Conservation is constantly evolving, and no one knows that better than Helen Taylor, state director in Michigan for The Nature Conservancy. With more than 25 years of experience working in the environmental field and the Great Lakes, she has witnessed first-hand both the evolution of the conservation movement and the Conservancy itself. We asked Helen about the past, present and future of conservation in this Q&A and also in a short video.
Q: How have things changed since you started working in the environmental field? Where do you see the conservation movement headed today?
A: When I started working in conservation, much of the focus was on pollution, targeting environmental “hot spots” where clean-up efforts were needed, when Superfund sites were springing up across the country. What was missing from the dialogue was the holistic approach to conservation. Today, we don’t think about targeting one area for conservation and then moving on to the next. Instead, we consider the health of an entire system—the land, the water, the plants and the wildlife—and working to conserve it in perpetuity. We realize that everything is connected and for conservation to be truly effective, it has to take place at a system-wide level.
Q: How has The Nature Conservancy evolved to fit into this new framework?
A: The Conservancy’s work today reflects this movement from “sites to systems.” We used to only focus on setting aside natural areas for preservation—we measured our success in the number of acres we protected. Today, we still protect natural areas, yet we are expanding our reach by working with partners at the watershed, coastal, and forested landscape scale, as well as across large natural systems like the Great Lakes. Additionally, we continue to develop and demonstrate the policies and land use practices that assure sustainability for future generations, for both people and wildlife. The ultimate goal? To assure the health and resiliency of these natural systems to ensure that they can provide for future generations.
Q: What do you think is today’s most pressing environmental threat?
A: The growth of our population is putting tremendous pressure on natural resources, and nowhere is that more clear than when we talk about freshwater. It’s estimated that there will be 9 billion people on the planet by 2060 and scientists predict that, if we continue to use water the way that we do, two-thirds of the world’s population will face water shortages by 2025.
In Michigan, The Nature Conservancy is surrounded by the world’s largest freshwater system and it’s our responsibility to protect and manage it in a way that’s sustainable. Unfortunately, there are a wide range of environmental pressures that are threatening the Great Lakes. Nothing has more fundamentally altered the health of the lakes than aquatic invasive species, so it is a very significant threat; yet there are other things that are throwing them off balance as well: nutrient loading and degraded water quality, climate change, and loss of forests and coastal habitat. We are working with partners across the region to address these threats and protect this important natural resource at a system-wide level.
Q: What makes The Nature Conservancy unique in its approach to these big global challenges?
A: We have a science-based, non-confrontational, applied approach to conservation. What this means is that we are constantly out in the field, getting our hands dirty and working directly with others to forge solutions to big environmental threats. At our local projects, we’re testing ideas and finding new methods of conservation and sustainability that can be shared and scaled up to decision-makers, leaders, across the globe.
Q: Why is protecting nature important to you personally?
A: I was raised to leave the world a better place than when I came. Before I entered the conservation field, I worked in several fields, including the arts and social services. Over time I realized that all of my other interests were fundamentally dependent on the natural resources of the world, and the best way that I could make a difference was to protect the lands and waters on which all life depends. The next generation depends on us.