Conservation is about Storytelling: An Interview with Anna Wearn
Anna Wearn is the Director of Government Affairs at the Center for Large Landscape Conservation in the US, where she engages with decision makers and stakeholders to advance policies that improve habitat connectivity.
We discussed the many benefits associated with habitat connectivity, as well as Anna’s experience educating the public about climate change and her advice for young conservationists.
What is your background and how did you end up where you are now?
After graduating from Dartmouth College with degrees in Geography and Spanish, I worked in Denali National Park in Alaska, White River National Forest in Colorado, and Glacier National Park in Montana.
In 2015, I started a job with the Natural Resources Defense Council, where I worked on protecting imperiled fish species and rivers in the western US. Several years later, I began graduate school at the University of Montana, where I studied biodiversity conservation on public lands.
When I was graduating, this job opportunity came up and it was the perfect fit for my interests and experience. I feel incredibly lucky to be where I am now.
Why did you want to work in conservation?
Working in national forests and parks across the country allowed me to experience our natural resource management and conservation challenges firsthand. It also exposed me to different perspectives and controversies regarding environmental issues. I found it incredibly rewarding to convey complex science and policy to students, teachers, and families in a relevant and engaging manner. I could also see people connecting with the landscape and learning something new, while also learning from them.
But I wanted to influence the decisions affecting those landscapes more directly, so I pivoted from environmental education to conservation policy.
“Conservation is really about storytelling; it’s about creating a narrative of the landscape and our vision for its future, that’s inclusive of people and ecosystems, cultures, and economies.”
While I am no longer a teacher, I still see my role in conservation as an educator—it’s just that now the audience is decision makers rather than the public. Conservation is really about storytelling; it’s about creating a narrative of the landscape and our vision for its future, that’s inclusive of people and ecosystems, cultures, and economies.
I enjoy getting to tell that story—and listening to the stories of diverse stakeholders—in order to inform and influence the policies and decisions that affect how we manage our natural resources and landscapes.
One of the reasons that I’ve personally always been interested in conservation is that I grew up being so intrigued by and enjoying wildlife and the environment. Was it the same for you?
Yes, my reasons are very similar. I have always been curious about the natural world and thought ecological phenomena and relationships were fascinating. I think that fascination was partly innate and was partly cultivated by my parents. I feel grateful to have a family that instilled in me the value of learning about and taking care of the natural world.
I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which is a city where nature is embedded in the urban environment and it’s surrounded by coastal and mountainous natural areas. My parents were always doing things like putting up bird houses or planting flowers for pollinators and encouraged us to observe the patterns and behaviors of the species in our backyard.
As I grew up and started getting into mountaineering, I had powerful experiences in wild places and with wildlife. Those experiences, combined with my childhood curiosity about the natural world, drove me to learn about and protect ecosystems.
Did you face much push-back when you were teaching the public in the National Parks?
In Alaska, Montana, and Colorado, I worked in alpine ecosystems that were already experiencing major environmental shifts. It was impossible to not talk about natural history, which was my job, without addressing climate change. Certainly, within the US context it’s a political issue as much as a scientific issue, as well as being a psychological and sociological issue. So, it was really challenging to figure out how to convey the science in a way that isn’t polarizing and that people can actually grasp.
That is when I learned the power of storytelling: I talked about shifting patterns like increasing wildfires or melting glaciers, and how those changes were impacting the socio-ecological communities within the landscapes we were standing in. Iconic places that people were coming from all over the world to experience.
It is a difficult balance communicating the urgency of the biodiversity and climate crises we are facing, without creating a sense of doom and gloom. This can trigger people to feel too apathetic or daunted to engage in addressing the problem. So I sought to learn about the experiences of those I was educating and hear about their vision for these national landscapes—what they want their grandchildren to experience.
It’s important to find out what matters to and resonates with each person you are talking to and understand the environmental changes they are witnessing and how it is impacting them personally.
What is your favorite part of your job?
My favorite part of my job is that I get to work on an issue for which we already have incredibly effective solutions – we just need to bring people, resources, science, and policies together to implement them. Reconnecting habitats has benefits for so many sectors and stakeholders because it improves ecological health, human safety, and local economies. That’s why helping species move safely across the landscape has bipartisan support from lawmakers and why recent polling demonstrates that these policies are really popular with voters across the political spectrum.
The wildlife conservation benefits of habitat connectivity are perhaps the most obvious: many charismatic species, from elk to grizzly bears to salmon, all need to move across the landscape to meet their seasonal and annual needs in terms of food, water, shelter, mates, and responding to climate change. But there is also a secondary set of benefits whereby healthy wildlife populations lead to healthy outdoor recreation economies that are built on wildlife viewing, and hunting and angling.
The third set of benefits has to do with transportation, because when wildlife corridors intersect with roads, it can create a dangerous situation for both people and animals. Even if you don’t care about wildlife or you don’t live in an area that has a significant outdoor recreation economy, you probably drive down a road where you could hit a deer.
Creating safer passage for wildlife across roads reduces costly and devastating collisions, which saves both human and wildlife lives, and saves taxpayers money. In fact, well designed, built, and maintained wildlife crossing structures are more than 90% effective at reducing wildlife-vehicle collisions. What other problem in conservation can be basically eliminated by a concrete solution that pays for itself relatively quickly?
As you watch wildlife cross over the road and cars drive along safely below, you can literally see the positive outcomes of these projects, which is really rewarding and encouraging.
“Taking a solutions-oriented approach and launching an all-hands-on deck effort results in tangible and meaningful impacts.”
But wildlife crossing structures aren’t the only solution. Everyone – from urban transportation planners to tribal wildlife biologists, from developers to ranchers, from engineers to outdoor enthusiasts – all have a role to play in habitat connectivity. We can build fish passage projects in our rivers, design subdivisions to keep habitat intact, and modify agricultural fences to allow wildlife to pass through unscathed.
Taking a solutions-oriented approach and launching an all-hands-on deck effort results in tangible and meaningful impacts. We just need to marshal our collective resources and capacity to tackling the challenges.
Is there anything you dislike in your role?
I love my job so there is nothing I dislike about the position, but I would say one thing that can frustrate people in this line of work is the pace of change. If you rush headlong into an initiative because you want to see immediate progress, you want to “save the environment”, you’ll probably end up undermining your efforts. Getting everyone to the table and really listening to and addressing the concerns of all the stakeholders takes patience and time. Collaboration must be inclusive, deliberate, and thoughtful if it is to succeed.
In addition to addressing the fears and misperceptions of the public, it takes time to work through cultural barriers and bureaucratic hurdles that may exist within local, state, and federal governments. Many transportation and natural resource agencies are used to working within their specific jurisdiction on their specific issue. Asking them to bridge those divides and work across disciplines and landscapes to address connectivity at an ecologically-relevant scale is not a simple request.
While these cultural shifts and collaborative processes take time, that can’t be an excuse for delaying action. Environmental injustices, biodiversity loss, and climate change are extremely urgent issues that require immediate and bold responses. We need to invest our time and resources in innovative, inclusive, and thoughtful projects and policies today, build off and learn from those early efforts, and accelerate the pace and scale of landscape conservation.
What advice do you have for someone pursuing a career in conservation?
It has served me well to pursue what I am curious and passionate about, even when I don’t know where it will lead.
When I was younger, I had no idea a job like mine existed and I had never heard of a wildlife crossing structure. It can feel uneasy to commit to a path when you don’t know the ultimate trajectory and there is no predetermined next step laid out before you.
The career path for conservation in particular is less defined than some other fields. That freedom and flexibility is both exciting and scary. Because no one is telling you that you are on the “right” track – that your decisions are leading you towards success – you have to discern for yourself whether what you are doing is a genuinely good fit and whether the next step will provide the experience and mentorship that you truly seek.
“The conservation community is really generous; it’s the people that keep me working in this field as much as the wildlife and ecosystems.”
What helped me to figure that out was both listening to my gut and seeking advice from people who I really admired. Find people that inspire you, invite them to grab coffee or hop on the phone, and ask them the questions you asked me in this interview today.
I am tremendously grateful to all the people—many of whom had not yet met me when I reached out—that generously gave their time to by sharing their career path and insights with me. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who ever declined a request to provide their advice, no matter how busy or important they were. That is probably because they got to where they were with guidance from mentors and wanted to pay it forward.
The conservation community is really generous; it’s the people that keep me working in this field as much as the wildlife and ecosystems.
Main image: Elk. Credit: NPS photo.
Author Profile | Emma Phipps
Emma lives in London and currently works in scientific publishing for a conservation journal. She will be studying for an MSc in Conservation at University College London in October 2021, with the hopes of moving into environmental policy in the future. She is a nature enthusiast and animal lover who enjoys hiking and reading in her spare time.