Waking the Giant: NWF Rallies Around Core Beliefs

Reading the "We Believe" statement at the NWF Annual Meeting
Collin O’Mara (left) and others read from the “We Believe” statement at the National Wildlife Federation Annual Meeting in West Virginia. Photos by Kaila Drayton.
On Saturday, March 28, National Wildlife Federation President Collin O’Mara stepped onto a stage in Shepherdstown, West Virginia to address a room full of people at NWF’s 79th annual meeting. The crowd held representatives from NWF’s diverse affiliates—wildlife conservation groups from 49 of the nation’s states and territories. Instead of uttering the top-down rhetoric that often accompanies such speeches, Collin moved away from the podium and, without notes, spoke from the heart. What followed was inspirational history in the making.

“It’s really hard to wake a sleeping giant,” Collin said, paraphrasing a friend. “But once that giant is awake, it’s almost impossible to get him down again.”

That metaphorical giant is the conservation army that NWF—through the power of its members and affiliates—represents. The troops were there before our eyes, depicted in a large copy of the famous cartoon by conservationist and NWF founder Ding Darling. In it, an endless line of people—men and women, hunters and anglers, farmers and ranchers, youth groups and gardeners, birders and biologists—march together to the nation’s capital to demand not just sympathy for conservation but legislative action to make it happen.

Though drawn in the 1930s, that cartoon resonates more than ever today. “If we mobilize the power of our full constituency, we can move mountains,” Collin said. But how?

To find out, he hit the heartland, meeting affiliate leaders and listening more than talking. From grasslands to deserts, the Great Lakes to the Gulf, mountain streams to coastal dunes, NWF’s partners have shared their concerns and hopes. There has been plenty of disagreement and debate about solving the problems of land and wildlife conservation, but that “messiness is one of the things that makes us great,” Collin said. “If we can’t have these conversations, who can?”

Ultimately, he found far more that unites than divides us. So he worked with others to weave those common threads into a quilt of uncommon strength.

Reading the "We Believe" statement at the NWF Annual Meeting
More attendees read parts of the “We Believe” statement at the NWF Annual Meeting. Photos by Kaila Drayton.
That strength inspired a simple, eloquent statement called “We Believe,” which Collin unveiled to the assembled crowd. Projected on a large screen for all to see, it’s a set of principles—passed unanimously by NWF affiliates—that outline our commitment to science-based conservation, our willingness to transcend political boundaries for the sake of stewardship, and our obligation to ensure that future generations enjoy healthy air, water, lands, and wildlife.

Collin read briefly from the statement’s introduction, citing our “sacred duty and obligation” to protect and build upon our conservation heritage. “To this end,” he said, “we believe … ”

Then he fell silent. Without fanfare or introduction, an affiliate member in the crowd stood and read aloud the first belief: “Our nation’s wildlife, fish, healthy waters, clean air, and public lands are a birthright of all Americans.”

Then another person stood to read, then another, and another—men and women from across the nation, reading simple principles with profound impact. They noted the “sacred duty” of government to sustain public-trust resources with adequate funding and science-based action. They asserted that healthy forests, waters, and wild lands are vital to our health, economy, and quality of life. They affirmed our responsibility to get children outdoors for their own happiness and to instill a conservation ethic. And they proclaimed our commitment to build a diverse and inclusive national conservation movement.

The power of each individual voice stating principles of what “we” as a federation believe was for me—and I imagine for everyone in that room—intensely moving, heartfelt, and real. It felt like the beginning of something truly new, rooted in our founding yet reborn. In that moment, we the people of NWF were clearly forming a more perfect union, understanding the paradox that if an organization wants to speak with one voice, then many voices must be heard.

“This is the first time in 50 years that we’re stating the principles that unite us as a federation,” Collin said. “We’re waking up the giant.”

Representatives applaud the "We Believe" statement
Representatives applaud following the reading of the “We Believe” statement. Photo by Kaila Drayton.