Hansjörg Wyss: Remarks to the League of Conservation Voters’ Annual Capital Dinner

As Delivered

June 6, 2018

Good evening, everyone.

Thank you, John, for your kind introduction.

To LCV’s board members, staff, state affiliates, and Gene: I am deeply honored to receive this award. Thank you to everyone here tonight.

One hundred and fifteen years ago, a German immigrant realized a dream for conservation that changed the world.

Paul Kroegel’s homestead was on the banks of the Indian River in Florida. Across the water, Paul could see a small mangrove island filled with thousands of brown pelicans. Each year, Paul watched plume hunters sail toward the mangroves in their yachts.

He watched the pelicans scatter from their nests as the boats arrived. And then he watched the plume hunters shoot the birds out of the air.

The island was being plundered to put feathers in hats. There was nobody to stop it.

So Paul and a small group of naturalists set out to convince an American president to take action.

They mobilized wildlife advocates. They lobbied. And they argued for the use of executive authority to protect wildlife.

In 1903, they won. President Theodore Roosevelt used executive powers - for the first time ever – to create a federal bird reservation.

Thus, Florida’s Pelican Island became the world’s first national wildlife refuge. And Paul Kroegel, for the salary of one dollar per month, became its first game warden.

Conservation, of course, is not an American invention. There were royals and nobles in Europe who had wild game locked behind their castle walls.

But the idea of conserving lands and waters and wildlife for the benefit of all people is as radically American as it is intrinsically democratic.

I first discovered the American conservation ethic sixty years ago. I was a student, working a summer job for the Colorado State Highway Department. On the weekends, I hiked and climbed and camped. And I found that – thanks to John Muir, David Brower, Mardy Murie, Paul Kroegel, and so many more - America’s wild places and public lands were open and free for all to enjoy.

But this conservation tradition, and the democratic ideals in which it is rooted, are all at risk today. The plume hunters are back.

But this time they want to take uranium from Bears Ears, oil from the Arctic, coal from the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and to drill next to the Grand Canyon.

You, here, tonight, are wardens of America’s wild places. You are also guardians of an idea upon which our planet depends. For it is the American tradition of conserving lands in the public trust – permanently – that is inspiring communities around the world to establish their own protected areas.

In the past year, Mexico created the largest fully protected marine reserve in North America. With my Foundation’s help Canada is working to conserve one of the largest and most intact boreal forests left on Earth, and Peru and Ecuador have established vast new national parks.

Yet for all these steps forward, the world is also watching what is unfolding here in Washington. Will the forces of greed win the largest elimination of protected areas in American history?

No. They will not.

They will not because you are upholding and defending the American conservation promise.

They will not because you know that when wild places are conserved, they are to be conserved forever and for everyone.  

I want to remind you of Margaret Mead’s wise and inspiring words:

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

There are multitudes waiting to follow our lead, if and when we give them the courage. So let’s be fierce in our courage and immovable when it comes to human behavior that violates nature and hurts our hearts.

Let’s renew our vows to leave some places untouched and sacrosanct, and strive to pull our individual commitments into one indivisible will for the preservation of our beautiful planet.

Thank you all for being steadfast champions for conservation. And thank you all for standing up for the democratic values on which our parks, public lands, and protected areas depend.

Thank you.

Whitner Chase