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Conservation: The Next Generation

I recently met with the next generation of environmental conservationists. It was George Greene’s class on Environmental Governance from the University of Guelph. George has been involved in conservation efforts for decades and is currently serving as one of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s North American Councilors. His class came to Ottawa to meet with politicians, non-profits and decision-makers. They walked into our modest offices at CPAWS and sat with myself and Jill Sturdy, our National Conservation Coordinator in our boardroom.

I was fascinated by their intelligent questions and the way they’ve been thinking about the future of conservation and how it happens. They are creative and dynamic. Many of them are from a variety of fields of study – everything from biology to psychology. It was a student named Nick who is in psychology who asked the most probing question of all – Why?

Nick's question about why I became the National Executive Director of CPAWS was profound. It’s the kind of question that raises a more intimate side of your work. What motivates me to get up each morning and dedicate my working life to wilderness conservation?  It’s not difficult for me to find a reason, but sharing it in a group is always a little intimidating. It’s like revealing your innermost self.

My reason – simply put – came out of an experience that profoundly touched me. Having always been a spiritual person (even a theology major!) I’ve realized how sacred nature is – and how ecosystems are a delicate balance that is rooted in my sense of miracles. But also how spirit works in mysterious ways.

I grew up spending my summers at my grandmother’s cottage on Baker Lake in northern New Brunswick. It was a magical place. When I wasn’t in the lake, I was in exploring the forest, building forts and hiking to new distances. My mother taught me to fish in the rivers that fed that lake.  My parents gave me my first canoe trips through the forests and taught me the everyday miracles of nature. As an adult, I’ve become too busy to visit there regularly, but I did head back there about five years ago when my mother passed away. Her memorial was held there.

When I arrived, I realized how much had changed. The population living alongside of the lake has doubled, the roads are paved and, far more devastating to me, the forest of my childhood had been completely cut to the ground. The sounds of the white-throated sparrow that I had come to associate with that place were silent.

I was crushed. On top of the grief of losing my mother, I was grieving the loss of Mother Nature. Tears filled my eyes. I walked the clear-cut landscape with despair and a growing sense of injustice.

It was then that I decided I needed to dedicate my professional life to working in conservation. When the opportunity at CPAWS came up – it was a perfect fit. The spirit at work!

I was truly impressed by the students of George Greene’s class. It gives me hope that we have a new generation of passionate conservation advocates coming forward. Their questions around how they find work in our movement forces me to ask them a question in return: I would ask them “Why?” just as that student asked me. We all need to be able to answer that question in our own minds, but most importantly, in our hearts. Students that ask ‘why’ are set to become the innovators and connectors in that next generation.

My only other comment to them was one that only came to me after they had left our office: conservation is not a field of work that will make you wealthy – but it does make all of us richer.  I hope that our children and grandchildren will be enriched by these bright young people.