What Will Donald Trump Do to Nature Centers?

Donald Trump (Creative Commons photo)What will be the future of nature centers under a Donald Trump presidency?

I find myself wondering about that this week. Certainly, the new President opposes many things that most nature centers (and the folks who run them) care deeply about. He is likely to open more federal lands to oil and gas exploration. He has claimed that global climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. And, while he hasn’t really indicated any particular interest one way or another in parks or green places (other than golf courses), he has been interviewing for important resource-related Administration posts people closely tied to industry and anti-environmental points of view.

Ironically, though, what is likely to be bad for nature in the long term may be good for nature centers in the short term. That may especially be true for those centers that draw support from donors, members, and volunteers, whether they are nonprofits or government-run facilities with Friends’ groups. Call it the “James Watt Effect.” As Harry C. Blaney III wrote in the Chicago Tribune several decades ago, James Watt, appointed as the U.S. Secretary of the Interior back in 1981, was “Ronald Reagan`s gift to the environmental community.” He was so flagrantly awful, so outspokenly anti-environmental, that membership in conservation organizations soared in response.

We are already seeing history repeat itself, as the phones of conservation groups ring off the hooks. The Sierra Club says the reaction has been “jaw-dropping.” In less than two weeks following Trump’s election, the organization reported 26,862 donations, 13,487 new monthly donors, and $1.5 million in total gifts and pledges. I suspect their experience is being replicated in environmental organizations all over the country.

I think this trend is driven by a profound alarm among their supporters and potential supporters: The federal government has suddenly turned from an ally into an opponent of the conservation positions they hold dear. Now more than ever, they need other institutions to express their point of view. I believe that nature centers, especially those that are unabashedly willing to take advocacy positions, are going to be able to follow the Sierra Club’s lead, and grow in strength even as the opposition does the same.

And my hunch is that they’re going to need to.