Oil Spills Change Lives – Fortunately

Oiled sea lion seeking refuge during Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

My life has been forever changed by oil spills. The year the Exxon Valdez ran a ground in Prince William I was graduating from high school. Like all of us, I watch the images of volunteers desperately scrubbing black, oily tar off dying birds, seals and other animals with horror and I knew then I wanted to lead a life that made a difference, that help ensure that this kind of senseless destruction would never happen again.

As it turns out, I am not alone in my experience. Many of our community’s leaders were galvanized into action by environmental disasters. From Rachel Carson and Aldo Leopold to Edward Abbey and Dave Forman, our community has been shaped by talented leaders who witnessed the destruction caused by human carelessness and greed and said no more. Even Gaylord Nelson, the late Congressman and TWS chancellor, organized the first Earth Day, 40 years ago, in part because of his outrage over the massive oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.

By the 10th Anniversary of the Valdez spill, I was working on a campaign to prevent a similar disaster in America’s Arctic on the costal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Our campaign’s slogan at the time was, “if it can happen there it can happen anywhere.” We memorialized the spill’s anniversary by digging up hundreds of pounds of decades old oily rocks from beaches in Prince William Sound. We shared this aged sludge with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and warned them — “it can happen anywhere.” Change has been slow and we have suffered setbacks yet we have also seen an increasing number or lawmakers from both sides of the political spectrum begin working on legislation to protect or remaining wild places.

While we are making progress, work remains to be done and the forces against conservation continue to stir the pot. Drill, Baby Drill! Right? Oh and spills continue to happen. More like: Spill, Baby, Spill!

Volunteer washing an oiled Gannet. Courtesy IBRRC, Flickr.And so today, as the devastating images role in from the Gulf Coast, a new generation of young people will be faced with the same reality I faced the last time the oil washed ashore. The birds don’t wash off, the fish die, oil covers the coast for decades and I’m sure some of them, like myself and many others, will see these images and decide they want to lead a life that ensures that this type of disaster never happens again. I hope it won’t take another generation to protect our oceans and lands, but if history is prologue, we will need these young people to take up the cause and continue this work.

It is with this new generation in mind that we have developed our new initiative — The Wild Forever Future Campaign. Designed to recruit and nurture a new generation of conservation leaders, the Wild Forever Future Campaign will ensure that there is a pipeline of talented young people trained and prepared to lead the conservation community’s efforts into the future. The Wild Forever Future Campaign includes a comprehensive, two-year fellowship program where emerging leaders will be trained to develop and implement wilderness and public land conservation campaigns learning and gaining hands-on experience in all aspects of leading an effort to protect our remaining wild lands. We will also invest in our current campaign leaders providing them with new skills, techniques, experience and professional development opportunities to be more effective in their work. The goal is to prepare all of our leaders — present and future — to work, learn, and preserve together so that we can move beyond such environmental tragedies to permanently protect the wild places that we all care so much about.

It would be great if we lived in a world where oil spills no longer changed lives, but until then, we will need to invest in a new generation to lead us through environmental battles ahead. The Wild Forever Future Campaign will help give these young people a path towards making land protection their life’s work and ensuring that the next generation won’t have to deal with the devastation caused by oil spills.

You can learn more about the Wild Forever Future Campaign at www.wildforeverfuture.org.

Oiled sea lion seeking refuge during Exxon Valdez Oil Spill. Courtesy Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.
Volunteer washing an oiled Gannet. Courtesy IBRRC, Flickr.