Times have changed. The majority of Americans now live in urban environments, and the current generation is defined by technology. This has left some public land agencies fighting to stay relevant.
“What this has created for us is a very unique opportunity and a challenge,” said Ryan Moehring, a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “We need to find ways to ensure these special places, we are entrusted with protecting, continue to be appreciated by the public, which may not be as exposed to them as previous generations were.”
Sustain, a non-profit organization, is creating partnerships between public land agencies and musicians.
“We pair [musicians] with public land areas and create new music inspired by the landscapes,” said Betsy Mortensen, co-founder of Sustain. “We try to create new audiences for both [musicians] and public lands.”
Sustain connected the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with Conner Youngblood, a Nashville-based musician, who has a love of nature. Youngblood previously wrote a song about Badlands National Park, making him a seemingly perfect fit for this songwriting adventure. With guitar and banjo in hand (a measly 2 of the 30 instruments he plays), he headed to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in northern Utah for a week of immersion and inspiration.
A striking array of mudlands, marshes, and open water, the refuge provides habitat for over 250 bird species. While admitting he couldn’t name very many of the bird calls, Youngblood was moved by the thousands of birds dotting the marshes and the one sound he did in fact recognize—the ‘quack’ of a Mallard.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages these lands not only for the benefit of wildlife, but also for the enjoyment of people.
“Some people may not be as familiar with National Wildlife Refuges,” said Moehring. “There are 567 refuges across the country. There's one in every state within a one-hour drive of every major city in America. These are gems in our backyards.”
And while the photos that pop up on social media are beautiful, Moehring is adamant that pictures simply do not do these places justice.
“There's nothing like being out on the marsh, being surrounded by a hundred thousand birds of various types and hearing the sights and the sounds and smelling the smells,” he said. “It's a completely immersive experience that has profound impacts on people.”
Youngblood’s new song captures his experience at the refuge and hopes it will encourage others to add a little outdoor adventure to their lives too.
“I write a lot of songs and while they are inspired by my life, [they also capture] things bigger than my life, like nature,” said Youngblood. “Listening to the music is one thing, but I hope it inspires the listener to go out and explore on their own.”
For the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, this unique partnership is not only special, but may be vital moving forward.
“I work for the federal government. I am no longer a spring chicken and may not be the ideal person to reach out to the Snapchat generation,” Moehring said. “But when we can get an ambassador like Conner Youngblood, who does have that direct voice to those people, then we have a much better chance at reaching them and showing that these places are not only worth visiting, they're worth protecting and worth saving.”
Watch Conner Youngblood's "Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge" music video here.