On Stands Now
January 2023

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Our Digital Conservation Future

Having finished the online New York Times crossword puzzle over morning coffee, retweeting some delicious burns on climate-change deniers, checking Facebook and Instagram, liking a picture of a cutthroat trout, and prioritizing work emails before a day of zoom calls, he/she remarked, “Kids these days are hopelessly addicted to their devices,” as though the article on the Peloton screen was an actual person. “We really need to get them outdoors more.”


“Kids these days”, including youngish adults who are having children of their own now, live in a digital habitat. We, especially they, are completely wired. How wonderful.


Really. Of the many aspects of past life I never want to revisit, there’s the fact that having a cell phone usually means I don’t have to hitchhike to the nearest town if my car breaks down on the highway. I like being able to track bank transactions, and that I can communicate easily with people around the globe.
At first, I liked social media, if only for the possibility of deriving some solace at how many of my contemporaries had gotten heavy or gone bald, as I had.


But we are now aware of how social apps reduce attention spans, profit through opinion aggregation, select for herd formation through conflict-inducing content, are designed around addiction models and how they can even alter brain chemistry. We watch outrage bounce among like-minded users in ever-shrinking circles into which nothing can enter that challenges what we might not necessarily know about the world. If we didn’t know any better, it’s almost as if we are talking to ourselves.


Especially where kids are concerned, we don’t know any better and we are talking to ourselves indeed. Barraged by negatively-biased topics – our toxic society, politics, and earth – the instinct to withdraw into the safety of the herd is hard to resist. There is comfort there, belonging and identity, which Joe Camel TikTok knows simply as dopamine.


Until very recently, I thought this same dynamic drove my development as a fly fisherman. Almost every aspect of the sport demands focus and refinement. Thus, my long-term success could only come about by turning inward.


Which is silly of course. If anything could epitomize a healthy, outward-facing interaction with the world, fly fishing is it. On a given day, I’ll have conversations with cottonwoods, clouds and sky, a loud and winding river, all while expecting frequent interruptions from magpies and trout. Over the years, my conversations have deepened as my working knowledge of the natural languages around me has expanded. If it’s true that my identity has been shaped by fishing, it’s been through constant negotiation and revision.


Still, I worry, especially since none of us can go fishing anymore without cell phones close at hand. When it comes to young people, I wonder how conservation can progress while social media has such a grip on their lives.


In my fantasy, kids disappear into the mountains every summer, riding range to keep cows from overgrazing riparian areas, let’s say, or clearing trails through wilderness areas. There’s a serious unmet need there, but is it realistic to expect kids to stay out of cell reception for so long? Will their addiction to technology doom conservation?


Rich Schrader, a long time TU partner in New Mexico, doesn’t think so. Rich is the director of River Source, a company that advances watershed resilience through education, restoration, and the preservation of traditional ways of life that promote conservation of water and land.


In Indigenous and rural Hispanic villages, River Source’s projects involve community elders in mentoring and teaching youth on cultural adaptations to the harsh New Mexico landscape. These communities have wrung life out of the dirt by developing strategies for addressing heatwaves and drought, flood and erosion, and fire. And they’ve done it well for many centuries.


River Source draws upon kids’ technological proclivities to improve the health of land and waterways. Kids map project areas, use lasers to level fields, measure water quality with scientific instruments and monitor vegetation with their cell phones. There’s hand work as well, moving rocks, repairing fences, planting willows, and collecting insects.


According to Schrader, “Many New Mexico youth love getting outdoors and connecting knowledge they gain from elders with the skills we teach in ecology and stewardship.


“Many young people don’t have opportunities for these experiences. I witness excitement when youth fly drones for the first time and see the complexities of a stream meandering through a riparian area where they have gone fishing with family. When they combine that excitement and new awareness with a desire for improving water and land conditions, they become leaders and educate neighbors about the need for protecting the river from off-road vehicles, excessive grazing, and people camping too close to streams.

We find that these experiences expose the kids we work with to career pathways. About 25 percent of our interns go on to academic or professional careers in conservation fields.”