Author, birder advocates for "expanding the range"

J.Drew Lanham speaks at the Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources on Monday at UConn. (Judy Benson/The Day)
J.Drew Lanham speaks at the Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources on Monday at UConn. (Judy Benson/The Day)

Storrs — Think of yourself as a bird.

To J. Drew Lanham, a self-described black birder who seeks to “connect the conservation dots” across ethnicity, culture, art and science, that means examining where you forage for your favorite foods, and how you make choices about where you live and travel based on your preferred mate selection, your predation risk from crime and where you can thrive.

Next, Lanham, a professor of wildlife ecology at Clemson University in South Carolina, challenged his audience to expand their range, and with it, how they act on their own conservation ethic.

“How do we protect the lands around the large swaths of conservation lands that wildlife need?” asked Lanham, the keynote speaker at the 10th annual Connecticut Conference on Natural Resources at the University of Connecticut on Monday. “We are going to have to talk to different people. Conservation hinges on attitudes and actions, and we can’t afford to keep talking to the same people at the same meetings. We need to be widening the audiences of those concerned about the environment and conservation through inclusion.”

The "d-word” — diversity — isn’t enough, he added. Instead, the goal must be inclusion, which he defined as “the act of embracing the well-being of those who are impacted by what happens.”

Author of “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” which was published in October, Lanham said he approaches his work as an ornithologist with equal allegiance both to advancing the science of his field and championing outreach to the public about nature, especially to underserved populations. Environmental goals cannot move forward otherwise, he believes.

Environmentalists and leaders including Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, E.O. Wilson, Martin Luther King Jr. and Marjora Carter, founder of the “greening the ghetto” environmental justice movement, “have all argued that environmentalism is not disconnected from civil rights,” Lanham said. “We as a species all need clean air, clean water and safety, just as wild species do.”

He also advocated for greater sensitivity in the language used to describe environmental problems, noting that the terms used to describe invasive species and eradication efforts can sound like anti-immigrant rhetoric to a group of minority children.

“Our words matter,” he said.

He offered two examples of the kinds of challenges he wants environmentalists to be more aware of.

In Allendale County, S.C., the 10th poorest county in the country, birders loaded down with expensive cameras and optical scopes come to see flocks of swallow-tailed kites that converge there. But in advocating for conservation efforts to protect these striking raptors, “are we forgetting the needs of those people?” he asked, referring to the local residents, many of whom work on potato farms. The area’s history, he added, must also be recognized as part of the equation. Impoundments and ditches built by enslaved Africans in the 1700s and 1800s reshaped that part of the country for rice plantations that ultimately became attractive habitat for the birds, he noted.

In another example he held up as a model, he described a project that employed low-income minority students whose parents work on chicken farms in Maryland at Assateague Island National Seashore, a place none of the youths had previously visited. The students worked on projects banding pelicans, terns and other shore birds, he said, during one recent winter when snowy owls from the far north happened to be visiting.

“Their ranges were not only expanded to Assateague,” he said, “but suddenly they were in the Arctic.”

He urged the audience, comprising professionals from academic, governmental and private natural resources fields, to work to “bridge the islands” across different viewpoints and backgrounds in their work to protect and improve the environment for people and wildlife. While their work must remain grounded in science, he urged them not to let science “make the miracle mundane,” but to “rediscover the art in conservation.”

“Evolution and gravity really don’t care whether I believe in them or not,” he said. “Science backs rigorous action, but the heart and mind cannot be exclusive from one another to move things forward.”

The annual conference was hosted by the UConn Department of Natural Resources and the Environment. Sponsors include: Connecticut Sea Grant; the Connecticut Urban Forest Council; the UConn Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering; the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection; and the UConn Center for Land Use Education and Research.









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