Recently I was expressing my frustration to a friend about how environmentalists have hijacked the policy discussion around environmental issues and driven it in the wrong direction. I was explaining how environmentalists were forcing costly regulations on our society without, as Steven Koonin has put it, “acknowledging not only the scientific certainties but also the uncertainties, especially in projecting the future.” (Steven Koonin discusses this issue in his piece Climate Science is not Settled that ran in the WSJ on September 19, 2014.)
I continued explaining to my friend that environmentalist rhetoric has, unfortunately, cast this as a battle between those who love nature and those who wish to exploit it. In doing this, they’ve framed the issue in “us versus them” terms where you’re cast as an evil polluter if you want to have an informed discussion about appropriate regulatory scope. But an informed discussion on these issues is critical, for without it, we’re at risk of basing policy on guesswork. And while that’s never a good idea, it’s particularly bad where the costs of incorrect policy to our environment and economy are enormous!
“Wait a minute Joe,” my friend interrupted, “take a breath! I thought you were an environmentalist?”
“No,” I responded, “I’m a conservationist.”
“What’s the difference? And does it really matter that much?” he asked.
* * *
I’ve spoken often of my conviction that we all have a responsibility to do everything we can to preserve and protect the beautiful natural landscapes and abundant natural resources to be found in our great country (especially those of us lucky enough to live in Wyoming’s Upper Hoback Valley). This is why I’ve spent so much time and money over the years working on projects like the effort to preserve the Wyoming Range, the campaign to protect the Hoback Basin from oil and gas drilling, and our ongoing study to reestablish the Common Loon in its former breeding range.
This activism of mine surprises some people, who ask me if I’m an environmentalist. The answer is no. What I am is a conservationist.
Environmentalists believe in their hearts that man is an intruder in nature – that we have no business cutting timber or building dams or otherwise making use of any of the natural riches God has bestowed on us. The best thing we can do with wilderness areas, they say, is to leave them alone. To paraphrase John Muir, the man generally credited with being the father of environmentalism, when it comes to the great outdoors, we might occasionally look, but we should never touch.
Conservationists, on the other hand, believe that human beings are just as much a part of the natural ecosystem as any black bear, cutthroat trout, or trumpeter swan. That said, while humans may have the right to make use of nature’s bounty, we can, if we’re not careful, wreak havoc with the landscape. As a result, conservationists recognize that we have a special responsibility to be vigilant stewards of the environment. This means living up to the tenets of sustainability and balanced use that are so important to the continued health of all natural ecosystems.
This at least is how I see it, and it’s why I created the Ricketts Conservation Foundation. To my way of thinking, environmental stewardship is an enduring value that is everyone’s responsibility. We shouldn’t squander nature’s riches, but neither should we shy away from them. As with most important things in life, the key is balance and understanding.
And that brings me to the chief concern I have with environmentalist rhetoric, which often makes having a responsible and informed discussion about these issues impossible. It seems that if you want to acknowledge the limits of our scientific knowledge, and how those limits should inform the appropriate scope of regulation, you’re a pariah, hell bent on destroying the environment. But predicting the future is never easy, particularly when dealing with cause-and-effect within complex environmental systems. So there are some things we know for sure, and other things that we believe are true. Promulgating costly regulation supported by hypothesis rather than science is a very dangerous game for both the environment and our economy. To my mind, engaging in honest and informed discussion about these issues is among our responsibilities.
January 8 will be a great day for the people of my native Nebraska, but it will be even more special for the Ricketts family. On that day, my son Peter will be inaugurated as the state’s 40th Governor. As you might imagine, his mother and I, as well as his sister and brothers – not to mention, of course, his wife and children, and all his nieces, nephews, and in-laws – couldn’t be prouder.
Marlene and I raised our children not only to be self-reliant and hard-working, but also to believe in the importance of public service. Peter embodies these qualities, as do his siblings – all of whom, I am happy to say, have made contributing to their communities a central part of their lives.
It’s fashionable these days to deride public service as a discredited enterprise, and Lord knows the behavior of too many of our so-called political leaders in recent years has been nothing short of disgraceful. But the ideas that made America what it is today – the founders’ commitment to freedom and justice and the notion that the only limitations on how high a person can rise should be those set by his or her own intelligence, grit, and willingness to work – all involve a sense of responsibility not just to ourselves and our families, but to the larger communities in which we live. So if we’re going to keep this country great, we can’t give up on public service.
I’m proud of Peter, not simply for running a fine campaign and winning an election, but for all the work he’s done and will be doing in the years to come on behalf of his fellow Nebraskans. I think Nebraska will benefit from the wisdom and character of Governor Peter Ricketts.
Congratulations Peter, I’m very proud of you!
One of the great things about life in Wyoming’s Upper Hoback Valley is the amazing variety of wildlife we have as neighbors. Among other things, the Hoback Basin is home to one of the largest herds of Shiras moose in the continental U.S. This majestic animal is actually the smallest of the four kinds of moose found in North America, but it’s no shrimp-a full-grown Shiras bull can weigh up to 1,800 pounds and measure seven feet tall at the shoulder.
For the past three years, a research group from the University of Wyoming has been studying the Shiras moose in our area, with an eye to learning as much as we can about their migration routes, breeding patterns, and nutritional conditions. It’s been my privilege to help support this effort financially. The idea is to build up a database so we can have an informed perspective about how changing habitats are impacting our wild neighbors. Among the report’s observations – you can read the most recent research reports here (2013) and here (2014) – is that the local herd is not getting enough to eat and, as a result, not as many Shiras calves are being born and adult survival rates are dropping.
One of the things that led me to get involved in last year’s successful campaign to buy up oil and gas leases on some 58,000 acres of land in the Hoback Basin was my concern over the possible impact widespread oil- and gas-drilling might have on wildlife like the Shiras moose. The ongoing moose study is an important way to ensure we make informed decisions in our role as custodians of these natural treasures.
In May 2013, I blogged about the tablet computer program that Opportunity Education Foundation would be piloting in Tanzania. Since then, a dedicated team has worked tirelessly to prepare for the launch of this important program.
So it was a real thrill for me last month to be able to personally visit each of the Tanzanian schools participating in the pilot. The schools were a mix of public and private institutions spread throughout the Tanzanian mainland and the state of Zanzibar. The excitement everywhere we went was palpable, and I was honored to meet President Kikwete of Tanzania and President Shein of Zanzibar, and to learn about their commitment to using technology to magnify educational impacts.
As I traveled to each of the pilot schools, it was truly wonderful to see the enthusiasm of the students, teachers, and school administrators. I made it a point to ask students what they wanted to be when they grew up. The answers were astounding and inspiring: a pilot, a lawyer, a neurosurgeon, a veterinarian, an astronaut, a teacher, and a psychologist. But most gratifying of all was seeing our Opportunity Tablets in the hands of children who are so keen to work hard and improve their lives.
The experience left me more certain than ever that education can be the catalyst for breaking the cycle of poverty. But that’s the “Think Big” part of it. First, we need to “Start Small,” and I believe this pilot program for 1,000 children will be an excellent way for us to quickly flatten the learning curve and find out how this effort could scale.
As the pilot year progresses and we learn more from it, I will post periodic updates.
America is truly blessed with an abundance of natural beauty, and in my opinion there are few if any places in our country more beautiful than the Upper Hoback Valley in northwestern Wyoming, where I spend as much time as I can at the Jackson Fork Ranch. But while these natural wonders may be gifts from God, it is up to us to preserve and protect them. And these days, with government budgets stretched to the breaking point, it is more than ever up to the private sector – both private corporations and individual citizens – to provide the financial resources it takes to get the job done.
I recently had the honor of hosting a lunch at Jackson Fork Ranch to celebrate a perfect example of how this sort of thing can get done. Working with a coalition of conservation groups, the Trust for Public Land and a group of private citizens got together to raise $8.75 million to buy up oil and gas leases on some 58,000 acres of pristine land in the Hoback Basin – thus protecting this spectacular wilderness forever. What I found most gratifying about this effort was the number of private citizens – more than 1,000 in all – who pitched in to make the campaign successful. As I told the group that gathered at Jackson Fork Ranch last week, I’m proud to have been able to play a role in helping to preserve this magnificent landscape for future generations. (You can learn more about the successful campaign here, and you can see a video of the event below.) The outpouring of support for this project was inspiring and demonstrates how much the people of Wyoming value the outdoors and how hard we’ll work to protect our natural resources.
On May 5, 2013, a new bison was born at Jackson Fork Ranch. I have no doubt that this “little” calf is going to be the center of attention at Jackson Fork Lodge this summer.
Until the calf gets dirty, it’s still a relatively pristine white, and it will stay that way until the dust and dirt of the prairie turns it a toasty light brown. Legend has it that there were not any white bison on the Great Plains prior to 1800 but you’ll need to come to the Lodge to hear this fascinating story! At 75 pounds, it has some growing to do; bulls typically reach 1,000 pounds or more by adulthood.
What’s the gender? We don’t yet know, as we must keep our distance for now! (Best not to cross a momma bison.)
Over the years, I’ve observed that my ideas usually follow a progression that starts with what I call the “dream phase.” That’s the time I think about a new idea, talk about it with people I respect, and give it enough time and oxygen to develop.
A lot of my ideas never get out of the dream phase; after rolling them around in my head, I realize the idea isn’t all that compelling or won’t work for some reason. But when an idea survives the dream phase and starts to become a reality, it’s very exciting for me.
Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about how technology is remaking education and what that means for Opportunity Education Foundation and its mission. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my time because I believe education will be the catalyst for breaking the cycle of poverty in both developing nations and the poorest parts of the United States. And as I’ve thought about all this, I’ve been dreaming about developing a digital curriculum, designed for a tablet computer, that Opportunity Education Foundation could give away to children in the areas of greatest need.
Well, I am very excited these days because Opportunity Education Foundation’s tablet project is moving from the dream phase to the reality phase. We’re starting in Tanzania with a 1,000-kid pilot program that will launch in January 2014. Based on what we learn from this relatively small test, we will expand the program. Over time, I hope it will reach children in all the countries where the Foundation operates, and maybe further.
The Foundation’s tablet team just got back from 10 days in Tanzania, where they tested an early version of the Opportunity Tablet. The idea was to see how the kids interacted with the hardware and software, and then to improve that experience before the pilot begins in January.
These are kids who had never before seen a tablet computer and, in most cases, never seen a smart phone. But they were quick to figure out the tablet interface and put it to work right away — something that was truly amazing to see.
There is still much to learn, but I am excited that we’ve taken this first step.
Last Friday evening, March 1, was a special night for the Opportunity Education Foundation, which helps to give hundreds of thousands of kids in Africa and Asia access to quality education and which I’ve been privileged to support for the past eight years. We were in Dallas, Texas, at the Verizon Theater at Grand Prairie, for the first-ever Opportunity Education Benefit Concert, an exciting event headlined by the talented young pop star Kelly Clarkson.
It was a wonderful evening, filled with great music and good feeling. For me, the best part was seeing so many young people having such a good time while hearing about the foundation’s important work. It was also inspiring to hear Ms. Clarkson, whose mother is a teacher, talk about the link between education and opportunity – how America became known as the Land of Opportunity because of the access to good education that so many of us take for granted and how the Opportunity Education Foundation is working to give children all over the world the same chance to succeed.
I’m so grateful to Ms. Clarkson for supporting our efforts and helping to spread the word about Opportunity Education’s vital mission.
One of the great joys of my life in recent years has been assembling a prize-winning herd of magnificent Percheron mares at my Jackson Fork Ranch. These are truly glorious animals, descendants of a breed of powerful draft horses that were brought over from France in the mid-19th century. Though we’ve been at it for not much more than four years, our Percherons – under the direction of my capable ranch manager Jonathan Harding – have already made more than their share of history. In 2010, they became the first all-mare hitch to win the Calgary Stampede’s prestigious World Champion Six Horse Hitch Competition – an amazing feat that they repeated in 2011. And this past year they earned a coveted finalist position in the North American Classic Series.
Because a number of the mares are pregnant – the result of a comprehensive breeding program we’ve initiated with a herd of prize-winning stallions from Windermere Farms in Spring Hills, Pennsylvania – we have reduced their competition schedule for the coming year. But they won’t be totally out of public view. On New Year’s Day, our Percherons will be marching in the world-famous Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, pulling a Jackson Fork Ranch wagon custom made for us by Hanson Wagon Works of South Dakota. To be asked to play a part in an event as celebrated and historic as the Rose Parade is a point of tremendous pride for all of us at Jackson Fork Ranch. The nobility and beauty of these animals is awe-inspiring, and I’m delighted to be able to share them with the world
I’ve long felt that being a good citizen means not just watching from the sidelines but getting actively involved in the big policy debates of our time. It was in this spirit that I started a non-partisan advocacy group called Taxpayers Against Earmarks back in 2010. Taxpayers Against Earmarks focused on educating the public about the dangers of earmarking, and early in 2011 we were happy to see Congress declare a moratorium on this fiscally irresponsible practice.
With the earmarking campaign behind us, we decided to take on an even bigger challenge — the larger issue of out-of-control federal spending and the crushing burden of government debt it leaves in its wake. We renamed our group Ending Spending and for the past two years, we have been doing what we can to educate the public and help elect political leaders who understand the importance of balancing the budget and reducing the debt.
This promises to be a much longer campaign than the one against Congressional earmarks, but it’s a battle that must be waged. With this in mind, I’m pleased and proud to report that my sons Todd and Pete are coming to work with me at Ending Spending. Given the critical importance of getting our fiscal house in order, it’s more important than ever for groups like Ending Spending to continue making the case for smarter spending and smaller government. And with Todd and Pete’s help, that’s just what we’re going to do.