Jamie Rappaport Clark, President & CEO
Happy Earth Day, everybody! Today is that annual celebration when environmental leaders take the podium and implore us to stop poking holes in the planet, chopping down its trees and polluting its waters. These are important messages to be sure. To solve our greatest challenges, we need to continually ask ourselves how we can enjoy nature’s bounty while still preserving it for future generations in a truly sustainable way. But for me, Earth Day is also a time to reflect on my own values and remind myself why I got into wildlife conservation in the first place.
It all started with Speedy, my pet turtle that I had as a little kid. I named him Speedy as a joke, but I used to love watching him crawl through the grass and climb over pebbles in the driveway or just stand still, stretching his neck out of his shell. I remember how ancient his wrinkled body and stony shell looked even though he was quite young. I would stare into his dark, little eyes as if peering through a gateway to another world, wondering what mysteries lay on the other side.
I grew up in a military family, so we moved around a lot. Being a shy kid, it was hard to make friends when we were moving every year or two from state to state and sometimes to different countries. But wherever we went, I found animals to hang out with, whether it was one of our pets, backyard birds, or a stray dog from down the street. Then in sixth grade, my parents finally broke down and got me a pony named Spooky. I probably spent more time with that pony than I did in school, but as long as I made straight A’s, my mom was fine with that.
As I got older, my love of animals sparked an interest in studying biology, which eventually led me to a career as a wildlife biologist with the military. I never dreamed that I would work my way up the ranks to become the top wildlife biologist for the U.S. Army, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and now president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife.
Protecting wildlife is not just a job for me; this is my life’s mission and what I love to do. Each day there is a new problem to solve on the path toward securing a brighter future for wildlife great and small and the habitat they all need to survive. Sometimes it’s frustrating or downright exhausting, especially when it feels like we’re only fighting to stop from sliding backwards instead of leading the charge forward. But our country’s natural wonders are worth fighting for and too important to give up on.
These days, however, too many politicians seem to have lost touch with the values Congress and our country embraced 40 years ago when conservation laws such as the Endangered Species Act passed with overwhelming bipartisan support. Those visionary leaders recognized that America’s wildlife has both intrinsic worth as well as practical value. Our native plants and animals are a source of artistic and spiritual inspiration, but they also provide a cornucopia of natural and medicinal benefits and recreational opportunities worth billions of dollars every year.
Yet that’s still not enough for those who prize near-term profits over the long-term health and sustainability of our planet and the human race. Unfortunately, a number of lawmakers now seem intent on weakening or repealing our bedrock environmental laws altogether. Indeed, wildlife opponents often use national economic challenges as an excuse to try to roll back essential protections under the guise of creating more jobs, ignoring the fact that maintaining a healthy planet will ensure a healthy economy as well. And even though conservation programs are a minuscule portion of the federal budget, some politicians are still attempting to slash vital funding for conserving imperiled wildlife. Others are playing special-interest politics by trying to dismantle endangered species protections one species at a time.
It’s time to stop gambling with America’s most vital assets. We need our elected leaders to reaffirm their conservation values from the first Earth Day and recommit to the basic environmental principles that our nation adopted over four decades ago. In the face of rapid climate change, rampant energy development and continued habitat loss, we must stop the further decline of imperiled wildlife before they slip closer to the abyss of extinction.
I have felt a strong moral obligation most of my life to conserve our natural resources, especially America’s rich diversity of wildlife. Part of that is a simple appreciation of all the amazing animals that helped me get through those childhood years on Army bases around the world. But the other part is a recognition of how lucky we all are to spend a lifetime on a beautiful planet with such incredible creatures. It is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our children and grandchildren.
As you celebrate Earth Day this year, please take a moment to consider your own values. We must all reconnect with what’s important in our own lives and recommit to conserving our planet so the next generation can share in our collective sense of wonder.
This article also appeared on The Huffington Post.