NWF View: No Escape

No Escape

  • Mark Van Putten
  • Aug 01, 1998
Many of us take vacations to escape, albeit briefly, reality. But for those who love wildlife and wild places, it´s hard to escape the reality of a world in peril.

I was reminded of this recently when, after the NWF Annual Meeting, I vacationed with my family near Stuart, Florida, on the Indian River Lagoon. Although tired, I left home invigorated by the volunteer leaders from across America who attended the meeting to debate conservation-policy resolutions, to elect NWF´s board of directors, and to attend workshops on lobbying, media training and other important skills for the dedicated citizen activist. I left for Florida inspired by the power of individuals who join forces and find common cause through organizations like NWF to make a difference.

When I arrived I found a river and a community under siege. The dumping of polluted fresh water from an overfull Lake Okeechobee into the saline Indian River Lagoon had apparently triggered an outbreak of a toxic microorganism related to Pfiesteria, which wreaked havoc last summer in the Chesapeake Bay and before that in North Carolina´s Pamlico and Neuse Rivers. The lagoon, stretching 155 miles along Florida´s eastern coast as part of the intracoastal waterway, is hardly pristine. It has suffered from an explosion of development driven by "snow birds" like me, but I´ve been fishing and canoeing the lagoon near Stuart for more than 25 years during regular visits and have grown to love the beauty and mysteries of its mangrove-lined waters and tidal flats.

The degradation of the Indian River Lagoon reached a crisis point this year. Local residents were up in arms over the pollution, including my friends at the local tackle shop and the fishing guide with whom I´ve fished over the years. So, I joined hundreds of concerned citizens in packing an elementary school auditorium seeking answers and immediate action from state and local officials. We got neither.

As is so often the case, the cause-and-effect link between the pollution and its impacts was as murky as the once-clear waters of the lagoon´s inlet. Calls for immediate action to stop the pollution foundered on the bureaucratic realities of studies, plans, budgets, timetables and competing interests. All we were left with by the end of the meeting was our outrage.

Outrage may be the origin of activism, but it´s not enough. To stop pollution and protect beloved places, citizen activists need access to scientific, media, legal and political expertise. They need to organize their collective clout. They need access to the key decision makers in the right agencies at the right time in the complicated processes of government decision making. And most of all, they need to be reassured that a few deeply committed people who persevere can succeed, whether it´s saving the Indian River Lagoon or restoring the larger Everglades ecosystem of which it is a part. And that´s where grass-roots groups like NWF come in.

There´s no escaping the reality that quick, easy and permanent victories are rare in the cause of conservation. The only way to save or restore the diverse and wonderful places like the Indian River is to marry the passion and dedication of citizens who know and love them with the experience and savvy of professional staff such as the scientists, lawyers, media specialists, educators and lobbyists employed by NWF. That´s what the National Wildlife Federation is all about: combining the resources of a national organization with the commitment of caring individuals to make a future for wildlife and wild places. It´s a big responsibility, one from which there is no escape.

Mark Van Putten
President & Chief Executive Officer
National Wildlife Federation

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