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Franz Camenzind Pens "Wild Ideas"

Jackson Hole scientist, award-winning wildlife filmmaker and conservation advocate believes the environmental movement in Greater Yellowstone needs to up its game.

Wildness into focus: Franz Camenzind's view of the Tetons from the perspective of a recent paddle on the Snake River.
When people mention Jackson Hole conservationists, everyone knows that Franz Camenzind is the real deal. He’s been a wildlife researcher who pioneered insight into the behavior of coyotes. He’s been an award winning wildlife filmmaker, delivering documentaries to clients ranging from National Geographic to BBC. He also was a founding member of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and for years served as executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance working on both public and private land issues.

Mountain Journal welcomes Camenzind who brings an institutional knowledge of environmental victories and losses in the region going back 50 years. He will be writing a column called “Wild Ideas.”  Few professional conservationists in Greater Yellowstone can match his bona-fides.

“I was born and raised in rural southern Wisconsin, son of an immigrant father and first generation mother. Like so many others, I wanted to “go west” after college. I still cannot exactly say what it was that drew me West, or where I first got the “itch”. But, whatever source, it remains,” he says.

Camenzind got his first degree  in biology and conservation at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, which recently honored him as a distinguished alum. He then went on to do his Master’s work at Brigham Young University where he studied ecology and behavior of golden eagles in Utah's west desert.

From there he went on to graduate school at the University of Wyoming where he spent nearly eight years studying the ecology and behavior of coyotes on the National Elk Refuge, earning a PhD. “It is during this time that I realized that acquiring good data was only one step in the process of successful land and wildlife conservation,” he says. “ Just as important is using that information to better inform the public, only then can we expect the public to demand better conservation outcomes.” 

MOUNTAIN JOURNAL: You've often said the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem isn't just another pretty place and that residents and newcomers often seem to take it for granted.  What sets our region apart in the U.S. and globally?

FRANZ CAMENZIND: it was here where the national parks and forest service systems started. As stated countless of times before, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the largest, relatively intact landscape of its type in the Western Hemisphere, perhaps in the world. But what truly sets it apart is that it remains as one of the few landscapes in the contiguous United States that still retains all plant and wildlife species that existed when Europeans first set foot on the North American continent. The challenge is to steward that tremendous gift forward to the next generation in as good or even better condition than what we have today. 

MOJO: How important is it to know the history of conservation in the region? 

CAMENZIND
: The natural values of the Greater Yellowstone landscape were recognized early on- as were the challenges facing its future. Fortunately, there were visionaries present who understood that the region’s greatest value was in keeping it as is, natural and not allowing the region to fall victim to the destructive forces of manifest destiny. It is more than fitting and not surprising, that the conservation efforts spawned the nation’s first national park and first national forest.

Ironically, with every successive conservation victory, the region’s intrinsic values became more apparent to more people, thereby attracting ever more visitors and permanent residents to the region. Now, that population growth threatens to alter the ecosystem in ways never anticipated a hundred years ago. It is apparent that conservation success has its unintended consequences.

Beyond the impact of the sheer numbers of new people immigrating the ecosystem, we now face a growing number of residents who have little to no knowledge of the conservation legacy embedded within the history of the ecosystem, and lack an understanding of the uniqueness of the ecosystem and the magnitude of the new threats. Even success brings its challenges.
"As I fast approach the fading years of the Baby Boomer generation, I can say to the Millennial and Generation Xers, make your life more about the future and less about you today. Read history, parse out and embrace the best of the past and learn from its failures. And when you get to be my age, make sure you are able to look back with pride in what you have left intact, not what you have taken."  —Franz Camenzind
MOJO: From Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir to Aldo Leopold, Jane Goodall, David Brower and famous wildlife conservationists like grizzly bear researchers John and Frank Craighead and the quartet of Muries (Olaus, Mardy, Adolph and Louise) who based themselves in Jackson Hole, this region has attracted a fierce group of defenders.  What tangible lessons can readers in the 21st century take away from their example?

CAMENZIND: The conservation history of the GYE shines with legendary conservationists. Undoubtedly, the region’s landscape and intact wildlife populations drew these early conservationists. And were it not for their commitment to best science, a strong land ethic and a far-reaching vision we would now be living in far more developed and environmentally poorer communities. Not only should we be forever thankful for the vision and strength of their convictions, but we must carry their efforts forward– we take solace with every victory, but we cannot forget that threats abound.

MOJO: For more than a decade, you were the executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance and while you were there you assembled a very talented staff that worked on both public and private land issues.  You staked out some positions that might not have been popular in the moment but were geared to protecting the ecological health of Jackson Hole over time.   You also were among the founders who created the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in 1983. Do you share the growing worry that the conservation movement has gone soft? 

CAMENZIND: All aspects of our environment are under constant threat from those who would impose changes to suit their own desires. Whether it is at the neighborhood or community level or worse yet, on the landscape or the national level, threats to the environment never cease. Consequently, our environment needs more than watchdogs; it needs guard dogs. Watching sublimely from the front porch and occasionally barking out a protest as the neighborhood dogs dig up the yard is not enough. What we need now more than ever are vigilant, active, and at times, aggressive defenders of "our yard". The environment needs guard dogs. 

MOJO: From Bozeman to Jackson Hole, there is a lot of grumbling on the streets about groups becoming rudderless and conflict-averse to the point of being almost gutless. What do you think?

CAMENZIND: I fear that over the past decade too many members of the conservation community, including some of its leaders, have taken on the comfortable, porch-sitting watchdog role, not wanting to get into a fight. Finding it easier to go along in order to get along thereby avoiding ruffling the feathers of special interests. Paraphrasing Edward Abbey:  "Wilderness needs no defense, it needs defenders.” Certainly we need conservationists that are watchful and have a loud bark, but more than ever we need conservationists that have a history of, and current, unwavering willingness to stand up for values, to get in the fight, to go to court as in the case of protecting grizzly bears that face an uncertain future with climate change and population growth fragmenting habitat. Otherwise we are just all bark and no bite. And the environment loses. It’s telling which groups are going to the mat for grizzlies and which ones are are not. 
"I fear that over the past decade too many members of the conservation community, including some of its leaders, have taken on the comfortable, porch-sitting watchdog role, not wanting to get into a fight. Finding it easier to go along in order to get along thereby avoiding ruffling the feathers of special interests."  —Camenzind
MOJO: Younger readers of Mountain Journal might not realize your groundbreaking work in identifying the complex social structure of coyotes. You made award-winning wildlife documentaries viewed by tens of millions of TV viewers on an array of species. You were also the first to film pandas in the wild in China. How do those chapters in your life inform your current convictions?

CAMENZIND: First, as a wildlife biologist and then 25 years as a documentary film maker, I have had the privilege of traveling literally around the world filming subjects few folks get to see for themselves. After each foray into “the wilds”, I would return to Jackson Hole and at some early part of my career I realized how special and small the GYE really is. Twenty-plus million acres may seem large when hiking in the mountain-rimmed valley of Jackson Hole, but in reality, anyone can drive across the GYE from north to south or east to west in a day or less.  

The GYE may be the largest of its kind, but it is not large. Conservation biology has brought to the forefront the greater landscape needs of many wildlife species. The GYE is an island surrounded primarily by an industrialized, domesticated and heavily populated greater landscape. In order for many species to survive long-term, their populations need genetic refreshing best brought on by connecting to, and co-mingle with other, nearby populations. The need for protected wildlife corridors is slowly being met within the ecosystem, but now we must push to provide safe passage between populations, between ecosystems.

Conservationist Franz Camenzind
Conservationist Franz Camenzind
In many parts of the world where wildlife still abounds, the landscapes are indeed larger. But unfortunately, few are truly change-free. Most have indigenous peoples who at one time were self-sufficient, reasonably co-equal functioning components of the ecosystem. But as more of the modern world discovers and visits these remote regions, the native desire to acquire modern ways is also taking hold. What were once remote, ecosystems functioning quite well with indigenous peoples are now facing the emergence of a more dominating species- the modernizing human with all the growing desires that if left unchecked can rapidly change, if not deplete the local environments.

The way I see it, we face two challenges: first, that of caring for our own local environment by maintaining internal integrity and external connectivity. Second, we must help guide the emerging world in a direction that provides modern standards, but with fewer down-side impacts. We must share with them the lessons we have learned, guide them away from the wasteful mistakes of our own cultural evolution.  We need to provide them with an environmentally enlightened and guided jump-start into the twenty-first century.    

MOJO: If you could offer some advice to Generation Xers and Millennials wondering how they can make a difference, what would it be?

CAMENZIND: As I fast approach the fading years of the Baby Boomer generation, I can say to the Millennial and Generation Xers, make your life more about the future and less about you today. Read history, parse out and embrace the best of the past and learn from its failures. Understand why to be thankful to those who have left you these great natural landscapes to enjoy, and promise to leave the land and all its resources in better shape when you leave. And when you get to be my age, make sure you are able to look back with pride in what you have left intact, not what you have taken.

MOJO: A great day for Franz Camenzind in the wilds of Greater Yellowstone involves what?

CAMENZIND: Being in the quiet, peaceful and alive wild, even if just along my beloved Flat Creek. Of course, a glimpse or more of a few of my wildlife neighbors always soothes my heart. And just knowing that they are out there and that the landscape is functioning and relatively intact, for now, is deeply satisfying. 
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