Seven conservationists and nature photographers in the region fear that a harsh future awaits the planet’s wild places, but they also take hope in nature’s ability to bounce back from abuse.
The naturalists warn that habitat loss, pollution, climate change and the presence of billions of humans threaten the wild niches of the Earth and the species that populate them.
The future looks dicey, not just for wildlife, but for human beings as well. One well-known naturalist in Nebraska declined to participate in this story, saying he is “so pessimistic about the future of the planet” that he “would prefer not to make my feelings known.”
The seven environmentalists were selected for their renown or expertise or both.
Is there still time? Is there hope for this planet? These nature lovers in Nebraska and Iowa, through interviews and emails, say yes — with reservations.
People care about this planet. Conservation photographer Michael Forsberg knows this.
Forsberg visited Spring Creek Prairie near Denton, Nebraska, one evening last week with daughter Elsa. They wanted to view sunset at winter solstice and look at Jupiter and Saturn, which would appear close to each other in the night sky.
They expected to be alone out there and were astonished at how many people walked the trails, eager to watch the sun go down and see the two planets light up.
“It’s moments like that that really, really give me hope,” said Forsberg, who has written books on the sandhill cranes and on the Great Plains. People are fascinated by the natural world and want to experience its majesty, he said.
“We can’t afford to be pessimistic,” said Forsberg, 54. “Wild lands and wild places and wildlife need the same things as we do,” he said. Those include healthy landscapes, rich topsoil, clean water, pollinators like bees and biodiversity.
Forsberg, of Lincoln, remembered his grandparents taking him to the Rowe Sanctuary area in central Nebraska close to 40 years ago to see the sandhill crane migration along the Platte River.
That was a pivotal experience for Forsberg, who majored in geography at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and gradually began taking a camera with him into nature.
He said people must listen to each other, trust each other, believe in what science says and acknowledge the horrific power of climate change. This isn’t about politics, he said. It goes way beyond politics.
Naturalist Jim Pease appreciates how his parents, many years ago, trusted him and his brothers as they explored wilderness and canoed on rivers around Burlington in eastern Iowa.
“I was able to thank them before they both died,” said Pease, 72.
Those experiences hooked him on nature. Much of his career has aimed to expose children, and some adults, to wild spots, including places in Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Canada, Alaska, Costa Rica, Chile and Peru. They’ve backpacked, paddled canoes, hiked and looked at plants and animals.
His email signature includes a quote from Aldo Leopold, a renowned naturalist who lived more than 70 years ago and grew up in Pease’s hometown of Burlington: “I’m glad I shall never be young without wild places to be young in.”
Pease retired 12 years ago as an associate professor and extension wildlife specialist at Iowa State University.
“But I’m not retired from life,” he said.
Pease looks out the window of his home near Ames, Iowa, and sees birds using the 15 feeders he has placed out there. And he’s still paddling Iowa’s rivers.
He has kayaked rivers and streams for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ water trails program, doing inspections and conducting biological surveys.
Pease said people like him must continue teaching about the importance of nature. He’s a teacher, he said, and teachers have to be optimistic.
Open Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark “Vanishing” volume and you encounter the incredible diversity of creatures that populate this planet.
Sartore’s photographic portraits of animals speak to the connection between creature and man. Some animals look out with fear and vulnerability, and others growl at the camera. Eyes, faces and postures of some are childlike. Some have slinky tails and bodies that wrap around the photo.
Many are regal or absurdly cute, and some have already been wiped out. Sartore’s photo of the extinct dusky seaside sparrow is of a specimen long dead and preserved in a bottle.
He has spent 14 years on his National Geographic Photo Ark project, visiting zoos, aquariums and wildlife rehab centers to produce close-up views of animals.
Sartore said he wants “to give all creatures an equal voice,” so his elegant photos present a mouse in the same size and detail as an elephant.
The Nebraskan, 58, has traveled the planet. Before the Photo Ark, he spent 16 years doing 35 National Geographic Magazine stories about species and habitats.
He asked rhetorically if “humans will save anything at all of the natural world, or will we cover the entire surface of the Earth with our roads, industries and agriculture?” He said vast stretches of rain forests, prairies, tundra and ocean must be preserved. The rain forests of the Amazon, he said, “cool the air and produce the rainfall we need to produce our crops.”
He and his family try to do their part. They have planted gardens for pollinating creatures. They eat less meat than before. They drive less, reuse and recycle, he said. Purchases tell a retailer, “We like this and want you to bring us more of it,” he said, and that’s a form of voting.
“Besides, it’s really folly to think that we could doom so many other species to extinction, but that we’ll be just fine,” he said. It won’t work that way, “and it’ll be miserable all along the way down.”
Connie Mutel loves the 17½ acres her home sits on outside Iowa City.
She takes comfort in being surrounded by oak and hickory woodlands and finds joy in exploring it. The forest reminds her that wilderness still exists — right outside her window.
A retired science writer at the University of Iowa, Mutel has spoken to dozens of audiences in the Midwest since publishing a book in 2016 on climate change, “A Sugar Creek Chronicle.”
The climate has been, for the most part, stable for 10,000 years, she said, and now it’s changing more rapidly than people can react to it. It threatens the animal world with mass extinction, she said, and it will have serious consequences for human survival.
Climate change exacerbates water pollution and soil erosion, she said. Many places will become uninhabitable because of heat, and by 2040, she said, there may be considerable food shortages and suffering.
“And I think it’s something that we’re not going to be able to hide from,” she said.
But all is not lost.
“Yes, there’s hope,” Mutel, 73, said. “At this point, we can still affect, we can still reduce, the worst elements of climate change. ... Hope in general means that we look for the good and we keep going instead of giving up.”
Local and national legislators must respond, individual lifestyles must change, business policies must acknowledge the situation, she said. Walk more, ride bicycles, use public transportation, buy electric cars, use solar panels, take children into the natural world, she said.
The planet and its wild creatures are resilient, she said: “If we give nature half a chance, the natural world is going to bounce back.”
It’s not surprising that an Iowan would come to love sailing, David Thoreson says.
His mother taught him how to sail on Lake Okoboji, one of the Iowa Great Lakes.
A restless University of Nebraska at Omaha graduate, he had worldwide adventures bicycling, hiking, climbing and taking photographs.
In the 1990s and 2000s, he participated in sailing expeditions that took him to the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, twice. And to Antarctica. And completely around the Americas, North and South, in 13 months.
The photos in his book from four years ago, “Over the Horizon,” lend landlubbers a small sense of the force of the ocean. In the book and in an interview, he described being pummeled by frigid water from waves 35 feet high in 100 mph gales. Through one episode, the heat in the boat’s cabin sputtered, and he got “warm” there in icy clothing.
“There’s a connection that you make there with the whole bigger picture,” said Thoreson, who turned 61 last week and enjoyed the day by having knee surgery. “The power, the forces, everything is sort of awesome being out there.”
And his second Northwest Passage journey, in 2007, revealed to him how much ice had melted since the first, in 1994. One photo shows two polar bears on a vast gray, iceless landscape.
Sure, he said, there’s hope, but we must stop “messing around with, really, humanity’s future by what we’re doing.”
Jane Okalebo pensively took in her 49th birthday last week.
“I’m headed to 50. What have I done?” Okalebo asked. “And also, what am I going to do?”
The researcher in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources knows she will keep talking about the danger this planet faces.
Born in Kenya, Okalebo received master’s and doctoral degrees in agronomy and environmental science, respectively, from UNL. Currently, she conducts research in hopes of reducing greenhouse gases emitted by livestock.
What can an individual or family do against these behemoths — pollution and climate change? Okalebo says: use paper bags; avoid using plastic water bottles; support local food producers; share the veggies you raise in your garden; don’t waste food; eat more fruits and veggies; fast one day each week; minimize driving; car pool; participate in neighborhood cleanups; recycle toys, paper, plastic and furniture; teach family members about climate change.
“It may feel like a drop in the ocean, but these are things that can be done by all of us on an individual basis to save the planet,” she said. “There are solutions already out there. ... It’s just that the willpower is not there.”
We need to act fast, she said. Action is what’s needed, not just hope.
Tom Mangelsen figures he can say what he pleases at the age of 74.
And the past four years have been disastrous environmentally, he said. The administration of President Donald Trump, Mangelsen said, has rolled back environmental protections and regulations.
For example, the administration recently announced the intention to sell oil-drilling rights in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, sometimes called America’s Serengeti. Mangelsen said it’s time to move toward renewable energy, such as solar technology, and away from fossil fuels.
Asked about hope, Mangelsen said: “I don’t know.”
But he noted that his friend and mentor Jane Goodall “has this incredible ability to inspire hope in people.” Goodall is best known for her decades-long studies of wild chimpanzees in Africa.
Human beings have the intellect to make a difference in catastrophic environmental changes, he said.
“I’m very — how shall I say it — cautiously optimistic,” he said. “But we’ve got a lot to do.”
He longs for 2021. This year, the famous photographer, who grew up in Nebraska, has endured a bout with the coronavirus. And while photographing a grizzly bear, he forgot to put his car in park, got knocked down by his vehicle and, hanging onto the steering wheel, was taken for a short, rough ride. Worst of all, he missed the photo.
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