The Demilitarized Zone—the two-and-half-mile-wide strip that has separated North and South Korea since 1953—has long been a symbol of war’s divisive power. But for the past 16 years, Hall Healy has been working with others to give the DMZ a new meaning: as a place where people have come together to help save some of the planet’s endangered creatures.
Hall, emeritus chairman of the Wisconsin-based International Crane Foundation (ICF) and past president of the nonprofit DMZ Forum, has been helping to protect cranes, the family of majestic migratory birds that includes the whooping crane, which inspired some of the United States’ first species protection laws. Of the world’s 15 species of cranes, 11 are threatened or endangered, largely as a result of poaching, human development, and habitat loss. One vital habitat, and a key focus of Hall’s work over the years, is the estuary of Korea’s Han River, which overlaps with the DMZ near the Yellow, or West, Sea. The area’s mud flats and wetlands are home to numerous endangered bird species and provide critical wintering habitat for cranes that spend summers in Russia, Mongolia, and China.
A professional environmental facilitator who has worked with watershed-conservation organizations and other groups in his native Illinois, Hall has made numerous trips to Asia with the ICF’s founder, George Archibald, where they meet with local scientists, farmers, and others to introduce or improve conservation efforts. In Cambodia, for example, where local basket makers use wetland reeds that cranes also use for nesting, the ICF helped the weavers develop higher-quality baskets that use fewer reeds. “The baskets are sold in places like Japan, earning more money for the local people,” notes Hall. “So the habitat wins and so do the people.”
This strategy of taking into account the needs of the local population has been a key to the group’s success, and nowhere more so than in North Korea, where from 2008 to 2015 the ICF collaborated with farmers to improve their agricultural methods and, in turn, help the cranes. “We know that the people there need more food to eat,” Hall says, “so our project was to help the farmers grow more food, which also happens to be the same food, i.e., rice, that the cranes eat. If there is more food for people then there’s also more food for cranes.”
Hall’s appreciation for birds and environmental causes began when he was a child growing up in the Chicago area. “My parents would take us out on bird-watching trips, and later in my career I made a switch to get into the environmental engineering business, not as an engineer but as someone interested in conservation.” In his professional life, he focused on marketing and business development, while in his personal life he began serving on boards of various conservation organizations, including the Illinois chapter of the Nature Conservancy, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, and Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo. “It was really hand in glove for vocation and avocation,” he explains.
As a post-graduate student at Williston, he discovered another passion. “I took a summer school course in French under Howard Boardman. I’ll never forget it. Then, during the postgraduate year, I took French II from him. I would say that was one of the most formative parts of my life. I still speak French. I took it at Colgate University. I was in the Air Force in Vietnam during the war and spoke it there, and I’ve now become active in my local Alliance Française. I also have presented a talk on our Korea work in French. So studying French at Williston led to a real joy of my life.”
This year, the political tensions have effectively shut down the ICF’s efforts in North Korea, at least for now, but Hall remains optimistic. As a member of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee on North Korea, he has been “working with others to find ways of enhancing the dialogue between our two countries,” he explains. “The crane conservation work is one of those ways. If our two countries, along with South Korea and others, could agree to protect the unique global treasure of the DMZ, then in the process we would get to know each other better and develop more trust.”
And that is crucial, he adds, whether the shared goal is saving cranes—or our own species. “If we don’t have mutual trust with North Korea, how can we expect to talk with them about more difficult subjects?”