03/20/2014 02:38 pm ET Updated May 20, 2014

Cultivating the Next Generation of Conservation Leaders

What do an Afghanistan air force veteran now working in Montana, an ocean educator at the New England Aquarium, an adventurer who has been to the North Pole three times, an anesthesiologist, and a farmer have in common? They were among the fourteen people who were honored by the White House this week as "Champions of Change" for "engaging the next generation of conservation leaders."

While their personal stories start in different places, these "Champions" are now part of a larger and shared movement to get young Americans aware, excited, and involved with the conservation of our planet and more specifically, the places and communities they love. The conservation challenges we face as Americans and world citizens are broad and often daunting. There's no silver bullet to combating climate change, habitat and biodiversity loss, and pollution of our air, water, and communities. But what these "Champions" perhaps give us most is inspiration and an example to follow. It's a sense that we can influence others, including the next generations to know that they can learn, grow, and serve as leaders in their communities, whether it's right next to a national park in Montana, or in the heart of the city in places like Atlanta, Georgia. To paraphrase a quote about Eleanor Roosevelt, these are the people "that would rather light candles than curse the darkness."

On Tuesday, I counted myself lucky to be among those who attended the event at the White House where these amazing individuals were honored. I was invited because I work for an organization that was represented by two of the Champions: Jon Brito of Kupu's Hawaii Youth Conservation Corps and Anthony "Chako" Ciocco of Conservation Legacy's Southwest Conservation Corps. I'm quite biased of course, but I think their stories and the work they do are incredibly inspiring and important. They represent a conservation movement that is looking more and more like America. It's ethnically and geographically diverse, and also allows for a wide range of perspectives about how we can honor local and cultural traditions in the way we approach shared goals as conservationists and community members.

I would also like to thank the numerous representatives of federal agencies who spoke at the event and voiced their support for this movement to get more young people emboldened to discover their own role as conservationists in their communities. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell was the keynote speaker, and has been a vocal champion and facilitator herself through her youth initiative for getting more youth, children, and families involved in conservation work. She and others, including White House Counselor John Podesta, Department of Interior Assistant Secretary Rhea Suh, EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe, USDA Deputy Under Secretary Arthur Blazer, and Acting Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality Michael Boots all provided a powerful and unified voice from the top of our government that indicates serious support for the concept that conservation should be a multi-generational activity and firmly rooted as an American ethic and tradition where youth are encouraged to play a part.

If you are thinking it's just lip-service these high-ranking officials are providing, my personal belief is that's not the case. Through my own work, I know that a total of eight federal agencies as well as numerous businesses, nonprofits, and state and local agencies are collaborating on a 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Initiative (21CSC). The 21CSC provides unity to a set of pre-existing programs nationwide (100 in total and growing) where young Americans can enroll and gain real work experience while doing valuable projects in national and state parks, forests, coastal preserves, and also in their own communities and cities. It's a pathway to a potential conservation career, and as my friend John Bridgeland recently described and explained it, "a Civilian Conservation Corps for the Modern Age."

This isn't to say that the 21CSC is the only way that we can engage the next generation of conservation leaders. It's already happening in many diverse ways as the many of the people who were honored at The White House can tell you. But the other thing that many of these Champions of Change would tell you, is that we need to keep growing and cultivating more Champions. Fourteen people is not enough -- and never will be.

So here's a salute to everyone out there in the United States and abroad who is getting people excited about the amazing world we live in, and helping them learn how they can play their own role in protecting it. Thank you.