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From The Nature Conservancy:
Someday, this article won’t have to be written. Someday, projects won’t need to be highlighted specifically because women are leading them. Someday, we will get to the point where we won’t have to ask what it’s like being a woman working alone in nature or the only woman in a boardroom. Someday, we will have greater gender equity in conservation.
To get to that day, it is important we elevate the women doing amazing conservation work so that other women will realize, “I can do that, too.”
(THERE’S NO CONSERVATION WITHOUT WOMEN (2:00) As the first woman to be CEO of The Nature Conservancy, Jennifer Morris has seen how frequently women and people of color have been absent from conservation decision making. Representation matters for women, for conservation, and for our future.)
The Nature Conservancy has example after example of women rising above barriers—which is especially incredible given that the global pandemic disproportionately impacts women—to do what it takes in the name of conservation:
The woman who hiked stormy mountains alone for weeks to collect pine needles for genetic testing. The women who practically lived underwater for days to repair coral reefs. The woman who built her own equipment to more efficiently restore forests. All of the women who, for a full year now, have managed their work from makeshift home offices, while sometimes caring for their sick family members, teaching their children, and trying to keep loved ones healthy and sane.
TNC is earnestly working towards a more equitable future that welcomes and promotes women and other underrepresented groups. Like any large organization, we may stumble along the way. But we’re proud to have hired our first female CEO, first female Chief Scientist, and the roughly 40% of our directors and issue experts who are women.
We recognize that, often, when gender is highlighted it’s typically to help advance specific conservation goals. We choose to discuss the science of conservation and highlight our brilliant scientists regardless of gender. Nevertheless, we are proud that many of our scientists identify as female, and that they bring their own valuable and diverse perspectives to our work.
A 30-year chain of mentoring uplifts generations of women in science
“I don’t get the sense that younger women are as conscious of their gender in the workplace as I needed to be 30 years ago,” says Samantha Horn, Maine’s Director of Science. “But the transition from outright prohibition of women in science, to hazing, to women being seen as exceptions, to being accepted as normal took a century.”
Horn is part of what she calls a chain of mentoring: recognizing the perseverance of the women who came before her and helping to advance the women who come after her. She remembers hearing about the awful treatment her mentors had to put up with simply for being a woman in science. Like being told to their faces, “you’re a woman, you’re not allowed to have this job.”
One of her mentors, Sandy Ritchie, never had a mentor who was a woman. When she started as a biologist with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in the 1980s, Ritchie was one of only two women. Over her 31-year career she learned to navigate gender-based hiring and promotion practices (including turning down a promotion that she learned was given not for merit, but for gender), comments and actions from male biologists that would now be recognized as sexual harassment, and worked up to a senior level position, paving a path for Horn and other women to follow.
Horn is proud of her mentor for handling the comments and treatment with strength and grace, and appreciates that she persevered for the next generation. And while she feels lucky she didn’t have to go through some of those same challenges, it still wasn’t smooth sailing for her. Horn believes the next evolution is that both men and women will feel like it’s completely normal for a woman to be a scientist, not that it’s a new challenge or that a woman who is a scientist is special.
Horn, in turn, mentors Molly Payne Wynne, the Freshwater Program Director for TNC in Maine. Payne Wynne says it can be challenging to show up as your full self in a room full of men with preconceived notions about women in science. “Women are still outnumbered in fisheries meetings, but it’s getting better,” she says.
Payne Wynne believes young women and girls need to see women in science positions so they will think, “I, too, can be a scientist.” She wants her young daughter to know she can be anything she wants to be. “I pay attention to books and movies that show women in traditionally male jobs,” she says. “I want her to know that ‘scientist’ or ‘forester’ are inclusive of women.”
Back when she was starting out, Ritchie never had the goal of breaking into a male-dominated profession. She just loved the work and always knew that’s what she wanted to do. That said, she believes in the power of hiring for diversity.
“I think in the beginning some men were concerned whether women could physically do the job,” she says. “Working alone in remote areas, in adverse weather conditions, and handling heavy equipment and the occasional unwelcome moose was all part of the job. As more women were hired, we proved that what we may have lacked in physical strength we made up for with ingenuity and perseverance.”
Today, Payne Wynne uses social media to connect with an extensive support network of women in fisheries all across the world. In these online groups, women can get help with everything from navigating sexual harassment in the workplace to finding wetsuits and other field gear that’s made for women’s bodies.
“I think it’s very different for this generation of women scientists compared to previous generations,” she says. “These groups help me navigate and embrace what it means to be a woman in my job.”
“We need more chairs around the table” to advance conservation
This visible representation is especially important for Indigenous women and women of color. The global conservation community has been historically dominated by mostly white, wealthy men. TNC has not escaped this characterization, nor has it always been a haven for all women. Though we’re learning and making progress, we’re not there yet: most of the stories shared here are from white women in the United States.
(A LEADER FOR HER COMMUNITY (2:05) Habiba Tadicha was the first woman elected chair of a Northern Rangelands Trust-member conservancy, and is now the vice chair of NRT’s Council of Elders. “I became a leader because I saw that women are being left behind.”)
TNC knows we cannot achieve conservation success without a diversity of women from around the world. We cannot protect the most vulnerable and valuable lands and waters or slow climate change without women in positions of power and out in the field doing the science.
“We need more chairs around the table,” says Dale Threatt-Taylor, State Director for The Nature Conservancy South Carolina, and TNC’s first Black state director. “It’s going to be a much better discussion with everyone at the table.”
Dale has been a visible Black woman in conservation for much of her 25-year career. Raised to be independent, she says with a big smile, “I’m all Dale all the time. I can do anything!”
There’s no separating Dale’s feminine self from her conservationist self. She calls herself “equally effective in boots or heels”, both of which sometimes need spurs to get things done.
Noting the tendency of women to not apply for jobs if they don’t meet or exceed every listed qualification, she wants women to understand they don’t have to be the best of the best or think they’ll be pushing a man out of a chair.
“I encourage young professionals to at least be in the room where it happens,” she says, singing the last few words in a nod to the musical Hamilton. “If people can see me sitting in a chair, they might also see that there are bigger chairs. But we’re not always going to be in these chairs, and we need women to come along after us. You can be mothers and wives and still help life on this planet.”
How intersectional feminism and public policy join forces for conservation
A person’s perspective on conservation and development can vary greatly depending on what social groups they belong to (such as gender or sexuality, income, physical ability, geographical location, race or ethnicity). Our conservation work requires this intersectional lens, according to Sarah Gammage, Director of Public Policy and Governmental Relations for TNC in Latin America. Crucially, nature-based solutions should not depend on the unpaid time or labor of certain groups, such as women and children, nor only benefit landowners and not also benefit the people working those lands.
Latin America is rapidly urbanizing and looking more like Europe now, causing the majority of people to have a less direct link to the land. This can mean that policymakers are also more disconnected from the perspectives of those who still directly depend on that land (not to mention everyone who depends on functioning planetary systems for life). Taking a feminist perspective on public policy can mean improving our collective future. “We need everybody thinking about and bringing their different perspectives,” says Gammage. “Diversity enriches our work.”
(INVOLVING WOMEN IN CONSERVATION (4:57) Robyn James, Gender Advisor for TNC in Asia Pacific, helps rural women get involved in making the conservation decisions that impact their lives and their communities.)
Gammage is also personally aware of how a person’s social groups can influence their perspective on conservation. British by birth and currently living in the United States, Gammage has lived and worked in various Latin American countries in a career that has spanned almost three decades. “I think of myself as a privileged first-worlder, but I’ve lived as a migrant in other countries most of my life,” she says.
She lived in many places where she didn’t have the right to vote or even express her opinion about policy or politics. “It makes me think deeply about less privileged migrants and their rights,” she says. As a member of the International Association for Feminist Economics, she brings a gender and intersectional analysis to her public policy work.
“Women can invest in natural climate solutions such as regenerative agriculture when they own the land, when they have financial resources, and when the responsibilities of household maintenance is more equitable,” says Gammage. “Development will be more inclusive and outcomes more just when there’s less gender segregation across all jobs and sectors.”
Male allies show that gender equity is expected
The time for acting on climate change and conserving the lands and waters on which all life depends is now. We can’t get there without everyone working together and bringing their full selves and diverse perspectives to this monumental work. Women are crucial, and we know we can’t achieve the results we need without people of all genders working together. And someday, maybe even soon, women in science roles will be commonplace.
Men have a critical role in promoting the visibility of women in conservation. TNC offers active bystander training to staff which empowers everyone to speak up against injustice.
Both Horn and Payne Wynne, scientists with TNC in Maine, remember times when a comment caught them off guard and a male colleague stepped in. “People who can say something in the moment, while I’m in shock, are almost more important than those who will follow up later,” says Payne Wynne.
Horn agrees. “When men speak up in a room with other men, it becomes clear that the majority of the people in the room value and respect women,” she says. “It can change an inappropriate comment from a threat to an annoyance, a one-off that’s not representative of the work culture.” Women know they’re respected for their work as scientists, and everyone has an expectation of gender equity.
This active bystander training benefits people with multiple identities, like Threatt-Taylor. “Being a Black woman in the South, sometimes you need tough skin to get the work done,” she says. “The farmer you’re working with might have a confederate flag on the truck, or someone will make an unsavory comment. But it’s encouraging when people speak up for my work. I know that my colleagues recognize my work ethic, talents, and skills. It’s a great thing.”
This support allows women to bring their unique perspectives and contributions to our important work. This work is a calling, a passion, a job that isn’t just a paycheck but a purpose. “If I don’t do the thing I’m good at,” says Horn, “I won’t have made my best contribution.”
From Luna B. Leopold Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720:
This paper was the keynote address to the Governor’s Conference on the California Drought, Los Angeles, California, March 7, I972
In the years around 450 B.C., that is about 2,400 years ago, the most widely travelled of the time was Herodotus. His book The Persian Wars differs from any previous written history in that he was conscious of the influences of geography, climate, and social custom in the direction of development of political and economic history of a state.
In all the intervening time, we seem not to have learned how the political and economic aspects of our lives are related to geog- raphy and climate, nor have we been able to bend social custom to accept the constraints placed on us by geography and climate. One of the obvious constraints is the finite nature of nonrenewable resources. Even those resources that are not physically destroyed by use, as oil and coal are destroyed by burning, are usually so geographically dispersed by use that they can never again be collected together in usable concentrations. This happens to many metals on which we depend.
As far as renewable resources, such as water and timber, are concerned, all are parts of operating natural systems that can be deranged with very troublesome results. The hydrologic system of precipitation, streamflow, sediment, dissolved salts, ground water and evapotranspiration is typical of a system that can be deranged. Moreover, such operating systems are subject to natural fluctuations resulting from climate and geography. These fluctuations can be lessened but not eliminated.
The management of resources cannot be carried out successfully if it is looked upon as just another facet of economics, administration, and politics. Yet the latter view describes rather accurately our present approach to resource use (it can hardly
be called management).
The view that Herodotus elaborated had little effect on the course of events between the time of Alexander’s death and the final conquest of Greece by Rome. Neither he nor any of the ad- ministrative and political leaders knew how to use a philosophic view of geography, climate, and social development to guide the direction of history. Again and again the requirements of crisis governed even long-range decisions that might better have been deferred until the crisis had passed and the decision makers could afford a more balanced or philosophic view of the future.
But crisis offers an advantage in that wide attention is attracted to the problem even if its underlying causes are perforce clouded by the immediacy of pressure. There is at least a greater possibility that diverse factions might be persuaded to look more closely at their common problems and perceive what unanimity eirists in their joint aspirations.
In suggesting here some aspects of the geographic, climatic, and sociological aspects of our resource problem, I recognize well enough that none of us knows how to put into operation a philosophy of water management, but there may be some merit in ex- amining some of the elements that might be included in such a philosophy.
In choosing three particular elements, out of many possible ones, to mention here, I have chosen one to fit each of the three classes of argument usually marshalled against their consideration. Against philosophic points of view, the contrary arguments include (1) Our technology can fix it; (2) It is politically impos- sible; and (3)It is an example of the impractical idealism of crackpot environmentalists.
First, in the construction of any engineering project, there always will remain some final increment of risk. Because it cannot be eliminated, it is necessary to know in advance how one will deal with that unusual event when it finally comes to pass. The answer to this will be: “We will build more dams and bigger ones.” In other works, our technology will fix it.
Second, in the face of obvious limitations of resources, whether renewable or nonrenewable, continued and indefinite expansion of resource use is patently impossible. Some movement toward a steady-state condition that lies within the bounds of resource availability is not only the crux of a resource management philosophy but is also the acid test of leadership. I do not consider this politically impossible. The public is learning. It may well be the best political course to pursue.
Third, there is a balance or harmony in natural systems which, dictated by the laws of physics, has gradually developed during the 4 billion years of Earth’s history. The maintenance of this balance is not only to the advantage of human organization, but should be the object of both our wonder and our admiration. The desire-to preserve this harmony must also be incorporated into any philosophy of water management, and I will call this, as did Herodotus, a reverence for rivers. If this is environmental idealism, then let it be said that I am an idealist.
On the first point, any building, every bridge we drive over, every dam that stores water, every highway culvert is designed for a chosen load considered to represent a reasonable choice between the costs of stronger building and the costs of failure. Only in the design of the spillway of a large dam is the maximum possible event used in the calculations. In the design of a stormwater sewer system on city streets, the event is usually that which may be expected on the average once in 15 or 20 years. Small earth dams built by government agencies usually use a spillway design such that failure once every 25 or 30 years is expectable. In all interstate highways where federal money is used, the design criterion for culverts is the 50-year event. When, as will surely happen sooner or later, a more extreme event occurs, it is assumed that the structure will fail or will at least not carry out its designed function.
Water-supply structures such as reservoirs are no exception. The residual risk can be reduced by building more of them and larger ones, but each increment of storage has less effect than the previous one and costs much more. The limit is reached, as on the mainstem of the Colorado River, in which if more storage is provided, the increase in evaporation cancels out any increase in the controlled yield of water.
Interestingly, the schemes ordinarily used for supplying water do not include any definite plans for handling the situation that is sure to arise sooner or later when the normal variance in hyrdologic phenomena brings about the improbably but expectable deficiency. Even the rainfall condition in 1977 is comparable in probability to that faced gladly by many people who play a game of chance such as roulette. At San Francisco, for example, the probability of a recurrence of the lowest rainfall year on record, 1958, is 270, or 2 chances out of 100. That is to say the probability of such a low rainfall occurring in any year is 1 in 50. At the same precipitation station, the lowest total in 2 successive years was in 1958-1959. In that 2-year period, 26.06 inches fell. The probability of this event is also just about 270, or 1 chance in 50. Again at that station, the lowest 3-year total was in the years 1958-1960. The probability of occurrence of such a low 3-year total is close to 170, or 1 chance in 100.
Now turning to the present year, if at the same San Francisco station (Sunset District) the rainfall in the present year reaches 10 inches, then the 3-year total on June 30 will be 44.4 inches. This total will have a probability of 370, or 1 in 33. The same kind of probability analysis can be made on any other station, groups of stations, or streamflow record. The present drought is obviously serious. It is unusual. But it is expectable on the basis of the past record. In other words, it will occur again in the future.
The difficulty we find ourselves in is not due to the fact that the present drought is impossible to imagine. It could not be predicted, but its eventual occurrence was assured. We are caught with minimal plans to deal with an event sure to occur. Whereas for earthquakes the occurrence is not susceptible to probability analysis because the causal mechanisms are not random, for cli mate the hydrologic phenomena of flood and drought may be treated statistically, and good estimates of probability are available to us. The departure from the mean value is expectable, but the particular year or years in which it will occur cannot be forecast. Such is the nature of hydrologic events.
In a management philosophy and plan, it is far more necessary to minimize impact of dry years than to contend with wet ones. [ed. emphasis mine] Though the risk of a deficient year is always present, seldom are definite plans on hand to cope with the situation when it finally arises. Rather, at the time of crisis there is a tendency toward grandiose plans to eliminate one further increment of risk, but a residual risk remains. The same crisis will occur again, less often but equally sure. Now is the time to lay plans for meeting an assured future event. It is not the time to plan expensive projects to reduce the risk by some small increment.
There are strategies that might help prepare for such eventualities. They will ameliorate the losses but not eliminate all hardships. However, as in all water development, they require time and advance preparation. One is as follows: There are in various parts of the western states groundwater bodies too deep to be economically developed under usual economic standards, or they have marginal water quality. These, and especially those remnants of the ice-age ground-water bodies not being recharged now, should be saved from ordinary development and reserved only for times of exceptional need. But advance engineering is needed to explore and tap them and to connect to them transmis- sion lines ready for some future contingency.
It is hardly in the public interest progressively to deplete stored but irreplaceable groundwater bodies whose greatest social use might be as unused reserve to be drawn on sporadically only when the need is grave. Such sporadic use would greatly extend the life of such irreplaceable water and would put it to a highly valued use.
In contrast, we are in several regions continuing to pump groundwater that is not being replenished. Apparently we will continue to do so as long as present conditions make its withdrawal even marginally economic. In some instances even this slim economic margin is made possible only by public subsidy through price supports.
There are many other strategies. The reuse of treated waste water is an obvious one. In this instance also, even if continued reuse on a permanent basis is uneconomic, advance preparation to reuse treated water in emergencies would be an approach to the problem of the residual risk.
Second, the occurrence of improbable but expectable deficiencies in any resource should remind us that ever-continuing growth in resource use is the antithesis of a philosophy that faces reality. In our economic climate there are few if any precedents for a fundamental re-examination of this matter and its consequences. To face this inevitable future requires the highest level of statesmanship, and crisis may provide the impetus for developing a new outlook.
The course in the past in which any and all persons may presume that they will be provided the usual resources of water, energy, and other public commodities, at any geographic location and forever in time, must eventually be abandoned. It cannot be assumed that if concentration of people continues unabated they will necessarily be supplied with those resources which at an earlier date were either nearly free or at least less expensive.
Finally, a philosophy of water management must pay heed to the fact that the hydrologic system is a highly interconnected plumbing network. Changes made in one part of the system have influences downstream. The continued functioning of the system is of great importance. To test whether the system is operating satisfactorily by economic and legal criteria alone will not guaran- tee its continued health. What is needed is some deeper feeling.
Speaking of the Persians who dominated Asia Minor in the 5th century B.C., Herodotus said, “They never defile a river with the secretions of their bodies, nor even wash their hands in one; nor will they allow others to do so, as they have a great reverence for rivers.” It is the last phrase that deserves our attention. The river is like an organism; it is internally self-adjusting. It is also resilient and can absorb changes imposed upon it, but not without limit. The limit beyond which a river cannot adjust is well illustrated by some of the effects of our national program of channelization, in which we have already dredged, straightened, channelled, revetted, trained, and “improved” more than 16,500 miles of river channels in the United States, quite apart from the thou- sands of reservoirs already built. On the drawing board of federal agencies are plans to “improve” similarly another 10,000 miles of river channels. As one minor example, the Blackwater River in Missouri was straightened and shortened 60 years ago and has since then continually and progressively lowered its bed by erosion, washing’out a succession of bridges built increasingly larger. Downstream from the improved area, flooding has increased. The river has not been able to re-establish its equilibrium.
The great geographer, William Morris Davis, viewed the river system as having a life of its own. Its youthful headwaters, he said, are steep and rugged. It rushes toward the sea, eroding bed and bank on its way. In its central part, it is mature, winding sedately through wide valleys adjusted to its duty of transporting water and sediment. Near its mouth it has reached, in its old age, a nearly level plain through which it wanders in a somewhat aimless course toward final extinction as it joins the ocean that had provided the sustaining waters through its whole life span.
Man’s engineering capabilities are nearly limitless. Our economic views are too insensitive to be the only criteria for judging the health of the river organism. What is needed is a gentler basis for perceiving the effects of our engineering capabilities. This more humble view of our relation to the hydrologic system requires a modicum of reverence for rivers.
What is old is new again.