Friday, October 21, 2011

Blazing Trails in Conservation

Roughly 75 years ago, in the aftermath of the Great Depression, U.S. citizens realized that changes to the current system needed to be made -- big changes. One major reawakening that people across the nation had at this time was that our resources are finite. In order for these resources to be around for generations to come, the stage had to be set on how to correctly manage and protect our environmental heritage.

Probably the greatest mover and shaker at this time was President Franklin D. Roosevelt who enacted his New Deal program and with it the Civilian Conservation Corps. to provide jobs and help rebuild our broken country. A lot of the work done by the CCP dealt with the restoration and beautification of America's public lands including State and National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, and National Forests. FDR knew that in order to establish fundamental standards of healthy habitat management and conservation in America, research must first be done to answer the question as to how to do so.

That brings us to present day here at the Patuxent Research Refuge, the first and only Refuge established for research out of the over 550 National Wildlife Refuges across the country. Last week, this trail blazing refuge celebrated its 75th anniversary as did many other ground breaking conservation organizations right around this time such as the National Wildlife Federation, Missouri's Conservation Federation, and Virginia's State Park system, among many others. As said in Missouri a quarter of a century ago, wildlife were on the decline and it was time to "Bring 'em Back." And so began the hard work of scientists and conservationists who have played such a crucial role in reestablishing our nation's wildlife and habitat.

During Patuxent's 75th anniversary celebration, I had the honor of hearing personal recollections told by some of these trail blazers in conservation. Chandler Robbins, was one of them. Chan's career with Patuxent has lasted 68 years and counting. He has taken part in everything since the development of bird banding, to the establishment of North American flyways (migration routes), and the composition of some of the first field guides that included bird calls, to studies on Albatross at Midway Atoll, to revealing findings on DDT, you name it!

Little do people know, but many of the habitat management techniques utilized across the globe, as well as ground breaking research on pesticides such as DDT - started here at Patuxent. Rachel Carson may have woke up the world to the impacts of DDT, but the research that proved the harmful effects of the pesticide was done here, by using some of the least expected guinea pigs - earthworms.

Patuxent scientists were able to prove the biomagnification effect of DDT by depositing the pesticide in plots of soil where colonies of earthworms were inserted and removed periodically. The result - amounts of DDT origially deposited in the soil were several times less than traces of DDT accumulated in the earthworms and this only magnifies more as it continues to go up the food chain. Some of the most well known impacts of DDT were observed by our national symbol - the Bald Eagle.

As DDT worked it's way up the food chain, it impacted eagles and other birds of prey by causing their eggshells to thin an ultimately not hatch. This sent the Bald Eagle on a steady decline, but with the help of Patuxent scientists and the publishing of Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring", DDT was outlawed and action was set in motion to restore Bald Eagle populations in the U.S. As a result, Bald Eagles have been removed from the endangered species list demonstrating our nation's evolution in conservation.

This is just one example of the remarkable impacts Patuxent scientists have had on the field of conservation. Other success stories include reestablishment of wild populations of the endangered Whooping Cranes and the use of ultralight planes to guide the birds on migration routes. Establishing power line right of ways that reduce forest fragmentation and provide habitat and foraging opportunities for wildlife. Developing telemetry studies to track populations of grey wolves and their predator/prey relationship with white-tailed deer in northern Minnesota. Determing the impact of lead poisoning on waterfowl, California Condors and a variety of other species from toxic shot, lures, and other deposits in our waterways. The list goes on and on and more research continues to be carried out to reveal discoveries and find solutions to the perplexing enviromental issues of today.

I feel so lucky to be at a Refuge with such a rich history and hearing about all of these profound careers that started at Patuxent makes me feel even more confident about the direction I'm heading in. I am currently blazing my own trails, not so much through reasearch, but by molding the bright minds of youngsters who may one day grow up to be the researchers and conservationists of tomorrow.

As the Baba Dioum quote on a wall in the National Wildlife Visitor Center reads:

In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we've been taught.

Teaching kids to wander into the woods and develop their sense of place in the natural world through keeping a nature journal or by participating in the Junior Duck Stamp program may be the first steps on their path to discovering solutions to evironmental issues currently affecting our planet. Perhaps one of our young visitors at Patuxent will go on to find a way to control the effects of acid rain on brooke trout species living in Appalachian Mountain streams - a place where thousands have blazed trails instilling in themselves a love and respect for nature. While I may not be able to conquer such a feat, I continue to blaze my own trail each day discovering new biking and hiking paths, freeing my mind to the constraints of society, and determining which path to take next as I continue on my journey.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Mandy - what a wonderful web site! I am only sad that i didn't take the time to review it before I saw you this summer. Your pictures, your writing, and your understanding of the true issues are amazing.
    Martha O'Gorman