77th Midwest conference examines ‘land ethic’ in 2017

SNR Director Johan Carroll welcomes more than 700 to the 77th Midwest Fisheries and Wildlife Conference on Feb. 6, 2017, at the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel in Lincoln.
SNR Director Johan Carroll welcomes more than 700 to the 77th Midwest Fisheries and Wildlife Conference on Feb. 6, 2017, at the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel in Lincoln.

More than 700 faculty, staff and students from more than 20 states and three countries filled the Cornhusker Marriott Hotel this week for the 77th Midwest Fisheries and Wildlife Conference partially sponsored by the School of Natural Resources and the Nebraska Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit.

The annual event offered more than 270 fisheries and wildlife presentations, seminars or plenary speeches; more than 100 posters on research by those in the field; and more than 30 partner displays. Talks ranged from fish to birds; government resources to the necessity of private funding; climate effects to river restoration; and just about everything in between.

Driving it all was the theme Private Landscapes, Public Responsibilities, which continually hammered home the importance of having public-private partnerships.

“Private industry is the large untapped partner for conservation, I think,” said Jim Douglas, director of the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, in his opening remarks to kick off the conference. “But whether you are student or a practitioner, you know that you are going to have to be creative in partnering with others to get the job done.”

It was a message echoed in the Ingite Session, where six leaders from a broad range of industries presented their perspective of private lands and public responsibilities in five minutes, with 20 self-advancing slides. Among them were a law professor, the program director for the Sandhills Task Force and environmental advocacy leader for the Des Moines Water Works.

“Ninety-eight percent of Nebraska is in private ownership, and 93 percent of the state is used for agriculture,” said Larkin Powell, SNR professor, as he introduced the session. “Our people live in this matrix, and that’s a common trend for all of us in the states in the Midwestern region. We must do most of our management of habitat and our fish and wildlife species in the context of private ownership of most of our land area.”

Getting landowners invested in conservation, in creating and sustaining habitat, in practicing healthy farming has long been the goal of conservationists, and it was that focus that Stanley Temple, Beers-Bascom professor emeritus in conservation at University of Wisconsin, took in the first Ignite speech. The idea of having a “land ethic,” he said, was the goal of Aldo Leopold, an ecologist and conservationist known best for his work as game management chair at University of Wisconsin. He was hired there in 1933, after years working with the U.S. Forest Service.

“When a dean asked him what goals he had for his new professorship, Leopold focused sharply on this tension between private land ownership and public interest,” Temple said. “By this time, Leopold was aware of a major obstacle in the way of achieving that goal. As he termed it, the problem was we regard land as a commodity belonging to us rather than a community to which we belong.”

Leopold was a big fan of forcing landowners to do the right thing, Temple said, but he quickly discovered Midwesterners didn’t like being told what to do. Government incentive projects also didn’t work; when the stipends dried up, the conservation efforts were abandoned.

Leopold recognized something new had to be done, and he proposed an ethical approach to living off the land.

“The problem was,” Temple said, “there really was no cultural norm, you might say, of having an ethical relationship with the land.”

Leopold recognized he would be up against a big task, Temple said, and that changing ethical norms would take a long time. But the goal – to live on a piece of land without spoiling it – was worth the effort.

Beyond Ignite
Temple’s talk was just a small piece of the conference dedicated to keeping a group of fisheries and wildlife professionals and students informed. Technical talks and workshops occurred Sunday and though noon Wednesday. Participants heard the most recent research on a broad range of conservation issues. Look to next week's edition of Inside SNR for a story highlighting the climate workshop hosted by the Nebraska State Climate Office and the High Plains Regional Climate Center, both at SNR.

The conference also gave students and professionals opportunities to network and build foundations for partnerships going into the future.

The experience was one participating students won’t forget in the near future.

“I am learning so much,” said Alexis Vrana, freshman fisheries and wildlife major at SNR. “I have gotten a better understanding about what people in my field do and the variety of places that they work. It has made me realize even more how important this profession is and how interesting I think it is.

“I am more enthused than ever about getting into this field.”

Other sponsors of the event included the Nebraska Game & Parks Commission and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. For a complete listing, or to learn more about the conference, visit midwestfw.org.

-- Shawna Richter-Ryerson, Natural Resources