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Did you know that a chipmunk can throw its voice? Or that Wisconsin has a venomous mammal? What about the answer to the question: can porcupines throw their quills?Every Monday on WXPR at 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m., the Masked Biologist answers questions just like these about living here in the Northwoods.You can keep track of Wildlife Matters and all of WXPR's local features on the WXPR Local Features podcast, wherever you get your podcasts.

Can our Environmental Toolbox Fix the Future?

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Are we ready to give our children the tools they will need to face environmental challenges in the future, or are the tools we’ve always used good enough for them? The Masked Biologist tackles the toolbox question in this week’s Wildlife Matters.

I learned to rebuild a car engine when I was five. My father, in addition to working a couple of jobs, had a vehicle repair business. If I wanted to spend time with him, I had to be out in the shop evenings and weekends. His interest became mine. When I was about ten years old, my dad gave me my first toolbox, a big rusty one. It was one of his first toolboxes when he started working on cars. I sanded it down and painted it red, and loaded it with any tools he would give me. I hauled that toolbox with me everywhere I went for over thirty years.

When my oldest son turned ten, I gave him that toolbox. I told him where it came from, that he was the third generation to get it, and that he could make it his own just like I did. He said he wanted to clean out the rust and paint the inside. He started on it, but didn’t get very far. The next day I found it lying upside down in the driveway. I moved it around for a couple of days, but when I realized how little it meant to him, I picked it up and put it up on a shelf in the shed.

I wasn’t upset, really. I wasn’t surprised, either. We are different people, and he clearly has different priorities than I did at his age. I got to thinking about it – when I got the toolbox, it was the best my dad could do. He had used it, gotten what he needed from it, and it was sitting neglected until he decided I needed it. The cycle repeated with me. I had to ask myself: was this also the best I could do? Take something that I had used until it no longer suited my needs, cast it aside, and then eventually gave it to him? I want my kids to have it better than I did; when he is ready, and if he so desires, I will get him a new toolbox of his own. Odds are, it will have many different tools than I would have expected, but it will have exactly what he needs to accomplish the tasks he chooses to tackle.

Sometimes I feel that way about our natural resources, too. With so many seemingly limitless abundant natural resources across the state or around the world it is easy to think of them as personal property. In my many dealings with people, I occasionally come across someone who is singularly focused on what they can exploit from a resource for themselves. They aren’t thinking about the people around them or the generations to come. Others have gotten what they wanted from a resource, and they are ready to put it aside without another thought. There are even people who have the sense of entitlement that not only can they have what they want, but they can decide that other people should not be given the same choices. It is hard to stay positive when you hear people make such claims, shamelessly putting themselves and their wants—not needs, but wants—ahead of others.

The decisions we make right now determine what kind of “toolbox” we will give to our kids. Sometimes I feel a bit overwhelmed with all of the information coming at us about the challenges we face. Remember when it seemed like we thought plastic straws were one of our biggest environmental crises? In the last couple of years, we have been forced to tackle PFAS, plastic bioaccumulation, loss of pollinators and other issues. In some cases, we are trying to fix problems on the fly as we are still trying to understand them.

The good news is that there are many people out there that want to make sure their kids have better resources than they had themselves. These are the people that have changed the world for the better. They helped clean up the air and the water. They protected fish and wildlife that needed it, and developed regulated harvest which ensured there would be plenty for present and future generations. I can tell you with certainty that in many ways we are living in a better world than when I was younger – a lot less litter, cleaner lakes and rivers, and fewer sooty smokestacks. We have more wildlife species now thanks to reintroduction efforts, and we have better managed forests and excellent sustainable wildlife habitat. I assert that if we protect and enhance our resources for everyone, with an eye on the future, our children will develop interests in them just as we did. Then, when they are ready, we will give them better natural resources than we had for ourselves. 

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