Advances in American conservation rarely have been made at the behest of the masses. The reason: The vast majority of people are indifferent to the vast majority of causes, however important, if they don’t immediately affect their well-being, financial or otherwise.
Leadership has instead been the primary catalyst for conservation action, whether, as in the case of Teddy Roosevelt, to call attention to, and preserve, wild place and wild critters, or, as in the early part of the last century, when Aldo Leopold, through his writings and teachings, advocated for development of a personal and societal land ethic, thereby challenging ever-more-affluent Americans to consider anew the way they define prosperity.
So it has been in Minnesota.
Whether the issue has been preserving the boundary waters, cleaning up the Mississippi, managing forests or providing ducks, pheasants and wild turkeys places to live, leadership has been the shared denominator that prompted people to get off the dime.
Thus, through history, albeit oftentimes in fits and starts, have leaders parlayed their foresight and energy, passion, persistence, and experience to influence others in the cause of land and water stewardship.
Mamie Parker is such a leader.
Parker, 59, who grew up poor in Arkansas, the last of 11 children raised by a single mother, was the keynote speaker at Friday’s Department of Natural Resources Roundtable, a gathering that focused much of its energy on Minnesota’s changing faces.
Well-known is that the state’s older, mostly white generations are giving way to a much more diverse population. Yet the degree to which this is occurring, and its speed, can surprise.
More than half of St. Paul’s population, for example, is nonwhite. Statewide, more than 1 million residents — 19 percent of the population — are people of color. And more than 15 percent of Minnesota kids speak a language other than English at home.
All of which poses both opportunities and challenges, the latter especially for Minnesota conservation, because many of the state’s minorities don’t share the generations-old traditions of hunting, fishing and other nature-based activities that were common to the state’s earliest settlers, and continue among many of their progeny.
The fear among people who think about these things is that Minnesota’s well-earned reputation for taking care of its woods, waters and fields could suffer, and soon, if the state’s younger and more diverse generations don’t 1) learn to visit and play more often in the state’s parks, on its lakes and in its forests, thereby 2) leveraging their newfound interests in these activities in the furtherance of natural resource conservation.
A lot of people — some in the DNR, some in nonprofits — are trying to get more young people, and more people of color, into the outdoors. But progress is slow, and time short.
Enter Parker, whose many life successes, each gained against long odds, offered hope to the 300-odd DNR Roundtable attendees Friday that anything is possible, including the long-term well-being of Minnesota lands and waters.
Growing up in rural Arkansas in a four-room shanty, Parker learned to fish and garden from her mother.
“My brothers and sisters worked in the cotton fields, and they didn’t want to be outdoors after they were done,” she said. “I did.”
Parker’s mother was 43 when she had her last child. The plan was to give birth to a boy and name him Ike, after President Eisenhower. “When I came along, she instead named me Mamie, the name of the president’s wife.”
Fishing for carp and bowfin in Lake Enterprise and Bayou Bartholomew, in Arkansas’ southeast corner, she escaped the fate of many of her friends. Pregnancy, she said, was common among girls in her ninth-grade class.
Instead she developed an interest in conservation, sparked in part by an unlikely source, the singer Marvin Gaye, and his song, “Mercy Mercy Me”:
Whoa, ah, mercy mercy me
Oh things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east
Whoa mercy, mercy me,
Oh things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas, fish full of mercury
Ah, oh mercy, mercy me
Ah things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Radiation under ground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
“I went to college, and it was there I met a recruiter for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service,” Parker said. “I was interested. But I had no role model. I had never met anyone in conservation who looked anything like me.”
Still, she took a chance, and joined up, working first in La Crosse, Wis., then near Willmar, Minn., then Green Bay and Madison, Wis., before transferring to Missouri and eventually Atlanta.
In time, she would rise to professional heights never before achieved in the Fish and Wildlife Service by a black woman, earning a doctorate and serving as assistant to the service director in Washington, and as regional director for northeastern states.
Her role as pioneer was at times lonely.
“Always being in a position of ‘being the only one’ can be really difficult,” she said, adding:
“We can get stuck, stalled and scared. But life is a journey. We are called to overcome our fears. We are called to conquer.”
To ensure that Minnesota resources are conserved, Parker said, everyone must be part of the solution: all ages and all colors.
Barriers hamper progress toward this goal. Some people can’t afford to hunt, fish or camp. Others are uncomfortable being in places where too few people look like they do.
But no alternative exists in a state whose residents are fast-changing.
“All Minnesotans must be engaged,” she said.
“We fall down,” she said. “But we get up.
“Just do it.”