Conservationists: Celebrate, don't just worry about, the environment

There has been little cause for environmentalists to celebrate over the past six years.

In 2005 and 2006 alone, legislation was considered that would gut protections for endangered species, drill in the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and sell national park units to balance the budget. These initiatives and the specter of climate change would make even the most resilient environmentalist worried about the fate of our watery, blue planet.

But for those of us who love the natural world, opportunity still exists to promote stewardship of the earth. The natural world may be a refuge, but it is not a retreat. Whenever I'm blue about the red alerts that accumulate daily in my e-mail from Audubon, the Wilderness Society, and Earthjustice, I reflect on what originally led me to advocate for the environment: my passion for the natural world.

I fell in love with the natural world through an obsession with fishing. Fishing trips to local lakes and rivers became opportunities to observe nature. The eastern hardwood forest, full of previously unremarkable trees, became distinct as American beech, shagbark hickory, and white oak. Fishless mornings provided an opportunity to explore river cobbles in search of helgrammites, stone fly nymphs and caddis fly larvae. A blur of crimson high in the oak canopy became recognizable as the scarlet tanager.

When I moved west and became a teacher I wanted to share my passion for the outdoors. I was fortunate to be employed by a school that supported my interest and saw value in sharing it with children. The myriad threats to our environment may have seemed vague to the 5, 6, and 7-year-olds in my class, but the children were passionate about studying insects, arachnids, and birds. Their sense of wonder about nature was reflected by their curiosity. They had many thoughtful research questions – "How can an ant carry a crumb if it is so small?" "Why do birds fly instead of walk?" and "How does an osprey see fish when the water is so murky?"

During a study of birds, my class walked through our Van Nuys neighborhood with construction-paper binoculars dangling from our necks. The children's engagement on these bird walks was palpable. My first- and second-grade class may not have mastered the stealthy approach of a veteran bird watcher, but their excited voices revealed a high level of engagement.

My class was captivated by English sparrows, starlings, and house finches, as they darted into the thick canopy of eucalyptus and sweet gum trees. They watched American crows scold us from their perches high atop the corner church. Mourning doves, huddled around puddles on the sidewalk, were observed carefully. The children pointed skyward during games of handball, as red tailed hawks and turkey vultures soared on thermals above the school blacktop. The children became as fascinated by the birds in our urban neighborhood as any seasoned Audubon member on a trip to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

In a world where threats to the environment are increasing, it can be difficult to be optimistic about the state of the environment. But my enthusiasm for conservation, like that of many environmentalists, is not contingent on gains or losses in our nation's capital. It is an extension of my enjoyment of nature and desire to share it with others.

Learning about nature has honed my powers of observation, piqued my curiosity, and provided me with recreation. Watching children become fascinated by nature has been equally rewarding. It has reinvigorated my friendships, teaching, and commitment to community service. Whichever way the fickle political winds blow in Washington, I will continue to work to promote stewardship of the earth's resources for future generations. Helping young people develop an appreciation for the environment is every bit as important a legacy as legislation.

Seth Shteir is conservation chair of the San Fernando Valley Audubon and a teacher at Children's Community School in Van Nuys.

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