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Reflecting on everyday conservation

5/31/2006

Comedian Stephen Wright once said, "there's a fine line between fishing and
standing on the shore like an idiot."

It's a comment about perception. If you don't see an angler catch a fish,
you may think he's just standing on the shore. As director of the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service, I've seen how conservation itself is much like
fishing.

The long and steady work that goes into conservation is not
always readily apparent. People may only realize that progress has been
made when the work yields something truly remarkable, and preferably
photogenic — the fish dangling from the hook, so to speak.

I've thought about this many times during the short walk from my office in
the Department of the Interior to the Mall that stretches from the
Washington Monument to the arching dome of the Capitol.

On April 22, 1970,
this park played center stage for tens of thousands of people concerned
about the environment; millions more expressed the same concerns elsewhere
throughout the country. It was the first Earth Day.

Every year on this date, we clean up streams, recycle cans, and hold events
to demonstrate our responsibility to care for the Earth. But, often
unseen, work goes on each of the other 364 days of the year through
on-the-ground projects both large and small; through ethics passed down for
generations; through the humble notion of responsibility for the future.

Concern for the environment is not new — it is a part of our American
tradition and heritage. Just as we owe a great deal to the activists and
politicians of the 1960's who started this movement and passed our landmark
environmental laws, they owed something to those who went before.

Down the hall from my office is a room once occupied by Rachel Carson, author of
"Silent Spring." She, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, John Muir, and Aldo
Leopold, are some of the better known voices who helped focus public
attention on conservation.

One lesser known hero was a German immigrant named Paul Kroegel whose
concern for waterbirds on a small island in Florida triggered a
conservation legacy now known as the National Wildlife Refuge System.

On March 14, 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island as
a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. Today, the National
Wildlife Refuge System encompasses 95 million acres on 540 different
refuges, providing habitat to countless plants and animals and hosting more
than 35 million visitors each year. Part of the idea behind refuges is to
connect people to the outdoors, so they will appreciate the significance of
conserving their natural heritage.

While the refuge system celebrates its 100th Anniversary this year, even
older is the Service's Fisheries program, established in 1871 because of
concern over the decline of food fishes.

Today, our aquatic species and
habitats face many challenges undreamed of then — the spread of
destructive invasive species, illustrated by Maryland's encounter last year
with snakehead fish; increasing demands on water supplies; obstacles that
block fish passage in our streams and rivers; and a decline in many
species of our native mussels, which are often indicators of the overall
health of our waters.

Yet in recent years, our Fisheries program has
struggled with a maintenance backlog and understaffed facilities. It was
considered by some to be a sinking ship. But now the Service and its many
partners are working hard to repair this boat.

States, non-government
organizations, and recreational industry partners have come together to set
a solid course for fisheries conservation in the 21st century. Last
January, at a historic Fisheries Conference, Secretary Norton announced
that the President would seek a budget increase of $9 million for
fisheries. The Fisheries Program is turning the corner.

A spirit of cooperation will certainly be required to restore our aquatic
resources and to address the many other challenges that face the
conservation community.

Conservationists span a vast spectrum of members:
non-profit organizations; outdoor clubs; private landowners; corporate
sponsors; tribes; state and federal agencies; hunters; anglers; birders;
concerned individuals; and many others.

Partnerships are the cornerstone to
conservation. I am grateful that the list of our partners and friends is
long and varied. But they are similar in that they all focus on the future
and they all begin from the same place.

While Earth Day is an opportunity
to spotlight some of the challenges that lie ahead, it is also an
opportunity to celebrate and reflect upon where concern for the environment
really begins — in the human spirit.

Contrary to the comic's remark, there really is no line between fishing and
standing on the shore.

There is no line that separates the end result from
the quiet and endless labor of achieving it. The millions of Americans who
dedicate themselves to conservation don't do it for instant glory; they do
it for the prolonged health of the environment — and for future
generations.