04 July 2020

Imperfect Conservation: Intersection of Research and Application

Written by: My Nguyen

During my undergraduate career, I spent three weeks in Mo’orea, a small French Polynesian island. I was joined by 14 other students for a field quarter where we each conducted an ecological study.

Our 21 days on the island were grueling, with 12 hours of data collection followed by data analysis and lab work late into the night. The writing and publication process continued through the rest of the quarter, and for the next year. My team’s paper was on risk classification in a species of photosynthetic giant clam. I am proud of my work, but I cannot help but think, “so what?”. The paper is effectively shelved away into the electronic libraries of research journals. So much time and resources went into the study, but will it have any impact besides the accumulation of knowledge for the sake of knowledge? I realized that academia is not fulfilling for me, so I steered my career towards application of that knowledge.

That brings me to my fellowship with the Sacramento Fish & Wildlife Office, where I have the opportunity to develop a recovery implementation plan for the endangered Bakersfield cactus. Unfortunately, I am now looking at the other side of the coin: I do not have all of the scientific knowledge necessary to confidently make recommendations to secure the future of this species. I, and other scientists in the office, make do with the best available science, which can be full of gaps or was developed decades ago. The experience has been frustrating, but I am closer to accepting the simple truth that conservation is imperfect. It is better to develop a plan with the available information than to wait on research that may never occur while the species remains at risk. In addition to incomplete foundational data, there are challenges of legislation and regulations, networking with partners, and the one word that I have heard more than any other: funding. It is disheartening when environmental issues are identified, conservation plans are developed, and willing partners are lined up for it to all fall through because of money.

I believe that repairing our relationship with natural resources is how we solve the problem of funding. An aspect of the U.S Fish & Wildlife Service’s and HAF’s missions that is especially important to me is connecting people with nature. To me, placing people in nature is the best way to build connections and develop a sense of stewardship between people and their environment. People who care about the environment will be people who advocate for the environment, work in conservation, and elect leaders that push for investments in nature. There are many other things that are imperfect about conservation, as I discussed in my previous blog, but none that are unfixable. As we continue to navigate issues in conservation and issues with racial injustice, which often intersect, it may help to reflect on a quote by Dr. John Francis: “We are the environment and how we treat each other is really how we treat the environment.”

Agency: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Program: US Fish & Wildlife Service - DFP

Location: Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office

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