In late May leaders from the global conservation community gathered in Switzerland to decide on the location for the 2016 World Conservation Congress (WCC). When they voted on May 21 the decision was unanimous to allow the United States and Hawai'i to host what has been called the “Olympics of the conservation world”. This decision quickly reverberated around the world as this will be the very first time in the nearly 70-year history of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) that the WCC will be held in the United States! 

As the co-chair of the steering committee that worked for the past six years to convince IUCN that Hawai‘i is the ideal place to convene the world to discuss our planet’s most pressing environmental and conservation issues, I was thrilled by the unanimous vote of the IUCN’s Council. This is a proud moment for the U.S. and the thousands of people who work every day to make the U.S. a leader in conservation. I am equally proud that on that same day, in his televised press conference, Hawai‘i’s Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D) recognized the National Tropical Botanical Garden (NTBG) for its commitment to “Hawai’i’s legacy of conservation.” He explained that members of the IUCN site selection team visited Oahu and neighbor islands in February and “when they ended on Kauai at the National Tropical Botanical Garden that was the clincher!” 

Little known outside of Hawai‘i and the Pacific, this is the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s 50th year since receiving our Congressional Charter in 1964. Over the past five decades we have established programs of global significance and created a network of some of the most noteworthy and beautiful botanic gardens in the world. With a focus on the tropics, we established our national headquarters in Hawai‘i which is a center of biodiversity and evolution in the Pacific and home to a vibrant indigenous Hawaiian culture. 

As President Obama stated in his support for Hawai‘i and the USA to host the 24th IUCN World Conservation Congress, “Hawaii is one of the most culturally and ecologically rich areas in the United States, with a wealth of unique natural resources and distinctive traditional culture …”. With significant properties in both Hawai’i and Florida, and programs that reach from the tropical Pacific around the world to the Caribbean and Africa, NTBG has come to realize the power botanic gardens have to change the world. 

The importance of plants to life on earth is immeasurable. We depend upon them for the air we breathe, for the food we eat, for shelter, and for medicine. The loss of plants is a loss of threads in the web of life. If enough threads are lost, the web unravels. National Tropical Botanical Garden is dedicated to preserving tropical plant diversity and stemming this tide of extinction - through plant exploration, propagation, habitat restoration, scientific research, and education. NTBG's gardens and preserves are safe havens for at-risk species that otherwise might disappear forever.

In recognition of this power and responsibility, and in celebration of our 50th anniversary, this fall NTBG and our lead sponsor, the National Museum of Natural History, are hosting an international symposium in Washington DC entitled: Agents of Change - Botanic Gardens in the 21st Century. This one-day event will take place on October 7, 2014 at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. 

We will explore what lies ahead as botanic gardens seek to develop solutions to the growing loss of biodiversity, the erosion of traditional cultural knowledge, and the need to feed more and more hungry people. The symposium will bring together some of the world’s leading scientists, academics, and garden leaders including key-note speaker Sir Tim Smit (Eden Project), Sir Ghillean Prance, (former director, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), Dr. Peter H. Raven (Director Emeritus Missouri Botanical Garden) and many more.  A gala dinner that evening features guest speaker Tom Friedman, Pulitzer prize-winning author and NY Times columnist.

Wichman is director and CEO of the National Tropical Botanical Garden.