Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Ted Parker and conservation failures

Ted Parker and conservation failures

On the twentieth anniversary of Ted Parker's death there has been a spate of tributes and memorials e.g., .
I knew Ted quite well and from an earlier age than most of the authors of his memorials.  We both hailed from Lancaster County and I spent many wonderful times in the field, at university, and at home with Ted.  I think the memorials miss some important points, or prefer not to mention them.  What can we learn from this loss?

Ted's skills and knowledge were exceptional, no doubt about that, and writers try to convey this.  But what is missing from the testimonials is that Ted did not get such wide recognition and respect while alive.  Ted struggled to find work.  He led tours of birdwatchers and other short contracts.  Ted did not have real traction among many academics.  He did not have the club's entry ticket, the Ph.D.  He could not get an NSF or most other grants, he could not get an academic position, he could not mentor graduate students.  His body of published work was not properly respected-- it was "just natural history" or "glorified birdwatching."  You won't find eigenvalues or regression modeling in Ted's writings, but you can learn about Neotropical birds.  Natural history was and still is a maligned branch of science.

Ted made monumental contributions of sound recordings to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and specimens to the Louisiana State University natural history collections.  But these organizations still constantly struggle to justify and fund the curation of these collections.  When he lived they could not fairly remunerate Ted for his contributions.  He collected this wealth of material essentially as a volunteer.  He considered himself lucky if someone would pay the expenses of a field trip to someplace new.  Forget about a salary or benefits.

He was just getting some more recognition and professional credibility shortly before he died.  He is credited with starting Conservation Internationals Rapid Assessment Program (RAP).  [full disclosure-- I have worked for CI].  But that program is not a high priority for Conservation International and has not been for a very long time.  It only employs one fulltime biologist now.  If Ted were alive now, Conservation International would not have him on the payroll with benefits.  While conservationists lament on the anniversary of his death, you have to look hard to find a conservation organization supporting anyone like Ted.

Ted was indeed exceptional, but not so much that no one is comparable.  I know people alive today who I think would compare well to Ted.  And, knowing Ted as I did, I think he would have agreed and respected them as equals.  I am not mentioning any names here for fear of embarrassing anyone, and because it is almost blasphemy to say anyone equals Ted.  But these people are awe inspiring to me, just as Ted was.  My friends reading this who are birders or biologists probably can think to themselves a few names of outstanding candidates.  If you can, ask yourself "Do these living exceptional individuals get the recognition and support they deserve?  Why are such exceptional field ornithologists (or other disciplines) always in the margins of the profession?"

Along with all the kudos for him and laments of the loss for conservation and science, the conservation/scientific community has not really gained appreciation for what Parker represented.  The people with skills comparable to Ted's still have to struggle for funding.  If they don't have a PhD. they can't get through the door.  Conservation organizations, even the RAP program he is credited with starting, do not employ people like Ted; they hire expertise on short contracts.  Permanent field experts are not needed.  It is a lot easier to get a fulltime job in conservation with a degree in law or public policy than it is with Parkeresque expertise. 

If Ted were alive today I'd predict that he would be struggling for a job. None of the big conservation organizations would employ him.  He would live from short contract to short contract-- providing expertise when needed by big conservation organizations; maybe occasionally leading high end birding tours; begging for support from a publisher.  The living, dazzling, field biologists I know now are not employed in conservation.  Most of them struggle just as Ted did.  The ones with higher degrees have a few more options, but they do not really get the respect they deserve.

Conservationists might publicly lament the loss of Ted (and Al Gentry and others like them after they die), but the community has not really learned to value what they had to offer.


  1. Great post Andy. I agree very much with your speculation about what Ted might be doing today, in spite of all his accomplishments. So many of the folks doing this kind of work today don't get the same kind of recognition and it's a shame.
    -George Armistead

  2. A thoughtful and timely post.
    Dan, Bolivia

  3. I'd never compare myself to Ted, absolutely never. But I'm familiar with this conundrum. I find it astounding that so many institutions can't find money or emphasis on "natural history" work. Are we so pig headed that we think we've learned enough about the actual daily, yearly lives of species on this planet?

    Wonderful post, I wish more people would write about such things. I hope that myself and others who choose to continue on our sometimes difficult path will take note of Ted's work and be encouraged (not discouraged).

  4. Excellent post Andy, very true ! As a fieldworker/birdguide one has to die in the mountains to get recognition .. Or as other birdguides today, work halftime with public relations in social networks in order to have work year-round and get decently paid ..