Kate Dempsey ’88: Maine’s Leading Conservationist Chats with Students

Kate Dempsey ’88 speaking with Bowdoin students

To demonstrate current thinking in the world of conservation, Kate Dempsey ’88 shared a story with students about a recent trip she took to Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. Earlier in November, she had traveled with other directors of The Nature Conservancy’s state offices to visit the important site.

The work she observed at the second largest freshwater lake in the world demonstrates how a new understanding of conservation — as needing to serve both humans and the environment — is leading to more sustainable projects, she explained.

Dempsey heads the The Nature Conservancy’s Maine branch, which is headquartered down the street from Bowdoin in Brunswick. She was recently on campus to speak to students interested in environmental careers. Besides talking about her own work, Dempsey passed along a few career tips. Additionally, she addressed a question about how The Nature Conservancy will continue its mission under President-elect Trump, who has vowed to do away with many federal environmental regulations.

Dempsey started off her talk by describing Lake Tanganyika as home to diverse fish species and surrounded by forests with Tanzanian chimpanzees. In days gone by, The Nature Conservancy would have put its resources into protecting the ecology and biodiversity of the lake. “That’s the old Nature Conservancy,” Dempsey said, “Preserve, protect, and restore.”

These days, TNC and other conservation organizations tackle their work differently, realizing that the most lasting solutions call for human engagement — whether that’s in Africa or here in Maine. “What we’ve learned is that for our conservation strategies to be successful they need to be fully integrated in meeting human and community needs,” Dempsey said.

To protect Lake Tanganyika and its forests, which are threatened by overfishing and agricultural encroachment, The Nature Conservancy collaborated with the people living around the lake. The villagers largely share TNC’s goals: they want to protect the lake, particularly the sardines and other species they fish, and they want to save the forests from which they derive firewood and food.

One request by the villagers, however, took TNC a bit by surprise. “As population has increased, families were reporting that the fish population was going down,” Dempsey recounted. “So they said, ‘Can you help us find a way to work with a family planning organization, to find a strategy that helps us reduce our population? We want to have family spacing and plan our pregnancies.’”

Dempsey admitted that “for The Nature Conservancy, this was relatively radical.” The Nature Conservancy nonetheless abided by the people’s desires, teaming up with a reproductive health organization and other agencies to help the women learn about and access birth control. Now the women teach one other about family planning. Local fishermen and villages are managing and monitoring the fisheries.

Dempsey then spoke about her career trajectory and offered advice to students. She encouraged them to seek one- or two-year fellowships or other temporary positions in the years after they graduate. “One-year fellowships are a great opportunity because you get to try things out,” she said. Plus, she added with a smile, you can appear directed when in fact you might be unsure of where you’re going.

She also urged students to develop mentors — people besides their parents to ask for career advice. She spoke fondly of Bowdoin students who text her at all hours with anxious questions about internships and jobs.

Quite a few Bowdoin students over the years have interned for The Nature Conservancy, often with help from grants provided by the college. “I love working with Bowdoin students,” Dempsey said. “It’s my way of giving back to Bowdoin.”

In conclusion, Dempsey discussed her organization’s agenda under a new president who has denied climate change and has said he will do away with the Environmental Protection Agency. Dempsey noted that The Nature Conservancy has a long history of working with “diverse interests,” pointing to help Maine received from the second Bush administration to restore the Penobscot River.

“We will work to make sure there is a strong regulatory framework,” she said, and work to ensure the US government upholds the Paris climate accord, which she said will move ahead regardless of whether the US participates because of the value many countries see in it.

In an email Dempsey added, “The Nature Conservancy believes that addressing environmental issues and climate change presents opportunities for innovation in all facets of human life – in how the world produces and uses energy, designs buildings and cities, and conserves and uses lands and coastlines.”

Before Dempsey’s appointment as TNC state director last January, she served as the organization’s external affairs director for thirteen years. Dempsey has a master’s degree from Tufts University Department of Urban and Environmental Policy. At different points in her career, she has been an AmeriCorps VISTA Volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, worked in Washington DC for The Friends Committee on National Legislation, led a public health campaign for the city of Cambridge, Mass., and served in the offices of US Representative Marty Meehan, (D-Mass) and US Representative Tom Allen, (D-Maine).

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