Natureserve’s Conservation Conference 2010
Bob Jenkins—NatureServe Conservation Award Speech
Part 2 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.
Download the full transcript in PDF format (209 KB)
Undertaking inventories to identify land conservation priorities
We’d established the objective of saving biodiversity but we still had no systematic process and lacked any kind of knowledge base from which to begin. I started by trying to get a handle on published and ongoing natural area inventory efforts. In the second long range plan, I included a list of these—as potential guides to project identification. It was all I could do at the time.
I’d like to digress here to tell about one consequence of doing that. I actually had three eureka moments in my years at the Conservancy and the first of these came from an interaction with the western regional staff over that section of the long range plan. That particular flash eventually led to the establishment of the Conservancy’s state field offices, the main engine of its later rapid growth and prosperity. However, that story would take me away from this Heritage narrative. My third such moment was about a way to undertake conservation internationally that was never implemented. The second I’ll get to shortly.
I soon began getting directly involved in inventories myself, most importantly with the IBP Conservation of Ecosystems program. The International Biological Program was a big research initiative launched by the like of ICSU and various academies of science. It mostly focused intensive ecological research on specific biomes—deciduous forest, conifer forest, grasslands—but someone had thrown in a conservation inventory component and by the time I came on a U.S. project to essentially update the Naturalists’ Guide was just getting under way. I became its most active committee member.
The natural area inventory process
The inventory concept hadn’t advanced beyond the Guide’s original idea of consulting the “experts” —biology professors mainly—about where they thought the important “natural areas” were and why they were important. Nothing directly related to the biodiversity objective but maybe a useful step along the way. Someone in England had developed a 7-page “checksheet” of information about a given natural area—its location, extent, contents, and perceived importance. We had a limited mailing budget so I worked with Paul Lemon, a retired grassland ecologist and the only staff, to compress the checksheet. We developed a mailing list based on my source compendium and sent it out. Anticipating a lot of what we deludedly called data coming in, I set myself the particular task of finding a way to computerize it.
My experience with computers was very limited so I was lucky to find Jim Mello, in charge of a new Honeywell mainframe at the Smithsonian. That big machine had less power than a modern cell phone but was the hot lick back then. Input was by paper-tape typewriter, which I thought was a miracle. I further boiled down the checksheet to its barest essentials—the system limit was a handful of data fields each limited to something like 240 characters—the final data form would fit on a 3 x 5 card. Jim programmed it, and this became the first of 6 generations of computer database systems I would eventually design. We began digesting the published natural area surveys, Paul badgered the experts, and questionnaires trickled in. We had just enough funding for a part-time typist to get it on the computer. As you can probably guess, the entire project wound up being a nearly complete waste of time and effort—except perhaps for educating me.
This might be an opportune time to tell you what I think of myself, in case you were wondering. I’m pretty smart—high IQ, intuitive, and a strong independent thinker with a lot of ideas—but my gears often grind slowly and I’ve never considered myself a creative genius, no Isaac Newton certainly. Instead, I’m something of a Bill Gates without the money, a reasonably intelligent person who chose a somewhat unusual career path, had a few lucky insights, and then just kept plugging away, periodically coming up with something new. The new stuff may not always have been the best conceivable but it was always an addition to an incrementally growing body of knowledge, technology, and information.
Gifford Pinchot famously said that “the most powerful thing in human affairs is continuity of purpose.” Probably everybody that ever did a natural area survey learned from it, but then they had to go back to their real jobs. There was no such thing as conservation biology and nobody taught a course in natural area inventory. I may have been the first person in the world to be paid a full-time salary to think about this stuff 24/7, year after year, and thus the first person in the field enabled to learn from his mistakes.
State heritage programs start
About 1973, Jimmy Carter launched a program called the Georgia Heritage Trust to protect places of natural and cultural significance. It had an inventory associated with it, partly consisting of a team that drove the roads to see what would jump out. I had nothing to do with it. However, Rick Jones, our southeastern regional director, was able to acquire about $12 million worth of land for the State at less than 50 cents on the dollar. This impressed Carter enough to urge his surrounding governors to cooperate with TNC on similar endeavors. Consequently, John C. West of South Carolina set up a similar program and sent Andy Laurent from his Wildlife and Marine Resources department to request our assistance on an inventory, surprising since we hadn’t done any of that in GA.
I didn’t want to do it. My department consisted of just me, plus Ray Culter working on stewardship, Brian Bedford working on ecosystem restoration, and maybe a couple of others. I needed to provide guidance to the entire Conservancy, not just a single state, but Pat Noonan, the government coop king, thought working with government was a good idea, so I agreed to try it.
Every Heritage program has been a saga with its own cast of characters and surprises. I could have focused here on that, but I expect you live with such stuff every day. In SC they had in mind a two year inventory. Data management was to be handled by a computer system just starting up for natural resources. The surprise came about two months later when I got a call from Andy, asking what progress I was making on my computer system. Not to make an issue, I said I was getting right on it.
I scraped up some money to hire our first programmer, Helmut Moyseenko, and reworked the IBP form, quite a bit larger than the earlier Honeywell version. We found a local service bureau with an IBM 360 like SC’s, and Helmut started programming our second generation system.
On the inventory side, I still hadn’t learned that much, my main idea still being to ask the experts and go on from there. I knew so little that when I brought in Tom Kohlsaat, our first-ever Heritage coordinator, for a week of training, I was starting to repeat myself by the end of the second day. During a pause, Tom looked over at me and said, “That’s it, isn’t it?” I sheepishly agreed that it was and he took an earlier flight to South Carolina.
Aside from inventory methods though, I had learned a few other useful things. I’d found that our work with state government was eligible for matching funds from the Federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, under the unlikely but workable rubric of outdoor recreation planning. Hardy Wieting says that the LWCF revelation was his eureka moment, when he realized that this just might be a climbable hill. State-side funding could come from public or private sources and I’d also tripped to the fact that matching money is magic in funding circles—multiplier effect and all that. Moreover, I’d come to a useful generalization that probably still holds true today—that a “project” of any sort generally falls within a narrow budgetary range. In those days $100,000 constituted a sort of standard big project—that’s what we had from NSF for the IBP and that was the amount for SC Heritage. Much less wasn’t taken seriously, much more was hard to get. Today it’s probably a million. The scope of a project didn’t make much difference. The mundane fact was that if we’d undertaken an inventory of the whole world we’d have found somebody to cough up $100,000 for it, but by working on a state-by-state basis we could potentially get start-up funding of around $5 million—that is, $100,000 times 50—not counting matching money. Stupid but true. Also, I began to like the idea of working with state government agencies because I’d decided that inventories need to be ongoing, and government is as good at maintaining bureaucracies as I knew the private sector wouldn’t be.