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Spirit Bears Are Safe Thanks to Youth Leaders

04/01/2014 10:38 EDT | Updated 06/01/2014 05:59 EDT

For almost two decades, the Spirit Bear Youth Coalition helped give a voice to an animal that few people knew existed, and empowered young people to put forward a vision to protect the rare white Kermode or spirit bear.

Today, it can be said with confidence, that while the spirit bear is not saved, it is safe.

My belief that this remarkable bear will endure is grounded in the successes so many have worked hard to create, and the realization that this campaign is now far bigger than one person, or one organization.

The campaign to save the spirit bear is a full-fledged movement, owned not by the Youth Coalition, but by millions around the world. And having done all we can to take the issue this far, it is up to all of us, as individuals, to take on the responsibility of continuing to make sure that the spirit bear isn't just safe, but will forever be wild and free.

An imperfect journey

The Youth Coalition's campaign began with the idealistic dream of a kid who loved bears and believed this bear deserved a voice; the movement grew with the singular, but powerful idea that one person could make a difference. And after almost 20 years, the Youth Coalition achieved ninety percent of what we set out to accomplish for the spirit bear.

The unconquered ten percent of our original goal remains critical. But in a time when there is far too much inefficiency and redundancy in the non-profit sector as a whole and far too few resources to go around, we had to ask ourselves: is going forward as an organization the best decision? And what is the best decision for the bears?

We could spend another 20 years fighting for that final 10 percent, but the reality is that an advocacy group is no longer best positioned to bring about the change that is needed in this issue.

For starters, breaking the logjam of complex politics will require a clean slate and fresh faces, not the spotlight and pressure that an organization brings to negotiations.

Additionally, quiet diplomacy is a must in order to bridge the divide between disparate parties. Increasingly in our social media age, it's impossible to be both an honourable diplomat and an open institution.

Movements are bigger than organizations

And there is an overriding issue: the signature of a successful movement is when a cause outgrows its founding organization.

For the second time, the Youth Coalition has helped make the spirit bear one of the top policy issues in Canada, this time thanks to the pipeline debate.

With more groups and people engaged in this issue than ever before, this movement no longer needs an organization to lead, but rather it needs individuals to step forward with new, bold ideas that can produce new solutions.

But possibly this is the most important point: the Youth Coalition, our team and me in particular have been at this for a long time.

Throughout this journey, we've been nothing more than volunteers, and though we've made our fair share of mistakes, we've tried to always act with integrity; to do right by the bear. And in attempting to lead by example, we've worked hard to push forward a new brand of environmentalism -- one that unites, rather than divides; one built on pragmatic idealism, not idealistic pessimism.

The reality of being human

We were young and naïve when we started, but as the years have past by, we've become aware that there is always the danger of staying too long at the fair.

New voices and new ideas -- like the Youth Coalition, at one time -- must come forward and challenge the blinders that inevitably grow with time. And we, as humans, must ensure we don't slip into the embrace of ugly politics and its natural companion, bitterness. After all, negativity breeds failure and there is always the risk of doing more harm than good to a cause, no matter how passionate one is about it.

For these reasons, I knew it was time for the Youth Coalition to say goodbye and in ending our campaign, we hope it can be a teachable moment to demonstrate to all advocates that our goal should always be to put ourselves out of business.

In reflecting, our greatest success wasn't protected areas or awareness generated, it was our ability to show more than six million young people that they matter.

Each voice counted. And each voice amplified by the next not only made this organization grow and thrive, but helped protect a subspecies and acted as a role model to our world, proving, yet again, the power of one.

The end of one journey

Out of the ashes of the Youth Coalition has risen a new social movement, CoalitionWILD.

Never has there been a more urgent need to create a new vision for nature -- one that is fuelled by passion, built with integrity, and grounded in innovation. We need a 21st Century environmental movement that is positive and forward-looking, but equally understanding of the human condition.

Simply put: we need rising leaders to step forward with new ideas that can showcase through action that the environment is a family values, multi-partisan, geographically and ethnically diverse, human right issue that must unite every single person.

Each young person I have encountered through this campaign is a rising leader, with a personal passion and a brilliant idea for creating a wilder world. CoalitionWILD wants to give each of them a platform, the social network and the mentorship to make their impossible dream a reality.

The next chapter

This crazy, long, exhausting, tumultuous, inspiring and powerful journey began almost two decades ago and, today, in a movement that rarely gets to celebrate, we can say we did what we always wanted to do: put ourselves out of business because the spirit bear doesn't need us anymore.

While there are hills to climb -- for the bears, for the world -- it won't be the Youth Coalition writing this next chapter. It will be you.

As the kid who dreamed that impossible dream, I thank those who joined in the adventure and did all they could to safeguard the future of the spirit bear.

And I hope you'll join me for my next adventure: Ghost Bear Photography.

While I will continue to advocate for a new vision for the environment (including posting commentary on this blog), of equal importance to me is de-politicizing the wild and making nature philosophically accessible again to people from all walks of life.

So check back next week -- and every week -- for unique images and fun stories that, I hope, will help our wired world fall in-love with nature again.

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