NWF View: President Larry Schweiger Bids Farewell
A conservation leader reflects upon his years of service at National Wildlife Federation
Larry J. Schweiger, NWF President & Chief Executive Officer
THIS IS A DIFFICULT EDITORIAL TO WRITE because it will be my last. After having first joined NWF as a regional executive 33 years ago, this closing statement does not come easily. On the eve of my retirement, I hope my final thoughts can be worthwhile.
Fifty years ago, I stood disheartened on the shores of Lake Erie. Beaches that once were inviting were blackened by algal slime and littered with decomposing fish and broken bottles. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed over the rotting remains. Each churning breaker in the lake emitted a new blast of stench from the raw sewage in its anoxic cargo. At that moment, witnessing what surely would be the end of the lake’s famed game fish, the blue pike, I vowed to make restoring the environment my life’s purpose.
Fortunately, in my youth, I was able to volunteer with several extraordinary mentors who instilled confidence and inspired a passion for nature. Lenny Green, Ralph Abele, M. K. Goddard, Roger Latham and Mike Ondik all had a deep understanding of humanity’s vital interdependence on each and every fiber of nature. Acting from a strong sense of obligation, they defended the natural world against the forces of greed and the hubris of those who think we can live apart from nature.
Through their eyes, I discovered that humanity was ignoring the immutable laws that govern all of nature and that humans would one day pay a heavy price for that ignorance. In his own way, each mentor revealed insights into nature’s magical rhythms. Ralph Abele once admonished, “The unique power bestowed on each individual to do good and even change the course of history quite often is underestimated.” Such words motivated me to give my best as my mentors had given their best. These leaders maintained hope and encouraged collaboration to protect the world that would pass to our children’s children.
I was always attracted to NWF because my conservation-minded parents were leaders in an affiliated group at the time, the Breakneck Beagle Club. As a volunteer and later as a staff member for the Federation, I witnessed a number of important environmental successes. Now, looking back over the many years, I realize that NWF played a vital role in nearly every major environmental achievement in this country, from protecting wild lands in Alaska and restoring the Florida Everglades to passage of clean water and clean air laws. It is a compelling story of accomplishment by dedicated staff and generous volunteers, board and advisory members.
Knowing that certain experiences in our youth can trigger authentic and abiding connections to nature, NWF continues to engage millions of American youth in nature. When coupled with a nurturing mentor, these outdoor experiences can spark passion for protection of wildlife. Along with many local partners, our staff is connecting more and more children to meaningful outdoor experiences and advancing environmental education across the nation through the Eco-Schools USA program.
Ten years ago, we made it our mission at NWF to confront climate change. Along with our partners, we achieved passage of a strong federal motor-vehicle rule that is triggering a profound transformation in the auto industry, leading to production of more efficient hybrids and cleaner diesel and electric cars.
We also were successful in pushing through a tough mercury and toxic-pollution rule that is shutting down many old dirty coal-fired plants that have harmed our children. We contributed to the defense of California’s far-reaching cap-and-trade law against the attack of polluters. And we currently are supporting EPA’s “new source rule” and the soon to be proposed “existing source rules,” understanding that they are stopgap measures until a responsible carbon policy can be put in place by the U.S. Congress to cut emissions dramatically.
Because it is too late to avoid some climate-induced damage to our environment, NWF has been leading the charge for developing climate-smart conservation tactics that will help planners and resource managers anticipate climate impacts on vulnerable ecosystems and species. We are helping to identify vulnerabilities and promote resiliency planning, adaptation and wildlife restoration, including our ongoing work with American bison.
Scientists everywhere have been warning for years just how dire the climate situation is, and certain media outlets are beginning to state the facts of climate change in very real terms and with very concrete examples. As a result, more and more people are beginning to understand what we at NWF have been saying for decades: Climate disruption is real, it is occurring now, and it is extremely dangerous to ignore.
Despite this looming crisis, too many members of Congress remain under the influence of “dark” money and have completely failed in their duty to address the root cause of increased extreme-weather risks. We must continue to confront the political barriers, including the data-driven gerrymandering and voter suppression, that distort the electoral process, discourage voters and block progress.
Sadly, seasons unfold before I am ready. Winter is on me, yet I still have so much to do. My impending departure from NWF is a bittersweet moment. Our failure to achieve passage of a federal climate-protection law strong enough to do the job is the bitter part. The sweet part is knowing that the Federation staff will continue to carry on to inspire Americans to defend wildlife for our children’s future.
I am not stopping my quest to end carbon pollution, and I will mentor five precious grandsons who are counting on us to win this fight. I want to introduce them to the woods, lakes and “cricks” that have been my true alma mater.
I will always hold a special place in my heart for my many devoted fellow conservationists. Thank you for supporting NWF and for helping us stand up for the future of wildlife. Knowing that you will continue to do so, I am ready for the next step in my journey, reconciling myself to the mysterious rhythms of life.