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The Carletonian

Kent Wommack discusses Nature Conservancy organization

< Wommack first arrived at Carleton as a freshman, she hoped that the Australia home address listed next to her name in the Zoobook would be a good conversation-starter. Her new acquaintances would often ask why she did not have an Australian accent, if she came from Australia. Once they found out that she and her family had moved to Australia because of her father’s prominent post at the Nature Conservancy, another question they would commonly ask is if she could help them get an internship that summer.

As Rikka introduced her father, Kent Wommack, at last Friday’s convocation, it became clear that his connection to the Carleton community ran deeper than the average convocation speaker — fitting, for a speech that addressed the importance of conserving the natural environment in a way that boosts the strength and well-being of the human community.

Kent Wommack opened his speech by stating the mission of the Nature Conservancy, one of the largest nonprofit organizations in America: to protect the diversity of life on Earth by preserving the natural environment.

Throughout the history of the organization, Wommack explained, the way it has chosen to interpret that mission has evolved.

Wommack, who has worked for the Nature Conservancy since 1982, said that at first, the organization focused on saving individual endangered species. With time, their attention broadened to preserving entire ecosystems and whole migratory bird routes. By the early 1990s, the Nature Conservancy operated the largest system of private nature refuges in the world, growing at a rate of 1000 acres per day.

This system was, for the most part, a patchwork of small preserves scattered over the landscape. The assumption underlying the Nature Conservancy’s work was that each preserve could be maintained in its current state indefinitely — that the natural processes of erosion, succession, and disease could be kept at bay indefinitely.

Wommack and others at the Nature Conservancy began to realize that against the growing threat of human-induced climate change, maintaining this stasis might be impossible. In order to continue to provide habitat for the full diversity of Earth’s plants and animals, they needed to work “at a faster pace and a bigger scale,” Wommack said; in order to preserve swaths of land that were big enough to allow ecosystems to migrate and adapt.

They needed to look at the whole landscape, including its human parts.

Wommack spoke about his role in bridging the divide between maintaining the health of the natural community and providing for the well-being of the human community.

In Maine, International Paper wanted to sell a large tract of land along the St. John River to another forestry company, which promised to donate some of the most ecologically sensitive land to the Nature Conservancy. When that deal looked like it was about to fall through, Wommack persuaded the president of the Nature Conservancy to make a loan to the forestry company so that it could complete the purchase.

“The only thing he had to do to make it possible was to loan $35 million, more or less immediately,” to the forestry company so that it could complete the purchase, and then all of the ecological benefits of the preserve could be realized.

The Nature Conservancy eventually raised $57 million from the public in support of the project — not because of any particular endangered species that was at risk, but because of the site’s aesthetic and recreational promise.

Additionally, the Nature Conservancy allowed some logging within the St. John River preserve to continue, provided that it was done in a sustainable way that mimicked the natural process of ecosystem succession. On a single tract of land, the Nature Conservancy created a laboratory for sustainable forestry, a source of employment for the local community, a flourishing natural habitat, and ample recreational opportunities.

“The public has a hope and a belief that we must find a way for people and nature to coexist on the same land,” Wommack said, as he showed a slide of a canoe on the wooded bank of a pristine river.

The connection between the well-being of humans and the continued health of the environment is strongest among indigenous peoples, Wommack continued. They depend on the natural landscape for their continued cultural existence as well as their economic welfare.

“Nowhere is the connection between nature and people more powerful than in Australia,” Wommack said. The Aboriginal people and the natural ecosystem developed in harmony with each other and in complete isolation from the rest of the world.

In Australia, the lingering effects of colonialism are finally being addressed, and the legal rights of indigenous people to their hereditary lands are increasingly recognized in court. But problems with land access persist. It was here, in describing his own work to restore Aboriginal access to ancestral lands, that Wommack’s speech turned most poignant.

He spoke about a young Aboriginal man he met, who leads an ordinary modern life on the coast but has been selected by his clan to be the bearer of its traditions. To keep up with the modern world while maintaining the ancient way of life is “like holding onto two strands of barbed wire being pulled in opposite directions,” as the man described it.
Wommack accompanied the man as he visited for the first time a new preserve the Nature Conservancy had just acquired, a piece of land from which his people had been evicted long ago. As he watched the clan’s ceremonies, Wommack reflected that “our work is not just about protecting nature from people, or even protecting nature for people, but protecting nature and people.”

“And where one begins and the other ends — who’s to say?” Wommack concluded.

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