Archive for January, 2016

Crowdsourcing a National Wildlife Refuge

~By Patrick Williams, Class of 2016

Photo Credit: Openlands

Photo Credit: Openlands

During the 2015-2016 winter break I had the opportunity to work for a Chicago-based conservation organization called Openlands, developing communications materials which will promote one of their recent projects, Hackmatack National Wildlife Refuge. As I read up on Hackmatack, I was instantly sold on its ecological significance, its proximity to Milwaukee and Chicago (my hometown), and the fact that it will be a multi-use conservation site.

Unfortunately, most people don’t know what the heck a wildlife refuge is and my job of explaining its purpose took on an unexpected dynamic after the recent events at Malheur NWR in Oregon. Public perceptions aside, what makes the Refuge truly remarkable is not just the habitat it protects, but how it’s being built. Hackmatack is, in every sense, at the forefront of how we do conservation work in the 21st Century.

The National Wildlife Refuge System

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Most people’s exposure to the National Wildlife Refuge System is limited, or they recognize the name ANWR, but few can explain what it is. Teddy Roosevelt established the National Wildlife Refuge System in 1903 and it has since grown into a system of over 560 conservation sites, encompassing more than 150,000,000 acres. Wildlife refuges are managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, which operates as part of the Department of the Interior.

The primary goal of the Refuge System is to protect and enhance habitat for wildlife, while providing public benefit, such as educational resources and recreation opportunities. Hackmatack is the only such refuge within 100 miles of Chicago, making it accessible to over 9 million people who live within an hour’s drive. Additionally, Hackmatack sits on the Illinois-Wisconsin border and after gaining support from the congressional delegations of those states, as well as their respective governors, then-Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar formally declared protected status for the reserve in August, 2012. However, earning that designation was only the beginning of the work ahead.

Of Global Significance

Hackmatack takes its name from the Algonquin word for the tamarack larch and it is one of the few places to see these trees in the Lower 48. The vast landscapes of the Refuge are home to 109 species of concern including bald eagles and the endangered whooping crane, who find shelter at Hackmatack along their migratory journey. It sits at the crossroads of the great forests to the east and the great plans to the west, making Hackmatack the site of some of the last remaining fragments of globally-rare ecosystems such as oak savannas and mesic prairies. The retreat of the Laurentide Ice Sheet during the Ice Age carved an undulating landscape of rolling hills and pristine waterways that shelter mosaics of wildflowers and tallgrasses. While Hackmatack sits on the Illinois-Wisconsin border, it is tied to a network of ecosystems that reach west across the Great Plains, east through the Great Lakes and north into Canada.

The story of Hackmatack is remarkable in its own right: 12 years ago a small group of locals gathered around a kitchen table to discuss their vision to preserve a landscape that truly mattered. Through their efforts of organizing their local communities and carrying their message all the way to Washington, they earned the designation for Hackmatack as a protected area. That designation further means that the Refuge is an essential patch in our national landscape and an integral part of our country’s intimate connection to the wilderness.

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Conserving Wilderness in the 21st Century

What’s been unique to Hackmatack this whole time has been the strategy for establishment. The locals who began the work carried this project from the ground-up, winning the support of the Federal Government. Rather than surveying a region and designating a small portion for preservation, this refuge had to been envisioned acre-by-acre.

Over the next few years, Hackmatack will link existing conservation sites into an 11,200 refuge. In order to develop the necessary scale to allow wildlife to thrive, a coalition of private partners are jumpstarting the process of building Hackmatack.

Private organizations such as Openlands are coordinating with Fish & Wildlife Services to acquire new parcels of land in order to grow the Refuge. They are also working with private citizens in the area to develop what are known as conservation easements, which promote best-practices on private property without altering existing land use. This means everyone from farmers to fisherman to families have the opportunity to provide a home to recovering wildlife populations.

The days of demarcating mass tracts of land for protection are over, but that doesn’t mean conservation work ends. Between private partners growing Hackmatack parcel-by-parcel and working with locals to brainstorm the best way to balance conservation with our own everyday needs, this truly a process of crowdsourcing a wildlife refuge. This type of conservation work requires us to see landscapes not for what they are now, but for what they can be in the future.

Projects like Hackmatack are not only how we will combat the effects of climate change, but they are also a way to preserve what our planet looked like before urbanization. What began as a conversation among friends quickly grew into an innovative strategy for conservation. It’s 12 years of work into the process of establishing a wildlife refuge, but Hackmatack is 10,000 years in the making.

January 26th, 2016

Don’t Think Youth Can Make a Difference? Think Again: The Role of Youth at the Paris Climate Talks, COP21

~By Talia Schmitt

Sick and tired of hearing that ‘nobody listens to youth,’ or ‘one person can’t make a difference’?

If so, it is time for a trip to an international environmental conference. This past December, I attended the Paris Climate Talks or COP21. There, youth were some of the first to arrive and last to leave- never ceasing to demand serious climate action.

Nearly 5,000 youth arrived in France a week before official negotiations for the Conference of Youth, a meeting organized by youth organizations around the globe. Here people learned about the climate agreement and methods to take action.

This momentum led into the two weeks of official climate talks. Youth groups demanded strict government regulations to reduce the blow of climate change- recommending actions like sharp cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, a temperature increase restricted to 1.5 degrees by the end of the century, and decisions that consider both people today and those of the future.

There is a youth non-governmental organization, YOUNGO, which was formed six years ago to give youth a larger stake in the process. There are two members of YOUNGO who are allowed to communicate information out to the government officials. However both young and civil society groups are in the clear minority in the rooms where negotiations took place.

According to a member of the Sierra Student Coalition, Katie Gibson, only nine badges were permitted to the 70 incredibly well-informed members of the Sierra Club attending the conference. Youth, who made up about a quarter of the 70 members, were lucky to share two of the nine badges. But even with two badges, students in the coalition made it work switching up who received the prized badge every couple of days. And whoever went into the conference room that day tracked down negotiators, trying to get their ear and persuade them to support strong climate legislation. They were strong, persistent and when push came to shove, feisty.

“These are not things that I was not involved in creating so we have to leverage the space in a way that we are heard and understood and we are going to hold [government leaders] accountable. So that is why we are [here]. And we will continue to do this no matter what,” Gibson said.

With lack of accessibility into the negotiating room, youth found other ways to get their voices heard. Dyanna Jaye and Timothy Damon, leaders of SustainUS, a U.S. youth environmental advocacy group, said they generated attention around these issues through measures like demonstrations and social media.

“[Youth] are really calling countries to task,” Damon said.

One of SustainUS’s primary goals is to decarbonize the global economy by 2050. This would require equal amounts of “carbon sinks” or places to absorb carbon like oceans and forests as the amount of emission outputs. To demonstrate this concept, youth drew an “O” around their right eye to represent zero-net emissions by 2050.

Youth were instrumental in some of the largest demonstrations reminding political leaders that they were in Paris, and demanding action.  Actions included the placement of 10,000 pairs of shoes in a Paris square (representing the number of people ready to march for climate action and social justice), to “fracktivist” rallies where youth demanded that “oil stay in the soil.”

And the noise didn’t stop in person. Hundreds of thousands of videos, podcasts, tweets and posts flowed out of the mouths of protestors onto the walls of social media.

And the pinging of the phone followed me back to the youth hostel where I was staying. Youth from around the world ended up sharing bunk beds and stories. The girl who lay in the bed next to me was from India and the boy in the bunk above me had be displaced from his home in Alaska due to rising sea levels. We talked about the environmental challenges in our own communities and shared solutions for the future. These conversations only began in the negotiation rooms and continued throughout the night, until the light shinning through the windows reminded us that it was morning.

Jaye explained one of the most important roles of youth: their “international identity.” Negotiators put their domestic concerns as number one, which can prevent necessary global action, she said. But youth, she added, stick with the big picture. Damon agrees.

“There is a generational identity taking priority over national identity,” Damon said.

Damon acknowledges flaws in youth activism like a high turnover rate of students since nobody is paid for their work. Also, there was a clear majority of youth from the Global North, where the conference was held. Regardless of the flaws, he agreed with Jaye that the role of youth is fundamental. He recalled specific examples. In this year’s text, he worked with the Guatemalan negotiator to include the importance of “intergenerational equality concerns” in the preamble of the agreement. Other youth contributed to an “environmental education” component of the agreement.

And even when youth were quiet, their presence had an impact. During climate talks in Warsaw in 2013, Damon recalled that the youth put black tape over their mouths to represent their lack of representation at the table. As negotiators left the meeting, he remembers them coming over to the youth to ask about their concerns.

Youth are not only active at the conference, but also when they come home.

“While youth bring an international perspective, they are still domestic actors,” Damon said.

As domestic actors, youth can take what they learned from all of their experiences ranging from late night talks with the students sleeping in the bunk above them to the message of a girl speaking up at a rally.

I for one, look forward to bringing those lessons home.

Students represent what they believe is the relationship between the oil industry and the public.

Students represent what they believe is the relationship between the oil industry and the public.


Below is a video Talia made about youth participation at COP21.

Check out Talia’s blog here:

January 21st, 2016


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