New West

By Todd Wilkinson

Millennial tapped to lead major Jackson Hole-based conservation organization rooted in wildlife science

Ben Williamson has a resume of experience that, by itself, is impressive. This year the new arrival to Jackson Hole added another element. As a member of the Millennial generation, he assumed the helm of the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative and became one of the youngest people ever tapped to oversee a major regional conservation organization in Greater Yellowstone.

Before arriving, Williamson had conducted research on rapidly disappearing whitebark pine trees in Yellowstone National Park, he directed an environmental education center with The Glacier Institute, worked on reducing predator-livestock conflicts in northwest Montana and facilitated a land use dialogue in the African nation of Ghana.

Originally from Colorado, he received an undergraduate degree from the University of Montana and then a master’s in environmental management at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. It was at the latter that he spent time with Dr. Susan Clark, who founded NRCC in Jackson in 1987. Since then NRCC has functioned as a nexus for scientists working in myriad disciplines, all dedicated to addressing opportunities and challenges in large landscape conservation.

Not long ago, I had a provocative interview with Ben in which he shared his perspective about key conservation issues and how younger generations see the world differently than the elders who came before them.

TW: Jackson Hole is known nationally for being a cradle of the land and wildlife conservation movements. Now that you’re at the daily helm of NRCC, what was it that drew you to the job?

BW: The obvious draw for me is NRCC’s built-in ability to adapt to our current moments’ challenges. NRCC was created with traditional ecological objectives that focus on empirical data to achieve conservation outcomes, having done some of the ground-level work on migration and large carnivore research in the late 1980s. As the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem rapidly changes, NRCC has evolved to think about what this 21st century moment requires—to ask ourselves questions like who we are and what we are going to become. Similar to NRCC, I started from an ecological background and have adapted my skill set to meet new challenges. My own story mirrors this evolution, and that’s why we’re a great fit.

TW: You’re young. Speak about some of the influences in your life

BW: I was fortunate to have an upbringing with parents and in a place that fostered a sense of curiosity without limits—an existence that is inaccessible to far too many. I owe this freedom to (a) my parent’s encouragement for reflection and introspection and (b) growing up on the Front Range of Colorado—the place I now consider a nucleus of the same forces that are shaping the GYE.

TW: There is fear that the kind of human development which overwhelmed nature along the Front Range of Colorado might be repeated here.

BW: My childhood was an education in the ever-changing quality of landscapes. For example, within the span of one year, the irrigation ditch I caught crawdads in was dried, filled in and built over with houses. That rate of change fostered an inquisitive attitude: why so much change? I then moved to Montana, thinking if I could be in surroundings I considered ‘more remote,’ I’d find a more comfortable stability ‘away’ from the rapid pace of growth. Instead, the story I told myself grew much more complex and the illusion of ‘escaping’ quickly dissolved.

Fast forward, and I’ve found myself at NRCC, with experience working in various environmental education and field biology positions in Montana and two years at Yale Forestry & Environmental Studies studying management and policy. With these interests, the central challenge of my position is, what to do with all of this?

TW: NRCC fills a unique niche, not only having a distinguished list of active scientific associates and alumni, but it functions as a conduit between independent research groups, agencies NGOs and other parts of the community. Will that continue?

BW: I want NRCC to be a thought leader in how we think about the natural world. We’re in a watershed moment where what it means to live on earth is fundamentally changing. Here in Jackson, we live in what many consider to be the most pristine ecosystem in the country and treat it as a refuge to escape from what is happening everywhere else. I want to demonstrate that the tools we’re developing to think about the natural world apply just as much to the vista from the Tetons as they do to the lowlands of the Midwest.

TW: What are your priorities?

BW: I break them down into four categories:

First, I want to amplify the voices of our research associates and facilitate an environment and attitude of collaboration. Basically, I want NRCC to continue to invest in people, including students, professionals, and interested citizens.

Secondly, I want to provide skill-building opportunities to improve the problem-solving capacity in the GYE. This will happen through workshops, small group discussions and participating in public dialogue. Personally, I’m working on a project that focuses on conflicts that arise at the boundaries of land designations.

Third, I’m working closely with Susan on what it means to promote alternatives to the current rapid change in the GYE. The challenges we face will require all of us to clarify our own viewpoints, the ways we interact with each other and landscapes, and understand how that manifests in policy and action.

Lastly, I want to advance the institutional health of NRCC to ensure that it is able to function well now and in the future.

Williamson comes to Jackson Hole, following a long line of graduates from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies who have come to the region and played influential roles in protecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Photo courtesy Ben Williamson

TW: Susan Clark, NRCC’s founder, has said the role of science isn’t to tell policymakers and citizens what to do; it’s to arm them with the best available knowledge so they are in a position to make better decisions. And yet we live at a time when people, if they are confronted with science they don’t want to hear, can simply choose to ignore it or claim it’s not relevant. What’s the danger of that?

BW: Susan spent nearly thirty years of her career studying wildlife and still thinks of herself as a biologist, but she makes it clear that the definition of ‘best available knowledge’ needs to include more than science. For most of modern, post-industrial society, science (and religion) have had the dominant claims on truth in our society. As you stated in your question, even the most objective, agreed-upon science isn’t the only claim that matters to people when making decisions that distribute values, which we define as the process of making policy.

At NRCC, we’re striving for a more integrated approach. This includes understanding the human need to make meaning—topics typically covered in the humanities fields—with the fundamentals of science, including ecology. This gets at the core of how we educate students who will eventually be managers and policymakers. The current environmental studies field educates people in disciplinary sciences. These same people become professionals and are asked to deal with real-world problems—problems that hinge on the interests of people, not just data.

Science is important and in fact, we’re doing a fairly good job at educating people in science. It’s clearly important that we need to increase the skills of our environmental leaders in critical thinking and how to deal with the messiness of people.

TW: Big changes are coming and already happening and we either deal with them or not. But not dealing with them will have huge negative consequences. Do you agree?

BW: Implicit in your question is a recognition that we are in a moment of meaning-making. People everywhere are asking themselves what it means to live in this world today, and many feel as if they have very little mooring. Obviously, that’s created an opening for political demagogues to weaponize science to fit the stories that they are telling about themselves to get elected. But they are telling a story, which is something that empirical science doesn’t do on its own. And it’s obviously working, obviously resonating. What we are well-positioned to do is help people and policymakers recognize the roots of the stories that animate their lives around their relationship to the natural world, so that we can create a better future together.

TW: How can we create a better future together if there’s a divide between those who know what’s coming with climate change and others deny reality.

BW: Climate science has shown by the end of the century, we’ll experience somewhere between a 2- and 4-degree Celsius increase in temperature. The exact effects of this are varied and speculative, but there is no doubt that this level of temperature increase will impose very different conditions than the ones we operate with today.

The problem is that climate science has told the problem of climate change in a way that is nearly unsolvable from a political perspective. To simplify it, we have science to show us what the problem is, and we have policy to decide how to solve the problem—we’ve done a good job with science but a poor job with policy. Susan and others at NRCC are calling for a shift. As professionals in this field, we need to up our game on learning to understand our story and use that understanding to move us in the direction we would all like to go.

TW: What do you think separates the new emerging younger generations of thinkers from their predecessors?

Generation Z is growing up in a very different political moment than even me, a millennial. I was raised in the ’90s with a collective feeling that everything is okay, and the arc of evolution is moving onward and upward to a more inclusive and just democracy—a feeling some have termed the ‘end of history.’ For me, this sense eroded as I came of age in the early 2000s with our country’s endless engagement in war, the explosion of climate change rhetoric, and the 2008 recession. Suddenly, my future didn’t seem as stable as the one America seemed to promise me. It became apparent that any sense of stability and safety is fragile and depends on where you live and who you are. I was also raised in tandem with the evolution of social media and mass communication technology. My generation was introduced to this type of technology as teenagers, so it was a learned behavior.

The current generation — as every generation before it — are simply inheritors of the moment they occupy. Generation Z is unique in many ways. To me, the obvious ones are (1) they haven’t lived in a time where even an illusion of stability is felt and (2) they’re the first generation to develop their sense of self completely in tandem with social media. At my most optimistic, Generation Z is growing up in a truly networked society, where the lines of hierarchy and power are no longer covert. I like to think this is manifesting in a greater sense of empathy. Maybe we see this in the Sunrise Movement or the March for Our Lives movement. Still, I worry that chaos has become normative and I wonder what that does for one’s conception of democracy.

TW: While there’s a lot of energy among young people on college campuses for addressing diversity, equity and inclusion, as they relate to environmental injustice, some worry about a lack of ecological literacy in understanding why large landscape conservation matters. Is there a divide in thinking?

BW: First off, environmental justice and ecology are not either/or ideas, and in fact, both rely on each other if either movement is to eventually succeed. I simply don’t agree that by increasing one’s self-awareness of the position they hold in society—a goal of environmental justice— keeps one from engaging in natural history. The environmental justice movement is forcing the mainstream environmental movement to demand that the solutions that are taken don’t uphold previous structures of power and oppression. And this can only be achieved when values like equity and justice are closely considered in ecological management.

TW: Riff a little on the shifts that you believe need to happen in the wildlands conservation movement.

BW: The environmental justice movement is asking us to be more critical in forming our ideas of nature. This movement has shown that our conceptions of nature are not equal, largely because the political and legal structures that produce our experiences in nature are not equal. So, if you grow up with Yellowstone in your backyard, you are much more likely to see a grizzly bear or bison as the signifier of ‘real nature’. While if you grow up with different types of access to natural spaces, you may see a tree in the park or a flower in between the cracks of a sidewalk as nature.

The important point here is that ideas of nature are shaped because of geopolitical boundaries, legal protections and collective bias towards a certain kind of nature. If you go one step further, this movement asks that instead of defining the GYE by its physicality (i.e. geysers and wildlife) and start clarifying what you—as a viewer and admirer of this landscape—bring when you experience the GYE. This requires us to explore our own identities, expectations, and stories we tell ourselves about nature. This is a very different skill set than is taught in traditional environmental studies.

TW: How will wildlands be protected if there isn’t a solid baseline in understanding ecology?

BW: This doesn’t mean that ecology shouldn’t be taught and valued at our campuses. In fact, it’s imperative that our students receive a foundation in ecological principles. But that’s just one half of the story. The current environmental justice movement is forcing us to realize that certain ecologies and their effect on humans aren’t equitable. So how can we teach our kids that mule deer migrations across Wyoming are unique and essential and deserve to keep happening, while also recognizing that not all humans have access to clean water? If we are to live in a just world, both of those rights need to be secured. From my view, it’s all about placing justice as the guiding principle in large landscape conservation. Securing justice means securing the future generation’s right to live in a world in which animals and plants can continue to thrive across vast ranges.

TW: What are some examples in your life that made you convinced science plays an important role in society?

BW: My undergraduate experience was a wandering one—having at one time or another declared my major as biochemistry, molecular biology, pre-med, studio art, and eventually what I graduated with, organismal biology and ecology. I was attracted to the methodical approach of science, but I felt it didn’t help me with the larger questions that I was interested in. That’s when I started reading Bill Cronon, Wendell Berry, Anna Tsing, among many others. I began to understand the difference between the humanities and positivistic science. By positivism, I mean the philosophy of empiricism that says that cause and effect can be measured and quantified—think Isaac Newton and the last 200 plus years of science history. This history has generally been beneficial to our material living. But I began to see there were alternative approaches to problem-solving, ways that included poetry, art, religion, politics, psychology, sociology and natural science. For me, the blend of these ways seemed to get at cultural-environmental dilemmas more entirely than classic ecological research.

TW: Are there examples you’d like to cite?

BW: The best example of this type of research for me is Dr. Kyle Powys Whyte, a member of the Potawatomi Nation and a researcher at Michigan State who focuses on indigenous environmental science, moral and political issues in climate policy and philosophy. He combines this wide range of disciplines to show that while most non-Indigenous persons express concern for future ecological catastrophe, most Indigenous people are already living in that “ecological dystopia.” Dr. Whyte’s research explicitly seeks to gather knowledge for the purpose of improvement of society. He uses this research to advise policy decisions with roles on the U.S. Department of Interior’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science and the United Nations Institute for Training and Research. This type of reflexive research recognizes the forces of the social environment and seeks to proactively shape those norms and process. That’s the type of science that animates my thinking and the kind I’d like to foster at NRCC.

TW: Some of your fieldwork has involved studying whitebark pine and documenting its dramatic decline in Greater Yellowstone. Why should we care?

BW: I cared then because that job allowed me to spend all day at or above treeline, a real edge of an ecosystem. I got paid to hike and scramble up peaks! But for all of us, the whitebark pine’s story is similar to the update notification on your computer. It pops up every morning, you swipe it away, and after so many mornings you become conditioned to always ignore it. Eventually, the computer slows down and the entire function of the computer is compromised. Whitebark is like one of those notifications—though we’ve already received many—the Passenger Pigeon, acidification of oceans, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet, Love Canal… The decline of whitebark pine is a blinking, blaring notification from the future – that story is ahead of its time, at least for us in the GYE. As a public, we have yet to accept it, but extinction is happening.

By now, the biological benefits of whitebark are well known: the high-fat pine nuts relied upon by at least twenty-two other species, the winter habitat for wolverine, and the snowpack stabilization—those facts are well known and understood. And so are the threats: blister rust, pine beetle, changing climate, the rising tree line and competition from firs and spruces. The future of whitebark simply doesn’t exist and all the other species will need to adapt without it.

We should care about whitebark for a multitude of reasons. For one, it’s the death of a species and that should always be mourned. For another, ecosystems are in a constant flux and the loss of the whitebark should remind us that baselines aren’t static. And lastly, we can use the story of the whitebark as a lesson that focusing on saving what is already lost is not a solution. The question is, how better do we manage our own behaviors and expectations in a world that is more complex than we are currently prepared to handle?

TW: You spent time at The Glacier Institute. Today, many things are happening so fast that it’s difficult for empirical research to keep up, prompting some to call for more urgent consideration of the precautionary principle in making decisions. Is it really possible for a scientist to be “objective” when she or he is watching the subjects of their studies negatively affected by human actions? Do they have an ethical and moral responsibility to speak up or do they just need to not engage and let destruction occur?

BW: For most of my life, I carried a viewpoint similar to your question: human actions are threatening survival, it has to do with industrialism, capitalism, and value demands, and if we could just shift our behaviors enough, sustainability could be achieved. At Yale, I realized that remaining in this world of catastrophe and cynicism was not helpful for my own search for meaning. I began to see my own ‘objective’ framing of issues as the source of my own isolation and confusion. It was in Susan’s class that I began to see my own frames or lenses were constantly being generated depending on the stimuli. This is true for all of us. But it’s important when thinking about scientists who are ‘objectively’ watching their “subjects negatively affected by human actions.”

I found the process of mutual sharing and acknowledgment of these lenses revealed a way to cogenerate ways of thinking that I didn’t have access to before. Susan calls this the process of discovering the ‘common interest.’ That is a very different framing than typical special interest conversations—what we typical see in processes like forest plan revisions or land use planning.

I’ve found myself in this existential place so I’m going to stay on this track. The three questions that all of us should consider are: What is nature? Who am I? What is the relationship between the two? For example, if you grew up in Bozeman or Jackson, and are presumably white, middle class and abled, you most likely have a propensity to feel wonder and awe in mountainous places. These experiences inform and shape your ideas of nature. Your conception of nature is simply a model or representation of what nature is, not the biophysical reality of it. The problem is most of us believe that this model is the true representation of reality. That’s where special interests and self-promoting demands originate. We see this all the time. A conflict arises and we all take our sides without recognizing that maybe the reason a conflict exists is because our model of reality is not the only correct one. Instead, we need to see conflict as an opportunity for transformation.

TW: Please elaborate.

BW: This happens in several ways. First, we should consider that we’ve become identified with the poles of conflict. Secondly, consider if that is a result of your own incompleteness. Then, begin to value conflict as an opportunity to learn about our subconscious biases. And lastly, focus on ways that don’t necessarily ‘solve’ the conflict but let that conflict transform both parties. This approach implies a ‘conflict resolution’ in which a Bozemannite discovers her inner Colstrip-ness, the rancher discovers his recreationist, and the botanist discovers the hunter inside of her. Basically, we need to learn to care about things that we perceive as different than us.

On a side note, your question is asking a fundamental question about objectivity in science. The current definition says there’s a point where a dataset or experiment is considered so accurate that we call it objective. Where in fact, that point of accuracy is far beyond the level needed to make meaningful policy action. Scientists need to come together with decision makers to better define that point of accuracy. Many grant dollars and a lot of time could be saved if we included policy action as an explicit goal of science.

TW: What are some of the keys to achieving better ways of co-existence, particularly between, say, large carnivores and traditional ranching or between say, wolverines and winter recreationists?

It depends—these are fairly different types of conflicts. Coexistence is a concept that is helpful for imagining a future but offers no prescription for getting there. Potential for both parties to flourish needs to be a prerequisite when creating policy that works for all. Technology can assist in attaining this goal, but more is needed. For example, there are spatial models that predict where and when on a ranch predation event are most likely to occur. Other techniques used include fladry, electric fences, camera traps, and guard dogs. In the recreation case, examples include seasonal closures, signage that concentrates use, campaigns to stop geotags, and public education. Again, these are all important and need to be taken, but they shouldn’t be seen as the only means to an end.

TW: How does that fit into the tradition of NRCC?

BW: NRCC has a long history in livestock-carnivore work. Our research associates, Seth Wilson, Steve Primm, Timmothy Kaminski, and Matt Barnes are all applied scientists that work on these issues. Their work demonstrates that creating buy-in and collaboration from people with vastly different worldviews is key to reducing predation events.

For recreation, the main questions are: can these ecosystems retain their ecological character amidst high levels of recreation? And beyond that, what does a recreation ethic look like in the next 50 years? NRCC is currently exploring some projects that seek to better understand the underlying drivers of what many have called the “golden era of recreation.” Stay tuned for more…

TW: If you were giving a commencement speech to young people in the high schools of Greater Yellowstone on the topic of this ecosystem, conservation, their role as citizens, and how they can make a difference, what would you tell them?

BW: Like all good questions, there are many answers. Ultimately, every high schooler has a different situation. For some very generalized advice, here are a few ideas.

The first is to explore the history of wherever you live. This means reading books written about the place and talking to older people who have lived there for a long time. Learn about this place before European settlement, what happened when America expanded westward and who got what in that process. Learning about history is important. Several thousand years of hard-earned human history has got us to the point of comfort that many of us enjoy in the GYE

Secondly, figure out how you are participating in events that are taking place thousands of miles away. This means caring and noticing about everything that is going on, in your town, in your state, in your country, on the internet, in the news, what your friends are talking about, and what your parents are talking about. Try to notice if there are any patterns.

Lastly, form healthy habits now. The teenage years are important in fortifying the behaviors that will help you down the road but remember that change is always possible and that things will not always be like they are now. So, invest in yourself by figuring out what makes you feel good and listen to those intuitions.

About The Author

The New West, Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson has been an award-winning journalist for more than three decades and is best known for his coverage of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. His work has appeared in publications ranging from National Geographic to The Guardian and The Washington Post. He also is author of several critically-acclaimed books. His column, The New West, was not long ago named best column for small-town newspapers in America. He is founder of the non-profit, online journalism site, Mountain Journal ( devoted to probing the intersection between people and nature in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

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