Meet Our Experts:
An Interview with Joel Hartter
National Geographic grantee and geographer Joel Hartter has spent more than a decade working in communities around national parks. From the American west to Uganda’s Albertine Rift, he is on the frontlines of conservation, working with local people who are facing the challenges of poverty and climate change, while also protecting some of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots.
What is your favorite part of your job as a geographer? How would you describe the field of geography?
People often think I’m a geologist and not a geographer. They’re surprised that you can actually “do” geography. I assure them that yes, you can be a geographer and that it is a highly relevant field of study. It’s so much more than making maps. Geographers are interested in landscapes; the people, culture, mountains, climate, etc, that make up these landscapes; and how those places change over time. Geography draws from a lot of other disciplines like ecology, sociology, anthropology, and earth science to study these landscapes and the processes that shape them. It is truly an integrative discipline.
Learning about changing landscapes is what I like to do. I especially like interacting with people and learning from them. My favorite part is listening to stories and interacting with people who make their lives in the places I study. Invariably, I am an outsider so I like to spend time with people in the community and get their perspective. However, my work is different than that of an anthropologist; I work in 200 villages rather than a concentrated handful. I get to take in a broad range of people and perspectives. It helps me understand why people have moved to or away from a national park for instance, or how different areas are being affected by climate change, or why one area might have been impacted by health issues that another has not. To me, that is really interesting.
What is an important lesson you have learned through your travels and work as a scientist?
I think anyone who has works in the developing world develops a huge amount of patience and compassion. When I do fieldwork, something always goes wrong and things take much longer than I had planned. You get a flat tire, then a second, and then a third…all in one day. That has happened, and yes, it gets tricky. Over the years, I’ve developed an enormous amount of patience, and that has been good for me. I also learned about compassion. There are all sorts of people that I meet in the communities that I visit who have stories. Many struggle; and many share some of the same struggles. But as I travel, I see amazing ways people help each other, how people share what they have with their neighbor and family, and the ways that turn challenges into opportunities.
What advice would you give to aspiring young scientists?
I always tell people to pursue their passion. That’s really important for me. Don’t do something because you think it will earn you the most money or the most fame and glory. Rather, pursue what interests you. I think experience is important too. Be persistent, be determined, and be a self-starter. Make the opportunities happen; don’t rely on these opportunities just falling into your lap. Go out there and get them.
Why do you think it’s important young people get out and explore our national parks?
I’m a huge fan of the national parks. I was a volunteer for Student Conservation Association after college and I worked at Zion National Park – best summer of my life! Where I live, Rocky Mountain National Park is an hour away, and it is a great place to get away. National Parks are one of the US’ great treasures. Yellowstone was the very first national park in the world. We set a precedent for preserving wild places because these places are important for biodiversity, recreation, and part of the US cultural heritage.
What lessons about wildlife biology, climate change or the conservation of species and places do you hope our students take away from the Colorado program?
I think there are a couple important take-aways. First, climate change is happening. Your personal politics, culture, background, and experience shape the way that you will engage climate change and affect your actions. Finding the right way to communicate about climate change is not always easy, and it is going to change depending on the audience. We cannot just tell people about climate change; we have to listen. Second, the perceptions of people matter. Whether they are grounded in reality or there is a scientific basis for beliefs is less important. People think what they think. Being respectful of people and understanding why people make the decisions they make is important because that knowledge helps to create appropriate solutions. Third, conservation is not a “people or wildlife” conversation, but rather a “people and wildlife”. Human population is growing and there are fewer places that don’t have a large human footprint. Balancing the needs of humanity with conservation of species and places is one of the most important challenges of our time. We need people who can develop creative and appropriate solutions.