attention. Pretend it’s a bedtime story. I will get choked up 3 times in this rendition, so bear with me.
That this history is a black hole was brought home to me by a phone conversation I had awhile go with one of you, a long-time state Heritage coordinator, in the course of which it became evident that he had no idea that I’d been the main designer of Heritage methods and systems. When I explained that I had personally designed mostly everything but the computer programs, his response was, “Oh, I thought you had a staff for that.”
At the time I was thunderstruck but quickly reflected that it takes a life to lead a life and nobody really knows what anybody else does. I left a pretty extensive written record but who reads that? Besides, I hardly ever signed it. For instance, I wrote nearly the entirety of The Nature Conservancy’s first long range plan, even the sections on finance, fund-raising, and land protection techniques, and the great preponderance of the second, third, and I forget how many succeeding editions, until the main outline became fixed and the details conventional wisdom. I also wrote or co-wrote nearly all of the Conservancy’s operating procedures manuals, all but the Heritage manual, ironically enough—I didn’t have time to both develop the technology and to document it. If something was standardized, I probably did it. Hell, I even developed the format for the Conservancy’s standard job description.
If you’re wondering why such things were left to me, you have to understand that when I started, the Conservancy was quite small and everyone in it was totally wrapped up with land acquisition, fund-raising and deal-making. Under the circumstances, I was obliged and enabled—it goes without saying that I was also inclined—to think about everything else. The world of ideas, you might say, was left to me by default. Thus, much of the modern Nature Conservancy and virtually everything about Heritage first took shape on my whiteboard.
My role in the Conservancy was an interesting one, serving as a sort of pope to the organization—though my infallibility wasn’t always recognized. My secular powers were limited but my spiritual powers were great. I couldn’t usually order you to do anything but it was my place to show that the righteous path was to behave in a certain way. Kind of like Heritage programs after they spun off.
Conservancy up to 1970
So here’s the story. In 1917 the Ecological Society of America established a special committee on the Preservation of Natural Conditions. This committee split off in 1949 to become The Nature Conservancy, but before it did, in 1924, it published a book called A Naturalists’ Guide to the Americas. This was the first attempt to identify important “natural areas” for preservation.
It isn’t too clear what the early Conservancy was intended to do, except to somehow protect natural areas like those the Guide had identified. It was some years before it undertook direct land acquisition, probably first at Mianus River Gorge. The organization pretty much remained a committee of scientists until the early-60s, when a board faction obtained a Ford Foundation grant to make the organization more businesslike. Many of the board scientists resigned and the organization was corporatized, mostly for the better. After awhile, however, a remaining board scientist, Dick Goodwin, obtained a grant to hire a staff scientist. That turned out to be me.
My story begins
By that summer of 1970, I had completed my PhD on co-adaptation of tropical fruit eating birds and fruit bearing plants, but was still at Harvard, finishing up a post-doc as a Demographic Fellow of the Population Council and a ZPG organizer. E. O. Wilson, one of my thesis advisors, proposed me for the TNC job before he even told me about it. I understand that I was ultimately chosen over several distinguished scientists and a university president, either because I was the only one who would accept the paltry salary or because I was seen as green and malleable. Green I was.
At that time the Conservancy staff consisted of about 40 people, mostly at the headquarters in Arlington. There was a tiny Western Regional Office in San Francisco and two or three people working at scattered locations, notably John Humke in Illinois. Three more one-person regional offices were just being established. The president, Tom Richards, was a businessman and politician, and the VP, Ed Kingman, had been a former comptroller of the Navy. Pat Noonan had been hired as assistant director of operations six months earlier and directors of development and finance were hired a few months after I came aboard. Up to then, the organization had, in my view, made five significant inventions: land acquisition itself; state membership chapters; local project committees; a project-revolving-fund; and cooperative acquisition with government agencies.
No one was sure what to do with me. Tom Richards said he wanted me “to improve the quality of TNC projects.” However, he also told me that his philosophy was to “grab anything, they ain’t makin’ anymore,” so I was a little mystified about what “quality” he was referring to.
I begin work
I knew immediately that Richard’s idea about grabbing anything was wrong. As long as you are stuck in a growing society, I reasoned, withdrawing a piece of land from the stream of development doesn’t prevent the destruction that might have occurred there; it only deflects it onto other lands. Moreover, whatever you’re trying to save, there must be a priority sequence among land areas, say 5% being most important. Random withdrawals, therefore, have a 95% chance of falling elsewhere on the importance spectrum. Thus I reckoned, whatever it was that TNC was trying to save, the organization was increasing its peril instead. Unplanned development and unplanned conservation go hand in hand.
Before I’d reached any further conclusions, I talked to the guy who had just resigned from the job of corporate counsel and wasn’t shy about expressing his low opinion of the organization. Wishing to think well of my new calling, I said to him, “But still, they must be doing a lot of good.” “Maybe,” he growled, “but if so, it’s an accident.” Although I think he misplaced the blame, I gradually realized that he was exactly correct. Given that the process for selecting projects was somewhere between faulty and non-existent, and that none of the lands being acquired were actually designed for viability and defensibility nor completed in any ecological sense, I realized we had no idea at all about what we were doing.
So I began to think about what we should be trying to protect. We had proponents for everything from scenic landscapes to urban parks to hunting and fishing reserves to recreational open space, and even for throwing in historic preservation. The most prevalent idea was that natural areas were those that showed the fewest signs of human disturbance with some concept of an ecological climax as the dominant search image. Insofar as TNC was choosing projects other than opportunistically they were repeatedly saving examples of whichever ecosystem types were least disturbed, or most regenerated, while ignoring damaged remnants of the ecosystems that had been most impacted. Ergo, the organization was disparaged in the Northeast as the “gully and hemlock society” and in the Midwest as the “prairie cemetery lovers.”
My family and I drove out to see the local preserves—when we could find them—and I began trying to compile information on existing TNC projects, something that hadn’t been done. I discovered that the “grab anything” idea had been in full force, encountering several projects with no redeeming qualities that had been done just to show how land acquisition worked. (Parenthetically, I later conceived what became the tradelands program as a way putting such low-quality real estate to better use.) Pat Noonan and Ray Culter later brought it to fruition. As projects were undertaken, so-called “project packages” were circulated to all department heads for review and approval. I had no yardsticks to measure the significance of any of them. Once, someone circulated a proposal to acquire a so-called Agassiz Glacier in the upper Midwest with the value of the project portrayed in terms of the price of ice-cubes by the bag. I had become so inured to absurdities by then that I almost didn’t get the joke.
I learned most of the above during my first month or two at TNC. At that point I rejected the ideas of saving prettiness, open space, and the like and decided that, in the abstract, there were two worthy objectives for natural land conservation. You could either seek to preserve ecological function, which I called carrying capacity, or you could try to preserve the full array of biological and ecological entities, which I called natural diversity. To have a meaningful impact on the first, I thought, would take an enormous effort, beyond the reach of a tiny conservation organization. Therefore it seemed to me that TNC should seek to provide ecological lifeboats to save biological species and communities from extinction.
Thus my first contribution to the Conservancy was to invent what we now call biodiversity conservation. Of course the details all remained to be worked out, and biodiversity had been a topic of academic research since Darwin, but I yield the palm to no one in a conservation context. Within a year or three the logic and clarity of the argument persuaded the Conservancy to adopt the “preservation of natural diversity” as its mission, the first institution on Earth to do so. Initially we so completely owned the concept that when the word got around; we were approached by a then much larger conservation organization to ask whether, if they too adopted the natural diversity objective, we would regard it as an invasion of our turf. We gave them our permission. Not long after, at a meeting to review a draft of the IUCN world conservation strategy, I criticized it as a formless mishmash and offered up my original diversity/carrying capacity dichotomy as an organizing principle. When the final plan was published six months later that’s just how it had been reordered. The biodiversity conservation idea continued to catch fire.
The idea of preserving diversity isn’t the only view of the world, I know. Once, during an outside review of the TNC science programs, one of the reviewers argued that we had it exactly wrong, that we should be concentrating on common species, not rare ones, because the dominants are of greater ecological importance—like he could know this. And a few years before that a famous ecologist then on the Conservancy board—OK, it was Gene Odum—opined that we should drop everything and devote ourselves to green-belting the sunbelt cities. I could mention that we had another board member, Johnny Hanes, who strongly urged us to drop our science program altogether—stick to action and leave the thinking to the Isaac Walton League. At least the first two had a cogent thought, apparently to use ecology for further re-engineering the planet, we having done such a great job so far, instead of to saving and understanding it as it is. But to a guy who gave his 8th grade valedictory address on the looming threat of species extinctions—that would be me—saving diversity made and still makes the most sense.