Friday, 13 Jun 2003

PALISADES, N.Y.

First thing this morning, I met with board members via telephone conference to check in about all the task forces engaged in strategic planning for Wildlife Trust. We have created task forces to address critical issues for our next five years in a wide range of areas: operations, the international alliance of conservation scientists, positioning and marketing, development, and creating a business plan. It is my job to help the board members stay on track as they address issues that are important to staff, and to make sure that staff members remain engaged in framing the issues and working out methods to advance the organization along the strategic priorities established by the board.

If that sounds a little circular, it’s because a circle of communication and feedback is the key to how a successful nonprofit functions. Since Claudio will be returning to Brazil over the weekend, I invited him to talk to the board about his views on the direction of Wildlife Trust over the next five years. One critical question we addressed was the “macro objective” of Wildlife Trust: What is our envisioned completion point? One wish I would have for Wildlife Trust would be for us to become, and be recognized as, the best organization for producing and putting into practice innovations in conservation science at model sites in the U.S. and around the world. The challenge is to design a clear and measurable pathway so that we can all recognize and agree when we have succeeded in reaching that goal.

Next on the day’s agenda was a meeting with a Washington, D.C.-based board member, Philip Bermingham, who is visiting New York. He is new to the board and brimming with ideas on how we can attract more members and donors, based on his extensive experience as a member of the boards of several arts organizations. His enthusiasm is welcome and very encouraging in this gloomy economic climate.

Then I drop by the headquarters of the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation at Columbia University. CERC is a consortium of five institutions, including Wildlife Trust. Our official link to this top university enables our professional staff to advise students, interact with colleagues there, and in general stay sharp. I stop by to handle some administrative issues.

By the time I’m done there it’s noon, and I have to set off for Connecticut to give a speech to the members of Chester West, a seniors’ residence in Connecticut. Several weeks ago, I chose as the title for my speech, “Taking responsibility for disease emergence: the links between SARS, Lyme Disease, and West Nile encephalitis.” As I drove up I-95 from New York to Connecticut, I thought through my remarks.

I know from past lectures that people will be genuinely surprised to learn that their land-use choices can promote diseases. Much as the SARS virus jumped from wildlife to humans in a crowded landscape in southern China, Lyme disease became an epidemic when New York suburbs fragmented habitat and artificially elevated populations of white-footed mice and deer, the chief carriers of the Lyme spirochete that ticks bring to people when they bite them.

My goal will be to use the movement of pathogens like the Lyme spirochete to introduce the audience to the concept of the greater metropolitan region as a natural area, as opposed to one based on politics or culture, which is typically how people in our region view where they live. If one doesn’t see where one lives as a natural area, it is easy to ignore the fact that all our lives are bound together in a common set of watersheds and landscapes. If one feels no such connection, there can be no sense of common responsibility for clean air, water, and lands. At Wildlife Trust we call an area like this a bioscape — a human/natural landscape mosaic whose geographic area is defined by a common sphere of human influence.

Fred Koontz paddling in the New York bioscape.

Photo: Wildlife Trust.

Fred Koontz, who came up with the concept of the bioscape, is also the director of our work here, in which we integrate science and ecosystem management with other human activities that affect the landscape. Our task is to form multidisciplinary teams to solve complex environmental problems and create a regional “sense of place” among local citizens. More than anything else, our research on the interactions between wildlife, human, and ecosystem health enlightens people to our common future and responsibility.

The talk is well received, and I am escorted to a reception to chat with this wonderfully enthusiastic group of elders. I am touched and inspired by their engagement and concern for the future of their children and grandchildren, and I hope that in turn, I have inspired some of them to become members of Wildlife Trust.

I also hope that in sharing the last five days with me, you have also become interested in the mission of our organization. I invite you to come visit us at our website, and become involved.