By Cynthia Bournellis
Some people are born with an innate understanding of and appreciation for wildlife and wild places. That is the case for me. A California Bay Area native, I grew up with the giant Redwoods and Pacific Ocean to the west of the Santa Cruz Mountain range and the majestic oaks and fertile farms to the east.
As a child, I spent most of my summers in the Northern Sierras. The Alpine peaks and towering pines captivated me. It is these wild places that spawned my passion for hiking. On occasion, my hikes along our country’s trails have placed me within a stone’s throw of iconic inhabitants such as brown bears and bison.
Unfortunately, many of America’s most treasured natural assets are now at risk due to urban sprawl, climate change, a lack of human understanding of nature’s place within the ecosystem, and legislative attacks on the endangered wildlife and habitats. This is why I partook in Defenders of Wildlife’s “Conservation Crossroads” lobby day in Washington, D.C.
I have never lobbied in my life. Yet there I was, the average citizen preparing to talk to our nation’s decision makers and influencers about an issue close to my heart. But wasn’t that the point? To stand up for wildlife, to have my voice be heard, to remind our elected leaders what’s really important?
Thanks to Defenders, my world expanded tremendously as a result of this opportunity. During our training session, Defenders provided us with a wealth of valuable information. However, the content overwhelmed me a bit and left me wondering how I was going to incorporate it into the meeting with my representative’s aid the next day. My Sherpa (Defenders’ guide on Capitol Hill), though, calmed my nerves, pointing out that while I’d probably be speaking with representatives from California who generally support wildlife, it was still important that I meet with them in-person to express why defending the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and providing adequate funding for related programs are important to me. She advised me to be sincere and be myself.
That night, I compiled my talking points on notecards and practiced my pitch. I carried my cards with me the next day, referring to them often before my meeting. I was mildly nervous going into our first meeting with Rep. Mike Thompson, a true champion for endangered wildlife. Yet, his approachable and engaging demeanor led to lively and informative conversation, which fed my confidence for subsequent meetings.
As it turned out, the next meeting with Rep. Anna Eshoo, who represents my district, was better than I expected. The legislative aide we met with was very welcoming and had a good sense of humor. He listened with genuine interest while I shared my own story, and also educated me on my congresswoman’s activities regarding the ESA—primarily her vote against wolf delistings. Furthermore, he took time out to provide me with details on habitat conservation activities in my county. I walked away from the meeting with a true sense of accomplishment.
Our subsequent meetings with both Senators Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein’s aides were also satisfying. However, it was the latter meeting that was the most exciting: Feinstein’s aide turned the tables on us, asking for our opinions the Bay Delta Conservation Plan—a heated issue— in California that has been occupying the senator’s time. The fact that he wanted our feedback impressed me and ignited intelligent conversation that amounted to an informal brainstorming session.
My day on the hill—including the evening reception—was both invigorating and like nothing I had imagined. In fact, there were moments when the experience seemed downright surreal, such as when chatting with Rep. Thompson about our shared passion for wine, taking a group picture with Sen. Boxer and meeting the longest-serving member of congress—John Dingell, Jr.—and Defenders President Jamie Rappaport Clark at the reception. I must say that I have a deep respect for what Defenders does: Having their support, as well as support from the other constituents in my group, made for a positive experience.
I now have a better understanding of what it takes to lobby, the role it plays and, most important, the need for constituents to talk to their representatives in-person—not just through letters or phone calls—so that they can see the faces behind the concerned voices.