Oh my! Snakes, bears and bats! David Wheeler, wildlife and nature aficionado, has seen it all—close up and personal. What’s more, he’s embraced nature’s rich tapestry in of all places, New Jersey, the most densely populated state in the union. Being the Executive Director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation and author of Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State, he has hiked, kayaked, dogsledded, swum and sailed through virtually every part of his home state for decades. His passion has morphed into something of a personal crusade to inform and encourage others to get up and get out in nature and to appreciate the immense natural diversity of the Garden State. Mr. Wheeler recently took some time to speak with WellWell about the current state of New Jersey’s wildlife conservation, our interaction with nature and why this should matter to every one of us.
What specific challenges does New Jersey face in terms of conserving wildlife and nature?
One of them is we’re by far the most densely populated state in the US, and so we have a lot of people packed into a very small and heavily developed state. This creates a major challenge for wildlife and not every species has been able to manage that. But the species that have been able to either survive or make a recovery, have been able to utilize the very diverse habitats that we still have left. And fortunately, we also have a lot of people, individuals or groups, who are taking the lead in either bringing that habitat back or in protecting what’s left. The other challenge that comes to mind is that New Jersey is historically a heavily industrialized state so we’ve had no shortage of issues with pollution and their negative impacts on the environment. Thankfully, we’ve made headway, quite a bit actually, through a combination of stronger laws, protecting our waterways, which in turn protects the areas that so much of our wildlife and people need.
The rise of social media has rekindled people’s interest in wildlife via Facebook and Instagram posts. Is this a good thing?
It has the potential to be an extremely positive development. There’s always cases where it can be abused. But the positives for me are that people are more immediately and visually connected to the wonders of wildlife and nature that are all around us. At the same time, you don’t want people getting too close to wildlife for the sake of a selfie. You don’t want to disrupt a nesting bird. You don’t want to scare off wildlife that then has to use energy that may keep that animal from surviving the winter. So, there are certainly places where it can be a negative. Just use common sense.
Is there a growing problem with misinformation in terms of climate change because people are getting too much from less-than-reliable sources?
That’s certainly a threat, especially when you’re talking about anything like climate change. Unfortunately, in some ways it has become a partisan issue for some. Accurate information is essential, particularly regarding coastal areas where the long-term risks are very serious for both people and for wildlife alike. That’s an area for New Jersey where we just have to keep pushing forward to get the facts out so people to understand them and we can make the best possible decisions for everyone’s benefit.
How would you recommend those not normally engaged with nature get involved?
I would encourage anybody to start by going outside for a few minutes or a few hours as soon as they can whenever they can. Getting out and experiencing nature is proven to be such a great benefit to people in terms of their health, quality of life and their mindset. Unfortunately, it is so easy to skip if you’re worried about work, family issues, finances, whatever. But just taking that time to get outdoors and engage your senses is so important, especially compared to all the things we do online. You know, the outdoors is really the only place you can fully engage all five of your senses. So just get out whenever they can. It’s good for you.
About David Wheeler
David Wheeler is a renowned author, naturalist and advocate for New Jersey’s environment and wildlife. The author Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State (Rivergate Books, 2011), he is also the Executive Director of Conserve Wildlife Foundation.