Connecting People with Nature with National Wildlife Federation’s David Mizejewski

August 24, 2011

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so honored today to have Dave Mizejewski on with us. He’s a naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation. Welcome to Green is Good, David. DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Thanks for having me. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, David, Mike and I read your bio before we had you come on the air today. You are truly a meteor star, like a star no other. You’re a personality that’s all over, from Martha Stewart to Good Morning America. David, where did this journey start as a child? Where did you start to get to where you are? Share with our listeners both here in the United States and around the world your journey to how you got to become the naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation. DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Sure. It really started when I was a little kid. I always joked and said I’m a lifelong nature geek, and I was born this way. As a little kid, I have always been drawn to, first, it was animals. I think a lot of little kids are drawn to animals. As I got older and started understanding a little bit more about ecology and getting more into plants and things like that. I basically just spent my summers and afterschool afternoons running around in my neighborhood in suburban New Jersey, in the woods with my friends, catching frogs, and just having a good time outside in nature. I think that really helped tap into this natural inclination that I had to be connected to nature. I went on to study ecology, and I’ve been working at the National Wildlife Federation for it will be 11 years this July. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I don’t know what you eat or drink or anything like that, but you don’t look old enough in your nice photo shot here, to be working at the National Wildlife Federation for 11 years. So, whatever it is, keep doing it. We’re just so thrilled to have you today because our listeners are in for a treat. You really have a great knowledge of what’s going on with the NWF, and I want you to share a little bit. Tell us more about it. The National Wildlife Federation is celebrating its 75th anniversary. Why is that so special, and what has the journey been of the National Wildlife Federation? DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: This is, as you said, the National Wildlife Federation’s 75th anniversary year. We started all the way back in 1936. For folks that might not be familiar with the organization, we’re one of the oldest and the biggest conservation organizations, and we really focus most of our work here in North America. It’s one of the things that sets us off from some of our sister organizations that maybe have a little bit more of an international focus. We really feel like we’re America’s conservation organization. Again, over that long history, we’ve done all sorts of different things, starting out with working on waterfowl protection, to helping in the passage of the Endangered Species Act enacted, and all the species that have benefitted from that, bald eagles, wolves, grizzly bears, things like that. Nowadays, we focus our work in three different areas. We do a lot of work associated with the issue of climate change because it’s such a huge, big, overarching issues, that we can’t not address it. We do a lot of work trying to get clean energy legislation passed and things like that. The second area that we work in, and this is probably the most obvious one, is that we work to protect wildlife in its habitat. We were really involved with getting wolves reintroduced into the Yellowstone ecosystem back in the ‘90s, protecting the key deer. These last couple years we’ve been doing a lot of work with sea turtles, so the list goes on and on about the kind of work we do to help protect specific species and their habitat. The third area that National Wildlife Federation focuses our work is connecting people with nature. That’s the area where most of my work falls. A naturalist is just somebody that knows a lot about nature and can talk about it and interpret the science for regular people to get them excited and educated about the natural world around us. That’s what I do at National Wildlife Federation. I do it via the media. As you mentioned, my job is to go on TV, go on radio, blog, write books, write for magazines. If there’s a media outlet, I try to target it and get in there with our messages about not only our programs and our initiatives, but also just the beauty and wonder of nature and why it’s so important for us to want to protect it in fun ways that people of all ages can get connected with nature. We do a lot of really great work. One thing that folks might be familiar with is Ranger Rick Magazine. National Wildlife Federation is the publisher. Ranger Rick Magazine is going on its 43rd anniversary as well, so Ranger Rick has been around for a while, too. I know I read it as a kid. It’s just kind of cool to get to work in the organization that I’ve been connected with ever since I was probably in 3rd grade. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. For our listeners out there, if you have your laptop or your iPad or your desktop open, Mike and I do, and we’re on your beautiful website, www.nwf.org. What a gorgeous website. I mean, really, it’s so inviting and it’s very crisp with beautiful pictures and things with lots of things going on, like you said, global warming and the effects on wildlife and habitat and climate change and being solution-oriented with regards to school solutions and personal solutions and policy solutions. This is just a wonderful, engaging tool. Do you do a lot of work with this website, David? DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: I blog on our website, which is called Wildlife Promise, that you can get to from nwf.org. I actually can’t claim any credit. I’m not a web designer. We have a really great team of people that put that all together and keep it constantly updated. This is the latest iteration. We launched last year, and thank you for the compliment. I love the look and the feel of it and the way that it’s organized, and hopefully when people go there, they’ll be inspired. That’s really, ultimately, our mission. No matter what we do, whether it’s building websites, my TV appearances, Ranger Rick Magazine, National Wildlife Magazine, we’re working on policy issues, or what have you, our goal is to inspire Americans to protect wildlife for our children’s future. That’s our mission statement. If we can do that with beautiful photography and images on our website and fun interactive things on our website, then we’re doing our job. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Speaking of your TV appearances, which you just mentioned, talk a little bit about that because it’s truly phenomenal how much coverage you get and so many of the wonderful people that have invited you on to share the importance of the National Wildlife Federation. How did you become this unbelievable media personality? Why do so many people invite you on? DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Well, I’ll tell you, it wasn’t planned. When I came to work at National Wildlife Federation, I was hired to run one of our programs that’s about helping wildlife and also connecting people with nature. It’s our Certified Wildlife Habitat program. It’s essentially a gardening for wildlife program, and it’s something that I’ve always been interested in. We can help wildlife, literally, right in our backyards or cities or towns or neighborhoods, and connect our space back into the local ecology. So, I came to National Wildlife Federation back in 2000 to run that program. In 2004, I had a great opportunity to write a how-to book on the topic of wildlife gardening. My book came out in 2004 called Attracting Birds, Butterflies, and Other Backyard Wildlife, and shortly thereafter Animal Planet, the Discovery network, got a hold of my book and found out about National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Wildlife Habitat program, and decided that they wanted to turn it into a makeover series. If you remember back then, this is sort of the heyday of the makeover series, Trading Spaces and things like that, back in 2005. Literally the next thing that I knew, I was standing in front of the camera. We ended up doing two seasons of a show on Animal Planet called Backyard Habitat. We did 47 episodes, and in each episode, we went to a different place. Usually it was a yard, but we did a school, we did a city building, rooftop gardens, and things like that, and we made over what were otherwise traditional, boring, not so good for wildlife landscapes, into nature-friendly, wildlife-friendly gardens. At the end of every episode, we certified them with National Wildlife Federation as an official wildlife habitat. That’s how I started doing TV work. That series aired from 2005-2008, and there’s a Best Of Backyard Habitat DVD if folks want to see it, since it’s not airing anymore. That launched me into doing on-camera work. Once you have a series, then you start doing the promotional rounds, and you start going on the talk shows. I started doing the Martha Stewart show, and did a couple segments on Good Morning America. The last several years, I’ve really been doing a lot of animal appearances, where I go to a TV show, and I bring on some animal ambassadors, the real live wildlife that we’re working so hard to protect, and try to use TV as a vehicle to show the viewers out there how amazing these animals really are and how much they need our help. For the last two years, for example, I do a monthly appearance on the fourth hour of the Today Show with Kathy Lee and Hoda, and that’s always a trip. We always have a good time. I’ve also done all sorts of different shows, the Wendy Williams show I’ve been on a bunch of times. I just did an appearance on the Monique show, and Monique was really great. I’ve done Access Hollywood Live and the list goes on and on. My goal, again, is to go on these shows, and whether I’m promoting a program of the National Wildlife Federation, or I’m just simply bringing on animal ambassadors and trying to inspire people to want to protect wildlife with the National Wildlife Federation, I have to admit, it’s a pretty cool job. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We’re lucky enough to have you now on Green is Good, so if you just tuned in, we’ve got David Mizejewski. He’s with us today. He’s the naturalist at the National Wildlife Federation, and he really is a green media star. David, talk a little bit about at the top of the show, you mentioned growing up in New Jersey and growing up outside. I grew up in New York, in the streets of Queens. Again, we grew up outside because that’s how kids grew up back then. Talk a little bit about the advent of Nintendo and the Wii and all these wonderful gaming devices, which have taken our kids inside, and the problems that has truly caused. DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Yeah, you know, this is a really big issue for the National Wildlife Federation, this alarming trend of indoor kids. When we first started talking, I was telling you about my youth, getting to run around and play in nature, and how important that was, not only for my physical well-being, but also to help me develop the love of nature that I have now, which has obviously become what my career is. There’s a whole bunch of alarming research out there that looks at the increase in time that not only just Americans in general, but kids in particular, are spending indoors. The average American school aged kid spends almost eight full hours a day inside in front of electronic screens. They’re on computers, they’re playing video games, they’re text messaging, they’re watching TV, for almost eight hours a day. They’re doing it in school in the classroom. They’re doing it between classes. They’re doing it at home, and they are only spending just a few minutes outside every day. At the same time that that trend has been rising, it’s been the last couple decades that it’s been going up, we’re also seeing an increase in things like childhood obesity, childhood diabetes, attention deficit issues. All the research that’s been done shows that kids that get to go outside, particularly kids that get to go out and have unstructured play, are more physically fit, they have less issues with obesity and diabetes and things like that, they’re less likely to be Vitamin D deficient, they’re less likely to be nearsighted, they tend to have better immune systems, less allergies, they oftentimes do better in school on standardized testing, they tend to be more creative. Think about it. If you are constantly in a structured environment and people are telling you what to do, or you’re sitting in front of this visually stimulating, maybe even over-stimulating, video game or TV show or whatever, you don’t really get to exercise your creativity in the same way as you do when the back door gets opened up and you go out, and you have to go play with your friends by yourself and invent things and use that creativity. Similarly, kids that play outside in this unsupervised structure tend to develop better decision making skills because when you’re, again, running around your neighborhood playing with your friends, there’s no adults to set the rules. You’re not in a structured sport or an afterschool activity or something like that. You, with your peers, have to make decisions and manage yourselves and things like that. The end of the story is that getting outdoor time is hugely important for kids and adults, and we’re not getting enough of it. Things are usually out of balance, and so the National Wildlife Federation has a whole campaign, and it’s called the Be Out There campaign. It’s really designed through many different kinds of programs that we have to help families and kids, in particular, get reconnected with nature. I’ll tell you what. The reason why we do it is we care about the health of our nation’s kids and getting them outside to get all of those great benefits, but we also know that kids who have exposure to nature grow up into adults that care about nature. Right now, we’re really robbing this next generation of any chance to know the natural world and the wildlife that’s around them, and that’s a pretty scary future, if these kids grow up into adults that just don’t care because they have no frame of reference. The old saying, “You only protect what you love, and you only love what you know,” is true. Again, we’re robbing these kids of any opportunity to know nature. For the National Wildlife Federation, it’s a huge priority to reverse this indoor kid trend, get kids back outside, get families back outside, and reconnect them to nature. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great. Again for our listeners out there, the National Wildlife Federation website is beautiful. It’s www.nwf.org. You have actually a button right on your top that says Get Outside. Talk a little bit about the Be Out There campaign. Is it working? Are you excited about it? David, obviously you’re excited about it, but are you finding traction? Are the kids listening? Is America listening? DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: You know, it’s an uphill battle, but I do feel like we’re making a difference. To see people like the First Lady, Michelle Obama, launch her Let’s Move campaign, which is very, very similar to the same concepts. Obviously, she’s got a little bit more of a health focus and less about the nature focus, but to see someone of that level, that prominence, take this issue on, I think is a testament to the work that the National Wildlife Federation has been doing, specifically on this issue and with the Be Out There campaign, for the last five or six years, and in a much broader way, for our whole history. All 75 years that we’ve been around, we’ve always done things and have programs and opportunities to help connect people and families and kids to nature. So, I do think we’re making a difference. The message, I think, is getting out there. Lots of public figures are getting involved, doctors and things like that, saying1 this is a good thing. Now what we’ve got to do is just continue hammering the message home. We’ve got to do things like get outdoor time institutionalized in schools, for example. This is one of the things we’re doing with the Be Out There campaign, is trying to get recess back. In a lot of places, kids don’t even get a recess where they get to go outside anymore. Everything is indoors. That’s obviously not a good thing, when you consider all the negative health consequences of all this indoor time that we’re seeing in kids today. I do think that we’re making a difference. I think that it’s going to take a lot more work, and the more people that join us in our cause to get the message out, to make the personal commitment to get outdoors with our family, and like I said, we have tons of really great fun ways to do that. I mentioned our Certified Wildlife Habitat program, the garden for wildlife program. Not that kids are necessarily going to go out and plant a garden on their own, but what a great way to get them introduced into nature, is plant a garden with them. It could be a vegetable garden, it could be a butterfly garden, it doesn’t really matter, but that’s great physical activity. It’s great outdoor time, just the fresh air alone. We’ve got a program that we do in the summertime called the Great American Backyard Campout, where we get thousands of people all around the country to camp out in their backyard. Coming up in the fall, we’ve got a program called Hike and Seek, where everybody on one day goes out and does a hike. It’s actually a fundraising event, kind of like one of the many charity walks and other events. You go out and you can get sponsors when you go out on your Hike and Seek event, and actually help the National Wildlife Federation raise money to put towards these programs. The list goes on and on, but I do think that we’re making a difference. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Go back to wildlife-friendly gardens for our listeners out there, David. Is it hard to create a wildlife-friendly garden in the backyard of our listeners across America and even the world? DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: You know, the beauty of it is that it’s really not hard. You can get very elaborate with it, of course, and it depends on the size of the property you have or whatever, but the beauty of this program and one of the reasons why I love it so much is it doesn’t matter where you live, doesn’t matter how big a yard you have, or even if you have a yard at all. It doesn’t matter what your budget is or even what your gardening expertise is. If you have any kind of space where you can do any kind of gardening, and again, you don’t even have to have a yard. You could be doing this on a balcony, on a rooftop, at a community garden in your neighborhood or your town or your city. If you can plant something, you can do things that are good for wildlife right in your neighborhood. Really what it boils down to is that there are four things that all wildlife species need to survive, and this goes for animals in Australia and Africa to Antarctica to your own backyard. They’re food, water, shelter, and places to raise young. That’s kind of what makes up habitat for wildlife. Habitat is the space and the resources that animals need to survive. The beauty, again, is that you can provide most of those things just with your plants, and that’s why our program is kind of a gardening program. If you plant the right things, you’re going to provide wildlife with food in the form of seeds and nuts and berries and nectar and sap and pollen and, in some cases, the actual leaves and branches of the plants that you put out there, are going to be a primary food source. If you have a good diversely planted yard, you’re going to attract all sorts of insects and smaller critters that, of course, become food for bigger critters higher up on the food chain. That’s how the food component is in there. The same plants that are going to provide food for wildlife in your garden are going to do double and triple duty, because they’re going to provide a lot of the shelter that the wildlife needs to get out of the bad weather, extreme elements, things like that, as well as to hide from their predators, or if they’re a predator, to hide from their prey, so that they can ambush it. The plants will provide that shelter, and they’ll also provide a place where the wildlife can raise their young. Vegetation, trees, shrubs, even dense grassland kind of environments, or depending on where you live, cacti and things like that, are places where birds and other animals will go and build their nests and have their babies and things like that. If you’re thinking of butterflies, butterflies need host plants where they can lay their eggs as their place to raise young. So, your plants really do most of the work for you. Once you get your plants in place, then you can add a water feature, and then you can do other fun things like put up birdhouses or build a brush pile, depending on what you want to do. That’s all it takes, and most people have already some of these habitat components in their yard. Part of what our program is about is getting people actually to go outside and look around and say, “Oh, I have this big old oak tree in my yard. That’s a host plant for certain butterflies. It’s a place where birds are going to build their nest. It has acorns that all sorts of wildlife species are eating. I already have food, water, shelter, and places to raise young.” Then from there, you can go and figure out what you want to do to add to it. Ultimately, once you have those four things, you can fill out our application. If you meet the basic requirements, we’ll certify that property, and it will become one of almost 140,000 certified gardens we have all around the country. Again, it’s a great way to do something positive for wildlife, for your local ecosystem, that you can actually see the benefit of, literally right outside your door, and give yourself a place where you can go outside and get your daily dose of nature. It’s a win-win all around. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, David, unfortunately we’re down to the last two minutes or so. Can you share with our listeners how they can get involved with your great organization, the National Wildlife Federation? DAVID MIZEJEWSKI: Absolutely. The easiest way to do it is visit us on our website, which is again nwf.org, or just Google National Wildlife Federation. We’ll pop right up. We’re a membership organization, so we run on the donations that people make to support our work to get out there and fight global warming, protect species in their habitat, and get people connected with nature. If you want to just become a member, that’s a simple, easy way that you can help support that work, but I talked about many of our different programs. That’s another great way to get involved with us. Create wildlife garden and certify it with us. Maybe you want to get involved in our eco-schools program and get your kid’s school enrolled. You can find out how to do that on our website as well. Maybe you want to participate in our Hike and Seek event coming up this fall. There’s just so many different ways. If you’re more politically-oriented, you can get involved with our action alerts and our 501(c)(4) branch, National Wildlife Action, that actually is able to do some lobbying work. So, there are so many different ways that you can get involved. You can become a volunteer with us, and actually work on the ground to help people in your neighborhood get involved and get connected with nature. Again, if folks go to nwf.org, you’ll find just a plethora of ways to get involved. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, David, you always have an open invitation to come back on our show because your message is so important to continue to get out to the people around the United States and around the world, and your organization, and the great things that it’s been doing for 75 years, and hopefully gets to do for the next 75 years, if our listeners join and support the National Wildlife Federation. Again, as David said, www.nwf.org. We hope you come back again, David. David Mizejewski, you help make the world a much better place, and are an inspirational sustainability leader, and truly living proof that green is good.