This week I attended the 97th Annual Meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Portland, Oregon. In 2004, the ESA, a group of several thousand U.S. and international ecologists, met in Portland, OR. The theme of the conference was “Lessons of Lewis & Clark: Ecological Exploration of Inhabited Landscapes.” Eight years later, we are back in Portland and the theme is “Life on Earth: Preserving, Utilizing, and Sustaining our Ecosystem.” One does not need to be a Ph.D.-ecologist to notice the difference in tone.

The bad news is that we are in trouble. We are no longer studying habitats as a kind of curiosity or academic exercise. That was a luxurious time and it is over. Instead, we are focused on life itself: how to preserve and sustain it so that we can survive in the world we have created. The good news is that ecologists know this shift has occurred and, in increasing numbers, are heeding the call to make our research relevant beyond academic circles. This year’s meeting was full of that message.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a world-renown marine ecologist (who studied snails for her PhD, just as I did!), is currently the head of the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration. During the keynote address, she gave a call to arms, telling audience members that ecologists should not only make their science relevant, but also become politicians, lawyers, teachers, and activists. It was wonderful to hear those words of enthusiastic advice, since Jane has long been a mentor of mine. By coming to work for ELAW I am following her wisdom.

While at the conference, I attended a session entitled, “Linking Ecological Science & Public Policy: Case Studies in Latin America.” The first speaker, Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, a Mexican ecologist at the University of California, Riverside, told the story behind the recent conservation victory in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. A Spanish company received a permit to construct a massive development with 34,000 new rooms in a spectacular marine park. All the other development in the region only totaled 10,000 rooms. This one new permit would have destroyed the marine park, and the fisheries, corals, and incredible biodiversity found within.

Scientific studies have shown that protection of the park since the mid-1990s has enabled fisheries to rebound to levels higher than anyone envisioned. The Park itself has become a kind of diving and tourist shrine and sustainable ecotourism has provided the surrounding community with economic stability. In short, protecting the marine park, which has the only living coral in the Sea of Cortéz, was a brilliant success story about to be lost with a single building permit.

But Dr. Ezcurra and many, many others—among them ELAW partner organizations Centro Mexicano de Derecho Ambiental (CEMDA) and Defensa Ambiental del Noroeste (DAN)—kept the issue in the media, and kept the fight constant, and in June 2012, the permit was revoked. It was a day to rejoice.

Dr. Ezcurra reminded us that, as scientists, we have an opportunity and an obligation to go beyond publishing cool papers about snails eating algae. Though current academic and social systems may not reward us for protecting wild lands rather than publishing important papers, we can and must pay attention to what is happening around us.

That sense of responsibility—and excitement about our new role in society—was palpable at this year’s meeting. It would be a mistake for ecologists to give up, and this meeting left me with hope and certainty that we never will.

Heidi Weiskel
ELAW Staff Scientist