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Collin O'Mara on the Campbell Conversations

If kids spend a lot of time in front of display screens, is it bad for the environment?  Having a visceral connection to the outdoors is key to good environmental stewardship, argues this week’s guest on the Campbell Conversations.  Grant Reeher talks about habitat, species, and politics with Collin O’Mara, the current President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation. O’Mara is a former Delaware state cabinet official, a native of Camillus, New York, and the inventor of the City of Syracuse’s Syrastat system. 

Interview Highlights (note: transcript was edited for clarity)

Grant Reeher: As a young man you were an intern and a staffer for Congressman Jim Walsh here in Syracuse. And you were John McCain's youth coordinator for New Hampshire and his presidential bid. But then several years later you're named to the cabinet of a Democratic administration in the state of Delaware; the Secretary of Natural Resources and Environmental control. So that would suggest to me that there was some kind of political transformation that took place for you know of some kind. Can you talk about a little bit your own political journey since your young adulthood?

Collin O’Mara: Sure. I mean growing up in Syracuse in a family that was pretty much Rockefeller Republican types. My great grandmother actually was the committee chair for the Eastwood Committee for the city of Syracuse. Growing up with folks like Tarky Lombardi and John DeFrancisco and obviously working for Jim Walsh. These are all folks that were really good on conservation issues that are socially moderate and fiscally conservative and when I had the chance to work for Congressman Walsh, and I was actually working for him in 1998 when the Republican majority kind of imploded on the Hill. This is when Speaker Gingrich fell and then Livingston Rose, then Livingston fell, then Denny Hastert becomes Speaker and throughout that time you really saw the emergence of the hard right and more moderates like Congressman Walsh, who were struggling to find their way. A lot of the moderates lost in primaries or no longer had a chairmanship. So then when I was up in New Hampshire, I was actually first introduced to Senator McCain through Congressman Walsh's staff a few years earlier and so I had a relationship with him a little bit and some of his staff when he was running I was thrilled when he and his team invited me to join the effort. But he was that very moderate voice, good on campaign finance reform, which is important to me, really good on conservation issues, talking about climate before almost any other Republican with exception of maybe Sherwood Boehlert and some folks in the House. But it was through that experience, the woman I was dating at the time said to me 'everything you like about him is not going to be part of a Bush administration.' And she said 'the national party's not going where you think it is but the Democratic Party is' and I think through that experience and being up at school and seeing this evolution towards harder right really left some in the middle like me without a party and I think the Democrats were closer. And so when I came back to it to work in Syracuse after that I start working for Mayor Matt Driscoll who had just become Mayor after Roy Bernardi went to HUD and I really kind of found a home in the moderate part of the Democratic Party.

(GR): You mentioned working for Matt Driscoll. You were also the 'whiz kid' who instituted Syrastat in Syracuse in 2001 and this is a performance management accountability program that has saved the city money compared with its past practices.  What problems did you encounter there and what does Syrastat do?

(O’Mara): The nice thing about working for Mayor Driscoll, who was a business owner, he really had us look at all the financial challenges in the city and there wasn't enough money to do everything. And so what he challenged myself and Ann Rooney, who was the budget director at the time, was to really look at everything look and develop performance metrics, really look at how every dollar is being expended and what we found was that there wasn't a good connection often between where money was going versus the productivity of that money or the return on that investment. So we found things like the average park...almost all the parks had the same level of staffing even though a park like Schiller, for example, that serves mainly inner city kids might have ten times more kids in a park  on the west end but they both have three staff members. So it was completely insane. We'd find that all the complaints of the garbage program or the recycling program are maybe going to one or two trucks but you wouldn't know that unless you do the spatial analysis to see where the problems were because otherwise it just seem like random numbers. Also where overtime money was being spent, when it was being spent, why was it being spent. Not during snow season but the lead up to the post season. And so those kind of things all of a sudden by having data and maps and ability to analyze with a leader in Mayor Driscoll, who actually really liked the data, we were able to save a ton of money fairly quickly. It still wasn't enough to overcome the challenge. There were still structural deficits that they faced in terms of investment in infrastructure. But it was a amazing experience and it just showed if you don't have data driving decisions you can really make bad decision for years and years.

(GR): And you were also then Delaware Secretary of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. You served there from 2009 to 2014. What do you regard as your most significant accomplishments in that particular role?

(O’Mara):  I think the biggest thing is that we actually elevated conservation and environmental issues to having an equal place at the table. We implemented the first state wide recycling program, we reduced air emissions more than any other state in the country, we led a lot of regional efforts and to build out our tourism infrastructure and restore wildlife. But up until that point in the state that has such a strong business presence, the environmental considerations are often second and I think under Governor Markell's leadership we were able to make the case that good economic policy includes strong environmental protection because when folks are choosing where to keep a company or where to locate or deciding where to raise a family, they want to be in places with healthy clean water, they want to be able to breathe the air, they want to go to parks, they want to be able to go fishing or hiking. And if you don't have those elements not only will you not have a tourism economy, you also won't have a place for young talent to actually want to live. And if we're going to compete in a global economy when C.E.O.'s are making decisions, they want to be in those kind of places and so we need to be more attractive, have a more attractive quality of life then I think maybe had been a focus up until that point.

(GR): One of the initiatives I think you had there in Delaware had a clever title, 'No Child Left Inside'. Tell me about that.

(O’Mara): There's a definite nature deficit disorder that's going to be coined by a guy named Richard Louv, who used to be a reporter in San Diego and has been a great author, and they've done a lot of research across the country, including in Delaware, and the average kid right now is spending about 50 hours a week outside of the classroom in front of some kind of a screen. And so it's more than a full time job for the average families. 50 hours a week. If you add on top of that the 36 hours a week they're in school, maybe some extracurriculars, there aren't a whole lot of hours left if you're sleeping for 6-8 hours a day, hopefully closer to 10. And so what we're finding is that these kids are not being exposed to nature in any kind of meaningful way. That has implications on their health. Obviously childhood obesity, juvenile diabetes, and just general unhealthiness, intellectual curiosity, the critical thinking skills. General happiness, obviously you're happier when you're outside and breathing fresh air. And so all of that together is a pretty scary picture when you think about you know whether it's from a policy point of view or like health care costs or longevity or outcomes or looking at student performance and critical thinking skills When you're always interacting just with an electronic interface, you're not having those leadership opportunities when you're building the fort together with your neighbors in the back yard. So all this experience that I think a lot of us had are being lost. Now the scarier part for me is that if you actually go back in time about 25 or 30 years when folks like myself are growing up, there were all these new opportunities for electronic interfaces, like Atari and Nintendo and Sega and then AOL, so that all these things you could do inside that you didn't have to do with anybody else...you could  just entertain yourself for hours and hours at a time and there are really two types of parents at that time: The parents who still sent their kids outside, and the parents who let their kids play inside all the time. Maybe they were scared of stranger danger or just the Nintendo was a good babysitter. But now those kids are having kids. And so you actually have seen this cohort kind of split in many ways. Even if the parents want to connect their kids with nature, they actually don't know how because they didn't have the experiences themselves. So you either have to go back a generation to the grandparents or you have to figure out ways to do it through schools. But our goal for that initiative was try to get every Delaware kid an experience with the ocean, because we were only about eighty miles away from the ocean even in the busiest city of Wilmington. In wetlands and waterways...hunting, fishing, doing anything we can to get these kids outside, because I'm absolutely convinced unless folks have a visceral connection to nature in a meaningful way in a non-academic but in a in a personal way, the chances of being able to solve these bigger environmental challenges over the next 20 years is almost impossible because you won't have the constituency.

(GR): Let me turn to the National Wildlife Federation. What does the Federation do?

(O’Mara): Our primary goals are around wildlife conservation and so we work with big landscapes we restore bison and bighorn sheep populations in the West, we do a lot of work with things like the monarch butterfly and really trying to connect folks with individual actions and community level actions that provide habitat for these big species that we all love. Second, we do a lot with water. We're working on restoring the Great Lakes, the Gulf of Mexico after the B.P. oil spill, the Chesapeake, the Delaware and the Colorado. But we lead big coalitions of folks really trying to restore their water ways. And then the final piece is that we focus on having more vibrant wildlife communities and what we mean by that is having you know schools that are engaged with wildlife and nature are meaningful ways to get at the issues we're just talking about, as well as having folks do backyard habitat. And really showing these individual actions at scale can actually have incredible benefits for wildlife but it all comes back to connecting folks with nature in a meaningful way.

(GR): What grade would you give President Obama when it comes to wildlife protection?

(O’Mara): I think a lot of the actions that he's taken have benefits for wildlife. I think that he has not taken most actions through the lens of wildlife, if that makes sense. If you look back at his accomplishments on reducing air pollution, for example, there going to be seen as the most significant in the country. It will be on par with the improvements that were made during the first Bush administration and even some of the agreements that President Reagan put in place with ozone and HFCs. So, he'll be in that top tier, possibly leading that top tier. It's typically been articulated through the lens of public health and through the impact in cities and into the climate lens. There are huge impacts for wildlife there. The national monuments he's designated, he's up to 19 now. Well, 16 and there will be three more we anticipate fairly soon. So, again, a big impact, big improvements for protection but typically spent through the lens of recreation and natural resources and maybe a little less through wildlife. So I think overall I think he gets a solid B, B plus and I think there's I think there's more. He's never mentioned the word wildlife in any of the seven State of the Union addresses. But he's talked about climate, he's been bolder on climate than any president in our in our history, he has done incredible things for water quality, the clean water rule they're working on is fantastic and we're very supportive of his agenda. There are a couple opportunities in these last 20 months that to actually have a wildlife legacy that we're working really hard on some is fully funding Land and Water Conservation Fund and other programs. But for wildlife specifically, I'd give him a B plus but overall I think he's solidly in the A range.

(GR): What about the Congress in recent years?

(O’Mara): It's interesting, it's almost the opposite for Congress. I think in general environmental issues they're actually lower, more in the C range. But on conservation issues, they're actually more in that the B range again. There's been attempts for some sportsman's bills, if you look at some of the cuts to some programs...a lot of the wildlife programs have been fairly spared...I do think that the Republican caucus values sportsmen very well and I think that for that reason that things that are tied to more traditional hunting and fishing and those kinds of outdoor activities have not seen the same fiscal wrath that some other parts have.

(GR): I did want to ask you about the Monarch butterfly. In particular, the National Wildlife Federation is part of a partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service to try to save the Monarch butterfly. What is the problem with Monarch, why is it important as a species to save and how are you going about trying to help the problem?

Credit tdlucas5000 / Flickr
Monarch butterfly

(O’Mara): The Monarch is important from a pure ecological standpoint because the pollinator role that it plays and so it does help, whether it's with flowers or with crops. There is a role that it plays and really just pollinating, making sure that these crops are functioning and otherwise healthy. But from an educational [standpoint], the American experience, I think it plays an even a bigger role and I think all of us can think back to a time, and I still remember him by second grade class room Mrs. Davis' class doing the experiments and learning about the cycles and going through the metamorphosis and those things stick with you. And I think that's an experience that does create a very visceral love of nature, not an academic way but in a very tangible way. The idea that, my daughter Riley, who's three now, might not have that same experience because of this impact is worrisome. And so what we're focused on is really looking at a comprehensive solution. There's a big impact in Mexico right now, there's over wintering habitat that has really just both deforested and also to see more and more pesticides and more chemicals being applied...

(GR): And how dramatic is the decline in the population and what are we looking at in terms of the scale of the problem?

(O’Mara): There are more than a billion Monarchs that were surveyed, or identified, about 10-15 years ago so about a billion then. In last couple years, there have been somewhere between 30 and 60 million. So you're talking a decline of more than 90% over those years. Some of that is habitat related and some of that is individual years where you might have bad storms or a freeze or something else. But if you have good habitat in Mexico and are working hard, the president's actually made that part of the trilateral negotiations between the Canadians, the U.S. and the Mexican government. So, better habitat there. And then if you think of the U.S. kind of like a funnel or like a chute, the habitat kind of through Texas, through Oklahoma, that I-35 corridor through Oklahoma and Missouri and then ultimately up into Minnesota, really making sure we have good habitat there, because that's really the funnel through which most of the butterflies are coming through that are winding up in Syracuse and California as they’re going through. So really focusing on making sure there's good continuity. Because what happens, over six generations the Monarchs that are starting in Mexico, each generation will go a little bit of the journey, then the last generation flies back. It's amazing. There's some muscle memory or some kind of memory that's actually passed from Monarch generations that have no connection to the previous ones. It's not like they've been to these places. You know exactly where to go back in Mexico, even though six or seven generations earlier were there. It's an amazing thing.

Grant Reeher is Director of the Campbell Public Affairs Institute and a professor of political science at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. He is also creator, host and program director of “The Campbell Conversations” on WRVO, a weekly regional public affairs program featuring extended in-depth interviews with regional and national writers, politicians, activists, public officials, and business professionals.