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Interview with David Harmon

David Harmon is Executive Director of the George Wright Society. He is responsible for overseeing the Society’s operations, including co-editing Parks Stewardship Forum and helping plan workshops, conferences, and other meetings. A member of the GWS since 1985, Dave began working for the organization in 1990 and served as executive director from 1998 to 2017 before returning to that role in 2019. He is active in IUCN’s World Commission on Protected Areas.  He also maintains a research interest in the relationship between biological and cultural diversity, having co-founded the NGO Terralingua, which is devoted to that subject. Dave has co-edited several volumes on protected area conservation, including The Antiquities Act: A Century of American Archaeology, Historic Preservation, and Nature Conservation (with Francis P. McManamon and Dwight T. Pitcaithley), The Full Value of Parks: From Economics to the Intangible (with Allen D. Putney), and A Thinking Person’s Guide to America’s National Parks (with Robert Manning, Rolf Diamant, and Nora Mitchell).

1) It looks like the first GWS conference took place in 1982. Do you know what motivated its planning? How did the conferences evolve over time? Where did the energy come from to organize it every 2 years?

The GWS conferences were sparked by two all-NPS science conferences, in 1976 and 1979 I believe.  Robert M. Linn and Theodore W. Sudia, co-founders of GWS, were involved in both (they were at various times chief scientist of NPS).  They recognized the need for a mechanism of sustained information exchange to support better research and management, not just in terms of science, and not just in terms of US national parks, but across disciplines and for all kinds of parks, protected areas, and cultural sites.  This was their key insight, and it became what sets GWS apart: the need to bring together people from different perspectives, from different disciplines, for the common purpose of conserving and protecting important place-based cultural and natural heritage.

The conference was always interdisciplinary, but it took a concerted effort on the part of GWS Board Members and staff to build the necessary bridges from the NPS science community that had attended the 1976 and 1979 conferences to the cultural resources side and to other agencies.  That work has literally taken decades and still continues today.

Another major evolution of the conference was the inclusion of more people of color as time went on.  In particular, we mounted sustained outreach to Native people through our Indigenous Involvement Working Group, a Native-led group that had direct input into the conference program at the highest levels.  This involvement was facilitated through our Indigenous Participant Travel Grant Program, primarily funded through NPS donations, and a parallel program from students of color and other under-represented groups, the George Melendez Wright Student Travel Scholarship.  (The IIWG has recently been revived and is working on a number of projects.) 

The energy came through our Board as channeled through our staff.  With only 1.5 FTE staff, we relied very heavily on our volunteer Board members and other volunteers.

2) What role does a meeting like GWS play in building knowledge and relationships in NPS, but also in other federal agencies and academia too? How do you think the conference is different from typical exchanges in the agency? From typical academic conferences? 

This is the only place-based conservation conference that is interdisciplinary from the ground up.  One of the main points of feedback we’ve gotten from attendees over the years is how much they appreciate being challenged to get out of their silos and out of their comfort zones and find — yes, even “confront” — new points of view … and network with people from other agencies, with academics, with NGO folks, etc.  Most conferences build value through networking, and often unplanned-for, chance encounters with somebody new — the “hallway conversations” — are seen as the most valuable thing that happens at a conference like the GWS.  That “surprise” aspect is multiplied when the person you just connected with is somebody you likely would never encounter in your normal run of work.  People had that experience at the GWS meetings.  You don’t always get that at other conservation conferences, and very rarely at subject-matter specialist meetings, whether academic or intra-agency.

3) What were the biggest challenges of organizing the conference? 

 In the early years it was just getting to a logistical model of how to run the event: how many sessions, how long the talks should be, the mix of kinds of sessions, etc.  By around 2000 we had pretty much homed in on a good structure, though of course we tweaked it every time.  

As mentioned above, the sustained outreach to make the conference truly interdisciplinary, and welcoming to people from diverse backgrounds, is a perennial challenge.  But another kind of challenge — an outright problem, actually, and one which finally caused us to discontinue the event, at least for the moment — arose more recently, and was purely bureaucratic.  After some particularly egregious examples of frivolous federal-agency conferences (having nothing to do with us or the agencies we are involved with), federal employees found it much more difficult to get approval to attend any kind of conference.  It starting affecting our conference — drastically — in 2013 and then continued in 2015 and 2017.  At the end, it had become impossible to plan the event because departmental approval for people to attend was not granted (or denied) until 10 days before the meeting was to start (and the numbers allowed to come kept getting lower and lower).  So reluctantly we suspended the conference after the 2017 event.  Our hope is to re-start it someday fairly soon, but there are a lot of considerations, and the approval process will have to change.

4) How did the conference help bridge divisions in an agency like the NPS?

We showed people what’s possible when you “cross boundaries” — that it is not just a pain in the neck, but something that can actually make your work more effective.  We in the GWS believe that you HAVE to cross boundaries in order to make any progress against really big issues like climate change, loss of biodiversity, erosion of historical literacy, the challenges to genuine civic engagement, and, now, the growing epistemological divide in the United States.  The GWS conferences modeled a kind of discourse — collegial, stimulating, and, yes, fun! — that really does bridge divides.  Of course, it needs to happen more than once for a week every two years, but people look forward to it if you give them the chance to come.

5) Please add anything else you would like me to include / mention.

Just that Covid is forcing people to re-think how to formally interact in a professional setting.  Zoom and other platforms have opened up new vistas in how to effectively have a meeting (with a much lower carbon footprint, it should be said), but at the same time they reinforce the old adage that there is nothing like being in the same room with other people if you want to get things done.  So a challenge going forward for us is not only trying to revive the conference, but at the same time reimagine it so we can take advantage of the best features of virtual and incorporate them. It’s kind of like having twins: it’s more than twice the work of having just one kid!

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