Last month when I was reading my June/July issue of the National Wildlife magazine, the column by National Wildlife Federation’s President and CEO, Larry Schweiger, grabbed my attention in a much deeper way than the great photography and interesting wildlife factoids that I usually appreciate in that magazine.
The column written by NWF’s Schweiger in the summer issue of National Wildlife was ostensibly about a victorious conservation battle that he had helped to wage on behalf of free-roaming bison in Wyoming and Montana. While I’m happy for those bison, Schweiger’s column also the celebrated the life of Ralph W. Abele – D-Day hero, Boy Scout leader, and a giant of the conservation movement in his native Pennsylvania – in words that were inspired by Schweiger’s own friendship with Abele that began in the 1960s. I’ll start with the bison battle, because that story will provide the context to talk about Ralph Abele.
Schweiger was on hand last March when a herd of more than 60 genetically pure bison were relocated from Yellowstone National Park to the Fort Peck Reservation in Montana. Eventually, part of the Fort Peck herd will be moved to the nearby Fort Belknap Reservation where tribes residing there will also begin to propagate their own herd of bison. Relocating the bison, which are sacred to Plains tribes of Native Americans, to tribal lands has been sought by Native Americans for over a century.
The last herd of free-roaming, genetically pure bison in the United States had been restricted primarily to Yellowstone National Park for the past several decades. And over those years, to manage the size of the Yellowstone herd, thousands of Yellowstone bison were killed rather than relocated to grasslands outside of the park, because local cattle ranchers feared the bison might compete with their herds for grazing lands. The NWF has worked over the past 20 years with the InterTribal Bison Cooperative toward restoring bison to Native American reservation lands. So after years of lawsuits by ranchers and negotiations between tribal governments and state and federal agencies, the first herd of bison was moved to the Fort Peck Reservation on March 19 of this year. The persistence of a handful of people working to do the right thing had finally paid off.
“One person with enough tenacity can dig in his heels and say, ‘This much and no more.’ ... There are great causes to be followed, and victory always starts with one person hanging on by his teeth and saying, ‘I will never give in.’” – Ralph W. Abele
Coincidentally, three weeks ago, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, in conjunction with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and the Ralph W. Abele Conservation Scholarship Fund, dedicated a historical marker in front of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission headquarters in Harrisburg to honor Ralph Abele. Ralph Abele (1921-1990) was the Fish and Boat Commission Executive Director from 1972 until his retirement in 1987.
Able was the only survivor from his landing craft at Normandy Beach on June 6, 1944. He survived D-Day to fight in four more campaigns in the European theater in World War II. In civilian life after the war, Abele, a former Boy Scout himself, went on to become a scout leader and was eventually one of Larry Schweiger’s most inspirational scout leaders. Later, after Abele became head of the Fish and Boat Commission, Schweiger would eventually have the opportunity, in the 1980s, to work for Abele.
It was from Schweiger’s personal observations of Abele in action that he wrote, “Throughout his life, Abele inspired and commanded the fight to save the natural environment. He believed strongly in the right of everyone to "clean air, pure water, and the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment." The italicized portion of Schweiger’s quote comes from Article 1, Section 27, of Pennsylvania’s Constitution.
For those of us who care deeply about the kind of environment that we will leave behind for our children and our children’s children, the call to duty is clear: we must not relent. We must continue to fight the battles, big and small, to prevent further degradation of our environment and the natural resources that comprise it. There are plenty of opportunities to get involved: it might be limited to financial support of a worthy conservation organization, or it might be boots on the ground and shovel in hand planting trees in a riparian buffer. Whether our preferred cause is coldwater conservation to protect trout habitat or building and installing wood duck boxes in marshy meadows, everyone can get involved and help to make a difference.
“The unique power bestowed on each individual human being to do good and even change the course of history is quite often underestimated. Even with sophisticated organizations working on the cause of a conservation ethic, there is a tendency of most individuals to say, ‘What can I do?’ The same kind of logic prevails in elections when they say, ‘What can my vote do?’” – Ralph W. Abele