I live so close to I-65 that I can always hear the freeway’s dull hum. It’s a sound and setting that feels far from the forests and nature preserves I so cherish, but it is our home, and we’re trying to take care of it the best I can. Last spring, my wife and I decided to seed much of the yard with native flowers, especially those that sustain pollinators. Honestly, given the context, I didn’t think it would make much of a difference, but how wrong I was! Our yard was teeming with butterflies, birds, and insects, even species I had never seen before! That experience of transformation was a real joy and fully converted me to the power of native plants for building habitat, even in the unlikeliest of places. Planting those flowers and seeing the impact created and articulated, for my family, an intimate and direct relationship with our environment, and the impact we can have if we work responsibly within it.
Inspired, we had our yard declared a certified wildlife habitat by the Indiana Wildlife Federation (IWF). So I’m incredibly excited to interview Emily Wood, IWF’s Executive Director. Wood studied Wildlife Biology at Ball State University, worked for years in formal gardens with the city of Indianapolis, including Garfield Park Conservatory, before transitioning to nonprofit by joining Keep Indianapolis Beautiful as director of GreenSpace. Now, at the helm of IWF for nearly four years, Wood works to promote the conservation, sound management, and sustainable use of Indiana's wildlife and wildlife habitat through education, advocacy, and action. Wood’s work shows that, once you pass your front door, there is limitless opportunity to promote and protect our wildlife.
BEN VALENTINE: Let’s set the stage. What is your vision for Indiana, and what is at stake?
EMILY WOOD: As a conservation nonprofit leader, my vision for Indiana certainly includes a path to thriving wildlife and habitats across our state. As I have watched daily events unfold around me over the last year “from a distance” my vision now includes a lot more work on the human side of our mission. We must position ourselves to commit to much more than sound management and sustainable use of our natural resources. We must authentically engage with the many Hoosier voices that have been absent and excluded from having a platform or a voice to set conservation priorities or participate in their implementation.
VALENTINE: How do we open up more opportunities for Hoosiers to discover and enjoy nature outside of our biggest parks and preserves?
WOOD: There are countless ways to enjoy nature, but sometimes it is difficult to know how to jump in. Volunteering with, or joining a conservation organization like ours can help introduce you to programs, resources, events, and activities all across the state — and connect you to a broad network of people that share your interests, or are working to solve a shared problem. The success of our federation relies on the people within it! Whether you are a hunter/angler, a gardening enthusiast, or a climate activist we all have a meaningful role in protecting our natural resources.
VALENTINE: I often feel that environmental degradation is the result of poor accounting. In a spreadsheet, it is easier for business as usual to look cheaper, but down the road, not adequately protecting the water and air on which we all rely has significant costs. Talk about your research to quantify the economic and public value of protecting our natural areas.
WOOD: I often describe environmental degradation and/or the loss of species in similar terms as the emergency room. If you have a health issue, generally speaking, you will likely have more options, that are more affordable, and provide better results — the earlier the better. If you wait until the issue warrants the ER, chances are less likely to be successful, will take longer to recover from, and cost a whole bunch more. It’s the same with conservation, and I regret to inform you that we have a very full waiting room.
VALENTINE: It strikes me that the funding streams and partners in your efforts can traditionally be at odds. Fish and game licenses provide significant funding for conservation in Indiana, but hunters and tree huggers are not usually allies. How do you get diverse groups aligned behind your efforts?
WOOD: I would be remiss if I did not include that a lot of success between these groups starts with providing decent snacks at your meetings (#protip). It is absolutely true that hunter anglers have shouldered a lion’s share of the cost of traditional conservation. While we are investing time and resources into the R3 (recruitment, retention, and reactivation of the next generation of hunter anglers) initiative, we are deeply invested in finding new ways to fund conservation in the state so that all users of the resources pay into the system. IWF is working with the Indiana Conservation Alliance (INCA) to build new, permanent funding sources for our state; specifically to address funding our State Wildlife Action Plan, the President Benjamin Harrison Trust (how the state buys land for conservation), DNR property rehabilitation/maintenance backlog, and grants for local parks and trail projects.
A major part of getting everyone to cooperate is that Indiana flat out needs more public lands to achieve our needs.
VALENTINE: Let’s talk about diversity and conservation in Indiana. How are you working to meaningfully bring a more diverse group to the table to better protect and cherish our natural world?
WOOD: I am honored to co-chair a task force with the National Wildlife Federation that is focusing on a plan that envisions building a conservation army for the 21st century which includes all Americans and makes the case that we will be more effective at broadening the conservation movement and building power only if we share power with Black, brown, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) individuals and organizations. IWF and a number of other conservation partners seek to do that here in Indiana as well, but I feel we are not making progress fast enough. We need help, and I hope that anyone reading that feels they can help us do that will reach out.
VALENTINE: How is climate change — so often considered only a coastal or pole problem — affecting Indiana, and what are you doing to mitigate those effects?
WOOD: Utilizing Purdue Climate Change Research Center’s Indiana-specific climate models, and DNR Wildlife Science Reports for the state we have developed a really great habitat program that talks about climate impacts on Indiana’s wildlife. It is a big topic to condense into a short answer, but in general, we are seeing hotter, drier summers (many more days above 90 degrees), and much wetter and warmer fall, winter and spring. This affects everything from migration times and food availability—to things like dimorphism; meaning animals that develop lighter-colored coats in the winter to blend into a snowy landscape may have less success hiding from prey.
VALENTINE: Tell us about your next big event, the Indiana Virtual Wildlife Conference on January 30th.
WOOD: We are pleased to be hosting in a short two-hour format, the president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, Collin O’Mara to talk about the national conservation strategy for 2021 and beyond. Additionally, we’ll host the DNR Division of Fish and Wildlife Director, Amanda Wuestefeld to talk about the Grasslands for Gamebirds and Songbirds Conservation Partnership. This will be a great opportunity to jump into the conversation and get involved!