SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE
November 8, 2005
The American conservationist may be an endangered species, both in
numbers and public influence.
That's the bleak news suggested by some attendees at the National
Conservation Learning Summit, held this weekend at the sprawling
woodland campus of the National Conservation Training Center in West
Some estimates indicate that as many as 60 percent of the most senior
federal employees are eligible to retire in 2007. Many of those are in
conservation and natural resource fields. Over one-half of the senior
executives at the Department of the Interior, USDA Forest Service and
Environmental Protection Agency will retire by 2007.
Within that same period, the Department of Interior will lose 61
percent of its program managers, the Forest Service will lose 81
percent of its entomologists and 49 percent of its foresters, and the
EPA will lose 45 percent of its toxicologists and around 30 percent of
its environmental specialists.
"A brain drain is imminent," according to Cheryl Charles, an organizer
of the summit, convened by the Brandwein Foundation and attended by
representatives of more than 100 federal conservation services and
There's no guarantee that boomers will go gently into that good
retirement; they're a stubborn, age-defying lot. Still, these are
pension-rich government service jobs we're talking about. Will young
people move into these jobs? Maybe not. In past decades, the
idealistic, outdoor-oriented young were drawn to government careers in conservation.
But that interest peaked in the 1970s. As baby boomers move toward
retirement, the stock of new conservationists may be drying up.
From 1980 to 2003, undergraduate enrollment in natural resource
programs has fallen, according to research conducted at Utah State University.
Interpreting hard statistics prior to 1980 are problematic, says Terry
Sharik, a professor at Utah State's College of Natural Resources. But
he estimates that if the '70s are factored in, enrollment may have
fallen by half.
"We've got to find out why this is happening," he says. "If we don't
answer that question, our academic departments and conservationists may
soon be seen as irrelevant, if they aren't already seen that way."
Sharik and Charles point to decreased physical involvement of children
in nature - and the difficulty conservationists have communicating what
Environmental organizations are also concerned about generational
attrition. So is business. The Outdoor Industry Association, which
represents hundreds of companies selling everything from backpacks to
kayaks, reports healthy sales of upscale products. But sales of
traditional entry-level gear are nearly dead in the water. Discouraged
by the trend, some companies have decided to drop their entry-level
product lines. Thus, worry about the trend may be self-fulfilling.
Government conservation agencies face a similar pattern. Most agencies
don't seem to have much of a recruitment problem - yet. That gap will
likely occur when the boomers retire. A more immediate concern for the
agencies is ethnic diversity, recruiting new workers who represent the
changing populations they serve.
This summit, and others, could help - if action follows.
Here's one approach. The challenges of scarcity and diversity could
both be met, or moderated, if every conservation agency offered
entry-level conservation corps positions to the young, and actively
recruited from ethic communities. That approach would demand the kind
of investment unlikely in the current political climate.
The hardest nut to crack is public perception. Conjure up a mental
image of a conservationist, and you might envision Teddy Roosevelt, or
a lanky guy in green khaki talking soil science with a Dust Bowl
farmer, a Forest Service firefighter, or a bureaucrat at a desk piled
with regulatory paperwork.
None of these images is particularly attractive to most young people
"Students in my school don't even know what a conservationist is," said
Jeremy Byler, a Washington, D.C., high school student attending the
conference. The students at his school aren't the only ones with a hazy
image of conservationists.
Since 1970, the word conservationist has been overshadowed by the word
environmentalist. Along the way, both words have picked up political
and cultural baggage. For example, many hunters and fishers tend to
call themselves conservationists; while most preservationists and
activists refer to themselves as environmentalists. Such stereotypes
are unfair, but they do reflect the growing confusion about the players
and the score cards.
Bradley Smith, president of the Council of Environmental Deans and
Directors and a dean at Western Washington University, takes issue with
the bleakness increasingly attached to environmental issues by students
and parents. "During the next 40 years we're going to have to do
everything differently," he says. From green architecture to organic
farming to new alternative energy industries, he foresees an array of
exciting careers emerging.
Indeed, the young - or the best of them - have always been drawn to the
possibility of creating a new and better world. Offer more ways to
build it, and they will come.