When I started my career at an investment bank more than 20 years ago, I never imagined natural science, in addition to economic science, would one day play an integral role in my “day job.” But that time has come, and as Earth Day approaches and people across the country prepare to march in support of science, I proudly join as an environmental leader.
My love of nature is what led me to where I am today. Growing up in rural Ohio, I was always outside, whether that meant playing in my own backyard or exploring local nature preserves. As an adult raising my family in Chicago, we often visit local open lands and vacation to natural areas across the country. Love of nature drove me to get more involved in conservation and four years ago it became my new vocation. Now, as state director for The Nature Conservancy in Illinois, I lead efforts to protect our state’s lands and waters.
Science is in The Nature Conservancy’s DNA: we got our start in 1946 when a small group of scientists formed the Ecologists’ Union to take “direct action” to save threatened habitats across the country. Just a few years later in 1950, the group changed its name to “The Nature Conservancy” and began leveraging science to protect the land and waters on which all life depends.
Today, this tradition continues in every state and in 72 countries across the world, with more than 500 Conservancy scientists working to develop a suite of tools that can improve conservation outcomes for people and nature. Our team includes a wide range of professionals—hydrologists, biologists, ecologists, climate adaptation specialists, social scientists, and, yes, even economists. We know first-hand that sound environmental policies and practices require abundant scientific proof. Our research guides our work to protect our water, clean our air, and to address some of the most important questions of our time, from how we can sustainably produce enough food for a growing population to how nature itself can help mitigate the effects of climate change.
Science helps us answer questions, make decisions, solve conservation challenges, and measure our success—and nowhere is this more evident than in Illinois. At the Franklin Research and Demonstration Farm in Lexington, we’ve quantified how much constructed wetlands can improve water quality not only for the benefit of local drinking water supplies but also for fish and wildlife all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. At our Emiquon preserve, the gate that now connects the wetland to the Illinois River allows researchers to test methods for keeping invasive species out of our rivers and lakes. And at Indian Boundary Prairies just south of Chicago in Markham, cutting-edge technology such as real-time sensors is showing us how nature can help manage storm water. These are only a few examples of the myriad studies being conducted on Conservancy preserves across the state.
In my role as state director, I’m proud to spend my days with an incredible team of scientists who have devoted their lives—and their careers—to the Conservancy’s mission. These individuals know that science is a long game—it takes time to answer the complicated questions we’re asking about our lands, our waters, and how we can better protect them. New challenges constantly emerge that cannot be addressed without solid science. That’s why they are studying how bison interact with prairies we’ve been restoring for 30 years at Nachusa Grasslands, and how climate change will affect cities, farms, and the 80,000 acres of natural lands in Illinois we’ve worked with partners to protect.
This Earth Day, no matter what you studied in school or what you do for a living, we all have an opportunity to speak up for the science that transforms our lives and protects nature for future generations. I urge you to join me, Conservancy staff and members, and thousands across the country who are marching to support the scientific community, safeguard the value and funding of the scientific process, and celebrate the important role science plays in our society. The Nature Conservancy is proud to march in Washington DC, in cities across the nation, and—here in our beloved Prairie State—in Chicago, Peoria, and Springfield.
Michelle Carr is the state director of The Nature Conservancy in Illinois.