Congratulations to George Wuerthner, Grassroots Activist of the Year!

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November 29, 2016
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George Wuerthner, a director on WWP’s board, has been awarded the “Grassroots Activist of the Year for 2017” by the Fund for Wild Nature! Congratulations, George!

The Fund for Wild Nature particularly recognized George’s key role in the establishment in the new Katahdin Woods and Water National Monument in Maine, honoring the writing he did to promote the vision of protecting this area. He started advocating for creating a national park in Maine back in the late 1980s as a result of writing a book on Maine, and realizing there was a lot of private timber land that was being sold and could be incorporated into a major national park. George, along with several others from New England, started RESTORE the North Woods in 1991 to begin advocating for creation of a national park in the region, a vision that came to fruition in August 2016.

The Fund for Wild Nature also recognized that George has been at the forefront of conservation advocacy for wildlands and wildlife on a variety of fronts, including fire, predator reintroduction, vegetation management, fossil fuels extraction, ORVs, wilderness, and more. An outspoken advocate for livestock-free public lands, George has served on the Board of Directors for Western Watersheds Project since 2012.

In recognition of George’s remarkable activism, we asked him to share his perspectives on the following issues:

WWP: Of all your work – books, board of directors, writing, monitoring, field visits, advocacy– how do you prioritize what to do on any given day? What type of actions do you think “matter” most in achieving conservation goals? 

GW: I have always thought that getting ideas out to the public, agencies, conservation groups, politicians was ultimately the best way to move conservation forward. Books, articles, speaking engagements, field trips, etc. are all intertwined. Changing people’s minds and values is ultimately about education and experiences.

WWP: When you prioritize a landscape or conservation issue, is it the scale (how large an area), the diversity (which species are affected), the relative wildness of a place, or what other criteria?  

GW: Generally I have always been attracted to “big ideas” and “big proposals”. For instance, WWP’s goal of reducing and eliminating livestock grazing on public lands is a big idea. I can see working on a particular allotment or whatever as part of that big idea or long term strategy, but just focusing on one allotment would never satisfy me. That is the same for other issues. I generally go with the philosophy expressed by Goethe. “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

So I tend to believe that ultimately big ideas are attractive to people. I always keep in mind the fact that back in the 1930s Bob Marshall (founder of the Wilderness Society) called for creation of a national park in Alaska that included everything north of the Yukon River, including the entire Brooks Range. Of course, when he proposed that idea, people simply ignored it as insane. But not everyone forgot about that idea, and it simmered for a long time. However, by 1980 when the Alaska Lands Bill was passed in Congress, most of that region got some kind of protection.

Look at a map of Alaska today and between the Gates of the Arctic NP, Kobuk Valley NP, Cape Krusenstern NM, Noatak Preserve, Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Selawik NWR, Koyukuk NWR, Yukon Flats NWR, and the Navel Petroleum Reserve that are now off limits to development, the vast majority of the land north of the Yukon River is now in some kind of protected land status. Of course it is not complete–there is still the threat of oil and gas in the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, and potential development of the Navel Petroleum Reserve, but taken as a whole, Bob Marshall’s vision has been implemented.

So when people tell me that we will never get rid of livestock production on public lands, I think about Bob Marshall and Alaska and tell them, well we’ll just see about that. What looks impossible now may be possible in the future.

WWP: What do you like best about the work that WWP does and why is serving on the Board important to you? 

GW: I love WWP because it is one of the few organizations that makes removal of livestock from our public lands a priority. The ecological impacts are huge and harm biodiversity, watersheds, and landscapes in multiple ways from the spread of weeds, to competition for forage with native herbivores, to compaction of soils, to the persecution of predators, damage to riparian areas, pollution of water, and so forth, livestock production is the culprit over hundreds of millions of acres. And there is a philosophical aspect to the issue as well.  Why should private businesses operating on public lands be permitted to damage any public resources? To me that should be a central question that is ignored by most conservation groups. If I can further that goal by serving on the board of an organization that recognizes the huge impacts that livestock production has on our public lands, and is not afraid to take on the livestock industry, it’s one way I can help achieve that goal.

Some activities that other organizations may focus upon may do more damage on a particular piece of land–obviously an open-pit mine or maybe even a Walmart parking lot is worse. However, one has to look at the geographical scale of things. Livestock production, particularly if you include not only the terrain grazed by livestock, but the lands also used to produce livestock forage like hay, corn, or soy, about 70% of the American landscape outside of Alaska is directly impacted by this one activity. It easily affects more of the American land than other land disturbances whether energy development, sprawl, logging, and so forth. And when you add in things like its contribution to global warming, health issues, and even philosophical questions about the treatment of animals, it’s hard to ignore this issue–yet plenty of environmental organizations do, out of ignorance or fear. So I see WWP as courageous.

WWP: What are your top three conservation goals right now? 

GW: There are major issues that I feel are important like transforming our livestyles/economies to more sustainable or perhaps the correct way to express it, is less unsustainable activities. This is critical to affecting any changes in the biodiversity crisis, global climate change and the multiple of problems associated with human population growth.

While dealing directly with these critical issues, activities like livestock production are part of this larger problem. For instance, if you want to reduce global warming, a reduction in livestock production helps to achieve this goal. If you want to reduce biodiversity losses, a reduction in livestock production is part of the solution.

But I also prioritize other topics as well. I am a strong proponent of protected lands. Creation of large wilderness areas and national parks I feel are critical as part of any conservation strategy in that they limit human exploitation and generally permit natural processes to operate unimpeded.

They have a philosophical benefit as well since the creation of a wilderness or park accepts the notion that there should be limits on human exploitation. Just normalizing that idea helps to move forward other larger goals like reducing human population or protecting biodiversity.

WWP: How do you stay motivated, inspired, and optimistic? 

GW: I must admit that most of what passes for successes in conservation like creation of a new national park or the closure of some grazing allotments or a reduction in coal burning is typically just slowing the process of global species impoverishment or climate change and so forth. So one has to be able to find solace in that kind of “success” and hope that in the future as a society we will gradually change our priorities.

I do take heart in the “progress” that has occurred in other social areas–we do allow minorities like blacks to vote, hold offices, and so forth which of course was not permitted in the past. We now question whether you can mistreat or discriminate against women or even mistreat animals. Many of these kinds of things were considered perfectly normal not that long ago. So while we may see occasional set backs (as with the election of Donald Trump) in the long arc of history, we are moving forward in a sense. For instance, it would have been impossible to even imagine 100 years ago that anyone would be concerned about the extinction of sage grouse or oppose killing wolves. The fact that these are now at least debated is a sign that we are changing what we find acceptable. That helps to keep me optimistic. Plus, I think what else can one do but work towards the betterment of the land, society and the planet?

WWP: Indeed! Thanks George and Congratulations on this well-earned honor.

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