The COVID-19 pandemic and economic shutdown have struck down hard on countless environmental efforts. Among the damage, fish and wildlife conservation is particularly vulnerable. And recent rollbacks on countless environmental protection acts — including the Endangered Species Act — suggest a difficult recovery for conservation. What’s worse is a lot of work in conservation depends on the ecotourism industry, which has understandably seen better days. The National Wildlife Federation, the largest American private, nonprofit conservation education and advocacy organization with over 6 million members, has seen this challenge play out first-hand.
Recently, I sat down with Collin O’Mara, the National Wildlife Federation’s CEO. Together, to discuss how his organization is working to propel conservation forward despite political turbulence and the Covid-19 pandemic. O’Mara also shares how conservation work at the national level can adjust to crises like this one.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
ARI KELO: How has the National Wildlife Federation changed its approach to wildlife conservation since the COVID-19 pandemic hit?
COLLIN O’MARA: There’s more focus on the disease transmission. And we are primarily a domestic organization — 95% of our work is domestic. We’ve been doing more work internationally lately because we’ve been asked to help provide technical assistance and help approach ecological challenges.
There’s also the issue of wet markets that also include wildlife markets. But there’s also this challenge of habitat infringement and encroachment. So we’re basically coming in contact with species that have much higher temperatures in the lake, so those are just pandemics waiting to happen. Some of these diseases that don’t cause problems in the wildlife population because they’re an outbreak at a higher temperature can be devastating if they’re transmitted somehow to humans. And that’s what we’re experiencing.
So it’s becoming less just about on-the-ground work, like moving dirt, restoring habitats, and planting trees, as much as it’s about getting these policies in place. But there are serious people from both political parties in the US and leaders around the globe that are taking this very seriously. And now, all of a sudden, we’re making it a priority to both obviously address the pandemic now, but prevent the next one too.
Beyond just the approach and process of wildlife conservation, how has the National Wildlife Federation been approaching its operations differently?
On the logistical side, obviously having our entire staff telecommuting across the country is a challenge. And at the same time, we do a lot of work with kids, so we’re providing educational programming for 12,000 schools across the country. We provide the Major Rick magazine, so we do a lot of educational work. So we’ve tried to virtualize all of that material very quickly and made it more parent-friendly because a lot of it is written for teachers. And we’re also trying to provide a ton of content and talks on just dealing with the reality of homeschooling and virtual learning.
We also run one of the largest wildlife gardening programs in the country. And since folks are spending more time outdoors, we’re helping them have different tools and resources that are helpful to bring back pollinator populations and songbirds. So we have a lot of activity there.
And then we’re deeply involved in the politics at the state capitals and Congress with the response. That’s both on the wildlife disease side, which obviously was how this all started, as well as the recovery. And so we’re helping make sure that folks don’t have their water shut off because they no longer have the ability to pay their bills and making sure that there aren’t other impacts, such as with communities of color.
Speaking of politics, how do you feel about the EPA’s actions during Covid-19?
If you look at the mortality rates, folks that are in communities that already have higher levels of pollution are seeing significantly higher levels of mortality. So we’re connecting some of those dots and also fighting against the EPA that’s been weakening a lot of these protections in just a very unconscionable way.
I’m very active there and we’ll be even more active in the weeks and months ahead as the conversation turns to recovery and making the case that we can put millions of people back to work. We’re working on restoring natural resources, fixing parks, reforesting our national forests, reclaiming degraded land. We’re almost like a civilian conservation corps for the 21st century, so we’re deeply involved in those conversations too.
Overall, we’re trying to just be helpers. I always like that Mr. Rogers quote, you know, when there’s a crisis, look for the helpers. I think we’re trying to be helpers during this time.
I’ve also seen some stories about how the decreased tourism since the stay at home orders began may have led to decreased funding for conservation efforts. Is this true for the National Wildlife Federation too?
The outdoor economy is an $887 billion industry in this country and folks aren’t traveling, right? Folks are maybe using some trails if they’re fortunate enough to have some kind of nature close to home or something similar. But we’re seeing a lot of projects get pushed back. We’re doing restoration projects all across the country where folks have to be more than six feet from coming in contact with each other. So a lot of that work’s being delayed. A lot of that funding is being delayed. And a lot of the wildlife conservation funding in this country actually comes from the sale of things like firearms, ammunition, and fishing capital. And so some of those sales are up, some are down.
On the state side, you’re seeing states that have had massive revenue collapses. And so now the portions of funding that came from general revenue sources are being eviscerated in some cases. So it’s just very uneven right now. I’m optimistic that through the recovery packages, there will be enough bipartisan support for restoring natural resources that there’ll be a lot of investment in this area. But you know, it’s pretty bleak right now.
What other other sustainability-related challenges have been propelled by the Covid-19 pandemic that you hope we’ll all start to talk more about?
One of the stories that hasn’t really been covered yet is that over the next year or couple months, we’re going to see massive kinds of climate impacts in different parts of the country. There’s some really bad flooding going on right now in North Dakota that’s going to move farther south.
Fire season is supposed to be very, very bad right now in the West and the Southwest. And then, who knows with hurricane season, but if it’s anything like the last few, it could be really bad. So if you layer on top those kinds of natural disasters on weakened economies with state governments that have no money right now, high levels of illness, and health infrastructure that’s already overwhelmed, it gets pretty scary, pretty fast.
In light of these unusual times, how are you, as CEO, keeping the National Wildlife Federation focused on its mission?
I think if we really lead with compassion, a lot of other things fall in place. And this new reality is showing some of the structural inequities in society, right? Take access to healthcare, access to clean water, or the impacts of pollution — the structural racism that’s defined a lot of these systems is coming out in horrible ways.
And at the same time, a lot of the solutions are addressing these kinds of underlying natural resource issues. So I’m optimistic that we’re seeing more folks understand what environmental justice is in this country right now because they’re seeing these death rates. Then, all of a sudden, if you peel back though one more layer, you’re like, “Oh, that’s because folks have higher rates of respiratory illness or cardiovascular disease that’s very related to the amount of pollution, which is different.”
We have Mustafa Santiago Ali, who’s our amazing leader who kind of built the environmental justice program at EPA. He now oversees our environmental justice work and he says that we’ve allowed these sacrifice zones to be created across this country. You’ll have these large heavily polluting facilities in neighborhoods in some cases. And then you layer on top of it insufficient access to healthy food, insufficient access to health care services, etc.
So for us, it’s just a matter of staying relevant and also not being taking advantage of a situation. Instead, we try to make the case that the reason we need clean air and clean water is the same as the reason we need healthy wildlife habitats. It’s to make sure that every community has the same opportunities.
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