The annual BioBlitz hosted by the National Park Service and the National Geographic Society is underwritten in part by the Harold M. and Adeline S. Morrison Family Foundation, a private grant-making philanthropy based in Chicago. Every year for five years the Morrison Family Foundation helps make the event possible. And every year the foundation’s executive director, Lois Morrison, participates in the BioBlitz with her husband Justin Daab and their daughters Josephine and Addie Daab.
News Watch interviewed Lois Morrison about her passion for both nature and education, and why she sees the BioBlitz as a special opportunity to reinforce our connection with the natural world.
This is the fifth year the Morrison Family Foundation is sponsoring the BioBlitz in a national park. How does this event give expression to the goals and aspirations of the foundation?
The mission of our foundation is to promote environmental education opportunities for children and families in underserved communities. The BioBlitz, by choosing to highlight national parks close to urban areas, dovetails nicely with everything we are working towards as a foundation.
Tell us a little about the family behind the establishment of the foundation, and the family’s connection to the environment.
The Harold M. and Adeline S. Morrison Family Foundation was formed almost 20 years ago. We have always supported environmental organizations though our grant-making, but it wasn’t until we went through a year-long strategic planning process about five years ago that we decided to focus and work to make a difference through investing in and partnering with organizations that connect kids to nature. Although our board represents a diversity of professions, every member of the board has personal stories and experiences that passionately commits them to our mission.
What is your personal connection to the natural environment, and the national parks in particular?
A love for nature and the outdoors has always been central to who I am. My college essay was about meeting John Muir, and my master’s thesis from Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies was on the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Needless to say, I have always been in love with, and in awe of, our national parks. Before taking on the executive director role at the foundation, I worked for a number of conservation-related agencies and organizations including the President’s Council on Sustainable Development and The Nature Conservancy. Both my education and my career path have given me the luxury of being connected to our country’s iconic national parks.
What I love about the National Geographic and National Park Service partnership is that each BioBlitz is about our national parks, but they are also about fostering awareness and excitement about the natural treasures right in our own back yards.
The BioBlitz and your foundation are all about connecting kids to nature. You have brought your family to participate in the bioblitzes. How have you seen younger people, including your children, relating to nature? What does the natural world mean to them?
I have observed hundreds of school kids at each BioBlitz, and see the same excitement in them that I see in my daughters, nieces and nephews. My daughters love coming to the BioBlitz. They can’t wait to explore the science exhibits and earn their diplomas from the Biodiversity University. They enjoy learning about species in their native habitat, and they even remember the names of many of the scientists they have met. The BioBlitz scientists have provided an introduction to whole new professional disciplines they never knew existed.
My favorite example of this is Ian, my high school soccer star nephew, who, when taken out of his element, started balking at his every step into a wetlands habitat at the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. “What could we possibly be collecting samples of,” he complained as he timidly worked his way waist-deep into what he declared was just “muck.” The scientist persevered with just the right touch, and soon a whole new reality of the world opened to Ian. When Ian looked at his samples through a microscope, he discovered thousands of living organisms! His whole demeanor changed. Later that day he declared he was going to become an aquatic ecologist!!
What other projects does your foundation support to advance environmental education?
Our foundation supports a number of national and international efforts to inspire conservation action, but the bulk of our work is focused in northeastern Illinois, and specifically the Lake County area. We support education programs in cities like North Chicago and Waukegan that focus on connecting kids with the nature that is right outside their windows. Some of these programs teach kids how to farm. Others teach them about the complex ecosystems that are found within their community. And others are simply about getting out to enjoy unstructured playtime in nature.
What are the threats and opportunities for coming generations in the evolving relationship between humans and nature?
The threats we face are many, including increased time spent indoors and behind some sort of electronic screen, and decreased freedom for kids to roam and experience unstructured time in nature. The concern is that this leads to a society disconnected from where our food comes from, from where our water comes from, and from being able to name the plants, animals and insects in our backyards.
The underlying belief in all our work is that by getting kids out into nature, they will learn to love and appreciate it, and over time they will become stewards and advocates in protecting it. The BioBlitz plays an important role in addressing these threats by building the foundation of the next generation of stewards of the natural environment, including our national parks.
You have supported environmental education to foster the bonds between people and planet. In this regard, what do you hope your legacy will be for future generations?
We hope our legacy will be, in part, one of consciousness — inspiring a sense of pride in our natural communities. We also hope our legacy will be the actions taken by those we’ve helped connect with the environment to secure, protect, and expand our National Park treasures, but also our local watersheds, our county forest preserves, and our public and private nature preserves.
We are an urban family, and we have seen the hands-on BioBlitz experience really strengthen our family’s connection with the natural world in a way no classroom or museum ever could. The sense of wonder kids experience at the BioBlitz carries over – they are no longer afraid of insects, or getting dirty, or exploring what’s under a rock or up in a tree. They really see the natural environment as something exciting to explore, important to study and understand, and critical to protect. We are hopeful that this is the experience of every participant in the BioBlitz. And we hope this will be part of our legacy.
David Braun is director of outreach with the digital and social media team illuminating the National Geographic Society’s explorer, science, and education programs.
He edits National Geographic Voices, hosting a global discussion on issues resonating with the Society’s mission and major initiatives. Contributors include grantees and Society partners, as well as universities, foundations, interest groups, and individuals dedicated to a sustainable world. More than 50,000 readers have participated in 10,000 conversations.
Braun also directs the Society side of the Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship.