An Exclusive Interview with Defenders CEO Jamie Rappaport Clark

Loretta Stadler sits down for a unique interview with Defenders’ CEO

On May 16, 2017, I will accompany Jamie Rappaport Clark to New York to receive the National Audubon Society’s Women in Conservation 2017 Rachel Carson Award. This recognition is a testament to Jamie’s lifetime of work, passion and advocacy on behalf of wildlife and wild lands. Being there to see Jamie accept this award is a true honor for me and I couldn’t think of a more deserving person carrying on the legacy of Rachel Carson in both her professional career and her personal ambitions. In receiving this award, Jamie follows in the footsteps of many other passionate women leading the cause of conservation on behalf of our beloved planet.

My name is Loretta Stadler. Like Jamie, I also have a passion for wildlife and while it was that passion that compelled me to support Defenders initially, it was Jamie’s vision for wildlife and conservation that motivated me to join the board of directors in 2013. Through Jamie’s leadership, Defenders has become a recognized strategic thought leader on conservation policy and implementation.

Whether it’s sitting in the audience as Jamie moderates a panel at the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Summit, marching alongside her in the pouring rain to advocate for the critical role of science in preventing extinction at the March for Science in D.C., or planning to attend the 2017 Women in Conservation luncheon in New York, I am reminded time and again of Jamie’s commitment to wildlife and our planet, and why I am proud to stand by her side and be a defender of wildlife.

A Conversation with Jamie

I recall one of my first meetings with Jamie in her office at  Defenders of Wildlife’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. Her office defined the landscape of someone who shares a singular passion for wildlife. While walking in, I caught quick glimpses of images and sculptures of wolves, birds and other wildlife all over her office. I was already getting the sense that this was someone deeply passionate about wildlife.

Several times Jamie has mentioned that she considers herself an introvert and prefers the company of wildlife and the outdoors over having to give presentations or testify before Congress.  Her candor is refreshing and her self-deprecating attitude, especially about her public speaking skills, seemed almost silly as she seamlessly wove from one engaging story to the next. This is someone whose passion has fueled her ambition and who could inspire confidence in anyone around her.

It is her unique combination of reserved reluctance to take the spotlight, but passionate obligation to make a difference that truly makes her stand out as a CEO. You can see it in her story every step of the way.

Jamie has recalled that her love of wildlife and the outdoors was something she’d always had growing up. She’s talked about her love of nature and animals and how she was often considered the ‘mutant’ child among her four very urban siblings. Growing up, she had set her sights on being a veterinarian, but when she got to college she felt the call of something bigger.

The Peregrine Falcon

When Jamie was a junior in college, she spent her summer working for Cornell University reintroducing endangered peregrine falcons into the wild. She recalled how she spent eight weeks in the woods tracking five chicks to make sure they were successfully fledged into adulthood. Her contribution was during the beginning part of the falcon’s reintroduction to the East Coast. Perhaps it was all that time spent in quiet contemplation of nature or that frenzied focus on making sure these baby birds made it safely to adulthood, but something was sparked in her. She said it was one of the defining moments in her life.

“It was that pivot point of working with species on the brink of extinction that made me realize I wanted to work with wildlife.” It was a call to follow in the footsteps of the women she admired most–luminaries like Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall.

The peregrine falcon was something that came full-circle for Jamie. Twenty years after her efforts that summer in college, she got to stand on the cliffs near  the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho as the Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and announce their recovery. She said that the significance of that moment is something she continues to hold dear because it is so rare to ever see a species’ recovery from beginning to end in one’s lifetime, because the process takes such a long time.

Answering the Call of the ESA

While Jamie served as Director of the FWS, she was a part of numerous success stories like that of the Northern spotted owl and marbled murrelet during the days of the timber wars. Her passion shines through when she tells me about all the work that was done in south Florida with the key deer, the red wolves in the Carolinas, and  negotiating with the tribes in the New England states for the Atlantic salmon. She said she’s never been as cold as she was when she stood in Alpine, Arizona and opened the crates to let Mexican gray wolves back into the wild for the first time after decades of being gone from the southwest. And though she wasn’t on the ground for the original Yellowstone release of gray wolves, she was proud to be in Washington, D.C. doing all the back-up work to help make it happen. Her work with gray wolves has been some of the most rewarding in her career and is something she is proud to continue with Defenders.

As I mentioned before, Jamie is a very straightforward person. Throughout our time together, she has made sure to temper her stories with notes about just how difficult and long of a process species recovery is.

This reality is why she and Defenders of Wildlife are fighting so hard for the Endangered Species Act (ESA). She’s concerned about the recent and escalating attacks on the ESA, despite it being a common-sense piece of legislation that says we need to protect imperiled species from extinction. She explains the ESA as an alarm and that there are people that just don’t want to hear it because it is signaling that something is wrong and people don’t want to confront that. I asked her whether she thought we were in the midst of a mass extinction event, something I’d heard her mention briefly before, and true to form, she answered with an unabashed “yes.” She went on to say that it is not a matter of ‘if’ or ‘when,’ but of who will be the last generation standing that has to deal with the impacts of what we are doing today. It was a bleak reminder of what we have the power to inflict on the world around us, but also one veiled in the hope that if we acknowledge what’s happening and begin now to change the way we operate, we can change the future.

Science in Jeopardy

Jamie’s remarks about how what we are doing today will impact future generations, is something that continues to strike at my heart.  I feel that deep sense of responsibility that Jamie speaks of in our need to address behaviors now that could have catastrophic effects for our children and our children’s children.

Jamie shares her apprehension about the new administration and the current Congress and the  trend toward the notion that science and facts don’t matter. She worries that the information that science gives us as a basis for decision-making is being construed as irrelevant and how that is extremely dangerous because it is going to allow or cause us to make decisions that could irreparably change the environmental fabric of our country.

We talked about her struggle with why the administration and Congress is pushing back against science. She believes that they choose to ignore what science says because to acknowledge it would compromise their own agendas. “And so the administration and Congress prefer to be like the old ostrich with its head in the sand—‘I see nothing, I hear nothing, don’t tell me anything, I know best,” she said.  Never one to pull her punches, Jamie put it simply, “It’s incredibly dictatorial, patronizing and it won’t endure; it can’t endure, because it’s not going to change what’s happening in the world around us.”

Looking Ahead

At a time when we are already seeing the impacts of pressing global concerns like climate change threaten our health and safety and that of our wildlife and their habitat, turning away from science and scientific fact could have disastrous implications for the fate of humankind, wildlife and the planet.  It is for this reason and for her deep love of wildlife, that Jamie continues to be an outspoken champion on behalf of science and the wildlife and wild places we all love.

That’s why I stand with Jamie – and I Stand with Wildlife.