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Conservation Ain't Sexy

This article appears in the Jan-Feb 2003 issue of Quail Unlimited Magazine under the title 'Habitat Conservation Sure Isn't Sexy'

When I was an engineering student, I had several professors whose love for the subject was evident to even the most bleary-eyed student. They taught class with unbridled enthusiasm, working through problems on the chalkboard in an animated cloud of flying chalk bits and eraser dust. You'd have thought these guys were talking about the birth of their first child or their new Corvette, and I might have made better grades if they had. But they were preaching about aspect ratios and nozzle expansion and NACA cross-sections and other cryptic terms that are vital to keeping aircraft in the air.

This is the type of subject matter that, given its relative importance to the survival of certain humans, should be captivating at the least. Yet relative importance to the survival of a species often isn't enough to overcome the dry nature of the nuts and bolts that make it possible, which in turn leaves so few people interested in the work that the work never gets done. The thermodynamics of jet engines aren't sexy. An F-15 screaming down the runway with full afterburner is sexy, its swept lines pushed along by a hot blue flame just barely staying in front of the roar that you feel in your bones. But the mass flow properties and Reynolds values and ambient enthalpies that make this possible are about as sexy as your spouse with a hangover.

Unfortunately this is often the case with conservation, particularly the sort that benefits bobwhites. Warm season native grasses, "weeds" to most people but a tremendous aid to bobwhite families, aren't very sexy. They flow a little in a breeze, graceful perhaps but not the kind of motion that snatches your attention. Their colors aren't vibrant and their fruits are neither tantalizing nor eccentric.

Field borders aren't sexy either. Most people see them as characteristic of a farmer who is too lazy to give his fields a haircut. "Dirty farming" it's called in some locales, hardly a connotation of something appealing to the senses. Very few teenage boys have posters of field borders on their bedroom walls. There's not much thrill in supplemental feeding or no-till planting either. All in all, it's pretty ho hum stuff.

On the other hand, a setter slamming into a wall of scent and locking up on point is sexy. A covey of twenty birds on the rise, now that's sexy. Knocking down a clean double on that rise is pretty sexy too. But none of these are possible without the less sexy aspects, and with the days of the sharecropper and his draft animal gone, the circumstances that make pointing setters and covey rises possible don't often occur by accident. Someone had to put in the hard, thankless work, the engineering, to make it happen.

Maybe the answer lies in making conservation more sexy. I could easily spend half a page making a lame case for this that would, in the end, amount to not much more than putting lipstick on a pig. The short answer to the question is that you can't make it truly appealing to large numbers of people. Most conservation efforts simply don't hold the excitement that draws the publicity that brings the masses. They lack the adrenaline rush or the physical allure that makes the average Joe want to be a part of it. Plowing field borders and thinning hardwood stands is hard work. It doesn't garner much attention or much gratitude and the pay is low if it's there at all.

The whole process is a lot like eating your vegetables- not always a lot of fun but it does have benefits. So the future of this bird and this sport lies not in swaying the masses but in the motivation of a handful of people, relatively speaking, who either don't mind eating their vegetables or can make an ugly face and manage to get them down. For the most part, these are not people looking for publicity or recognition for their work. Media coverage of conservation efforts is limited to pieces in this magazine and publications like a local farmer's journal or a department of natural resources technical paper. Monetary reward is far down the priority list. Conservation usually takes money out of your pocket. These are typically patient individuals. In a society where instant gratification is becoming the expected norm, conservation doesn't offer a lot. Work done this year might pay off next year, or the year after, or even several years down the road. It takes patience, and patience isn't sexy either. Although they may come from all walks of life, you'll find that they have a surplus of initiative, often seeking answers instead of waiting for them. And they are persistent.

This is what the guys who love to fly planes would do if there weren't engineers to design and build them. They'd study every bit of information they could get their hands on. They'd talk to people who had done it before and ask for advice and tutelage. They'd tinker around in a shop with the design and probably mess up a few times before they got it right. If they really wanted to fly, though, they would keep at it until they had an aircraft that could break the bounds of earth. Think Wright brothers (who were also not very sexy).

The engineering analogy falls apart when we discuss the magnitude of the bobwhite's situation. After all, man didn't have to build an airplane in order to survive. On a geographic scale, the problem is enormous, spanning hundreds of thousands of acres and several time zones. It might seem simpler if a group of biologists working in a lab somewhere could design a solution, pack it in a crate, and ship it to landowners who would open the crate, turn on a switch and enjoy their newfound multitudes of quail. But in reality much of the design work and manufacturing falls on the shoulders of the landowner and the volunteer. It's no play on words to say we're building a better bobwhite population.

There is a Zen proverb that says "The journey is the reward", and the few who choose to pursue and promote conservation probably understand this better than most. It certainly isn't for everyone, which is also why there were a lot of people in my freshman classes who were not in my sophomore classes. There's no fame and fortune in it, but I guess if I wanted fame and fortune, I wouldn't have gone to engineering school either.

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