Kenton Miller – a personal appreciation

10 June 2011 | News story

  Adrian Phillips

The outpouring of shock and sadness that rang around the WCPA membership a few days ago when we heard of Kenton Miller’s death was deeply moving. But it was not unexpected as Kenton had established a very special place in our hearts.

He held that position in our affections because he embodied the values that we, in WCPA, hold dear. But just as Kenton meant a lot to us, so WCPA meant a lot to him. The respect and admiration were mutual.

When I look back on Kenton’s distinguished career, I am struck above all by three things.

First, he was a teacher and a mentor of exceptional quality. His work at CATIE in Costa Rica and the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources helped shape the careers of hundreds of people, many of whom went on to be major players nationally and internationally in the conservation world. But Kenton was a teacher all through his career, not in a narrow pedagogic way - though he was a very effective lecturer and skilled writer - but as someone whose vision, coupled with his oratorical skills, inspired enthusiasm. He developed and shared exciting ideas in a stimulating way with others. For example, he promoted the concept of wildland and the principles of its management when he worked for FAO in Latin America. He started WCPA’s long love affair (or some would say its obsession) with protected area categories in his 1978 paper. And I recall his and Larry Hamilton’s mission in the mid-1990s to explain the idea of landscape scale conservation to a protected areas world that was often too inclined to adopt a fortress-like mentality. He saw more clearly than most that protected areas must never be “islands”. If they were to prosper, and if their full value to society were to be secured, then they should be connected to each other, to the land and water around and to neighbouring human communities. And he gently persuaded others to see that connection too. Now it is almost taken as read in how we approach protected areas management.

Kenton’s second great quality was his truly international outlook. He was interested in everywhere – even the gentle countryside of the part of England where he came to stay with us. A far cry from the astonishing places that he had seen, Kenton was still enthused about our modest hills and rather unexceptional wildlife. His fluent Spanish – so good that some Latin Americans thought he was from their region – helped him to become one of the most influential and respected conservation leaders in that part of the world. Particularly as WCPA chair, to which post he was elected a record three times, he was able to visit protected areas (and meet protected areas people) in the remotest places, and to share with many different audiences his enthusiasm for the philosophy and the practice of conservation. The wider his experience, the more globally authoritative was his message.

Thirdly, Kenton was always where the action was. As chair of WCPA, he was the leading architect of three World Parks Congresses (Bali, Caracas and Durban). As DG of IUCN in the mid 1980s he held the highest position in the conservation world with great distinction – though he perhaps found the bureaucracy that came with the post less appealing than the front line work that he was used to. At the World Resources Institute, he led the development of the Global Biodiversity Strategy, laid the foundations for the CBD and wrote a number of highly influential reports. For these and other achievements, he was widely honoured.

Yet this list of accomplishments and esteemed positions tells one little about Kenton as a person. He inspired love and respect because of his personal qualities as much as his intellectual achievements. He was friendly and approachable to all, unfussy and without prejudice, quick to see the virtue in others and ready with praise. For me, these things made Kenton a pleasure to meet and a privilege to have worked with.

Kenton had struggled with his health for some years – but it was a burden borne without complaint. His beloved Susan, who herself had a training in medicine, was absolutely central in enabling him to carry on his work. We are greatly indebted to her and to the support he received from his three children, Todd, Natasha and Nathaniel. Without them, Kenton could not have led the Commission a third time after 2000, nor continued his work since. Nor I think would he have found the energy to keep going without the stimulus of his other love, WCPA.

We cannot yet say if all our collective efforts to save nature will succeed in reversing destructive trends. But if we are successful – if we can at least protect some whole ecosystems intact and maintain the functioning of some parts of vital life support systems - then it will be due to people like Kenton Miller, who could paint a vision of a world in which nature and people lived in greater harmony, and inspire many others to make it a reality.

Adrian Phillips