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The New West: Millennial to lead major GYE conservation organization

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Ben Williamson brings a fresh youthful perspective to conservation in Greater Yellowstone and a commitment to make sure more diverse voices are reflected and heard in the ecological sciences and NGO arenas. PHOTO COURTESY OF BEN WILLIAMSON
CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Ben Williamson has a resume of experience that, by itself, is impressive. This year the new arrival to Jackson Hole added another element. As a member of the millennial generation, he assumed the helm of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and became one of the youngest people ever tapped to oversee a major regional conservation organization in Greater Yellowstone.

Before arriving, Williamson conducted research on rapidly disappearing whitebark pine trees in Yellowstone National Park, directed an environmental education center with The Glacier Institute, worked on reducing predator-livestock conflicts in northwest Montana, and facilitated a land use dialogue in the African nation of Ghana.

Originally from Colorado, he received an undergraduate degree from the University of Montana and then a master’s in environmental management at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. It was at the latter when he spent time with Susan Clark, who founded NRCC in Jackson in 1987. Since then, NRCC has functioned as a nexus for scientists working in myriad disciplines, all dedicated to addressing opportunities and challenges in large landscape conservation.

Not long ago, I had an interview with Williamson in which he shared his perspective about key conservation issues and how some members of his generation relate to the world.

Todd Wilkinson: What do you think separates the new emerging younger generations of thinkers from their predecessors?

Ben Williamson: Generation Z is growing up in a very different political moment than even me, a millennial. I was raised in the ’90s with a collective feeling that everything is OK, and the arc of evolution is moving onward and upward to [be] more inclusive …

For me, this sense eroded as I came of age in the early 2000s with our country’s endless engagement in war, the explosion of climate change rhetoric and the 2008 recession. Suddenly, my future didn’t seem as stable as the one America seemed to promise me. It became apparent that any sense of stability and safety is fragile and depends on where you live and who you are. I was also raised in tandem with the evolution of social media and mass communication technology. My generation was introduced to this type of technology as teenagers, so it was a learned behavior.

The current generation—as every generation before it—are simply inheritors of the moment they occupy. Generation Z is unique in many ways. To me, the obvious ones are they haven’t lived in a time where even an illusion of stability is felt and they’re the first generation to develop their sense of self completely in tandem with social media.

At my most optimistic, Generation Z is growing up in a truly networked society, where the lines of hierarchy and power are no longer covert. I like to think this is manifesting in a greater sense of empathy. Maybe we see this in the Sunrise Movement or the March for Our Lives movement. Still, I worry that chaos has become normative and I wonder what that does for one’s conception of democracy.

T.W.: There is fear that the kind of human development which overwhelmed nature along the Front Range of Colorado might be repeated here in the Greater Yellowstone. Can you comment on this?

B.W.: My childhood was an education in the ever-changing quality of landscapes. For example, within the span of one year, the irrigation ditch I caught crawdads in was dried, filled in and built over with houses. That rate of change fostered an inquisitive attitude: why so much change?

I then moved to Montana, thinking if I could be in surroundings I considered more remote, I’d find a more comfortable stability away from the rapid pace of growth. Instead, the story I told myself grew much more complex and the illusion of escaping quickly dissolved.

Fast forward and I’ve found myself at NRCC, with experience working in various environmental education and field biology positions in Montana and two years at Yale F&ES studying management and policy. With these interests, the central challenge of my position is, what to do with all of this?

T.W.: How can we create a better future together if there’s a divide between those who know what’s coming with climate change and others who deny reality?

B.W.: Climate science has shown by the end of the century, we’ll experience somewhere between a 2- and 4-degree Celsius increase in temperature. The exact effects of this are varied and speculative, but there is no doubt that this level of temperature increase will impose very different conditions than the ones we operate with today.

The problem is that climate science has told the problem of climate change in a way that is nearly unsolvable from a political perspective. To simplify it, we have science to show us what the problem is, and we have policy to decide how to solve the problem—we’ve done a good job with science but a poor job with policy. Susan Clark and other scientists at NRCC are calling for a shift. As professionals in this field, we need to up our game on learning to understand our story and use that understanding to move us in the direction we would all like to go.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based “Mountain Journal” and is a correspondent for “National Geographic.” He’s also the author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399, which is available at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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