As you may know, December is Wilderness Defense month at Juniper Ridge, and we’ve been featuring the environmental organizations that receive the donations we as a company give out at the end of every year— 10% of our total profits. To read previous interviews check out our blog; for this final installment, we got a chance to talk with John Sterling, Executive Director of the Conservation Alliance. They describe themselves as “a group of outdoor industry companies that disburses its collective annual membership dues to grassroots environmental organizations and directs funding to community-based campaigns to protect threatened wild habitat, preferably where outdoor enthusiasts recreate.” We love them for that. Read on to hear more about what they do and what keeps them (and us) up at night.
JR: How did Conservation Alliance begin?
CA: We were co-founded in 1989 by Patagonia, The North Face, REI, and Kelty. Those four companies came together around their shared belief that the outdoor industry needed to do more collectively to ensure that wild places are protected for their habitat and recreational value. After forming, the founders invited their peer companies in the industry to join in the effort. Since our founding, member companies have paid annual dues into a central fund, and we contribute 100 percent of those dues to the most effective conservation organizations in North America.
JR: How has it grown over the years?
CA: From four founders, we have grown to 200 member companies. At the same time, our grant fund has grown from $155,000 in 1989 to $1.6 million in 2015. So, our membership is much larger, but our mission remains the same: protect North America’s last wild places. We’ve also grown our internal capacity. For the first 16 years, The Conservation Alliance was run by an all-volunteer board, and had no paid staff. I was hired in 2005, and we added a second position a year later. We now have 25 full-time employees. After adding staff, our membership – and our grant fund – quadrupled, demonstrating that added capacity can really make a difference.
JR: What projects in the West are you most excited about?
CA: Right now, we have a historic opportunity to work with the Obama Administration to protect new National Monuments. The President is in the home stretch of his eight-year term, and he has shown a willingness to use his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate National Monuments on our public lands. We are particularly excited about the opportunity to secure protection for lands in the California Desert, the Owyhee Canyonlands in Oregon, the Bears Ears in Utah, the Coastal Plain of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the greater Grand Canyon Watershed, and Nevada’s Gold Butte.
JR: What issues are you most concerned about right now?
CA: Two problems keep me up at night. The first is the utter dysfunction in the US Congress. Some of our most important conservation opportunities depend on Congressional action, whether it be passing broadly supported bills to designate new Wilderness areas, or reauthorizing the Land and Water Conservation Fund. For the past six years, Congress has failed to honor the needs of local people and communities that depend on protected federal lands. My other big concern is a growing movement among a small but vocal cadre of conservative decision makers to demand that the federal government transfer public lands to the states. For example, the Utah legislature has passed a bill demanding that all federal lands in Utah be managed by the state. Other states are considering similar measures. Imagine our National Parks and Wilderness areas in the hands of poorly funded states. We are fortunate to live in a country that manages a rich collection of landscapes for all Americans. Our public lands are unique in the world, and this land heist movement represents the first step toward privatizing that natural heritage.
JR: How will the election year influence wilderness defense?
CA: Nothing is more important. Most of America’s big open spaces are owned and managed by the federal government. Congress and the President both wield enormous power over how those lands are treated. Only Congress can designate new Wilderness areas, and though there are many pro-conservation Republicans, the Republican leadership in Congress has been reluctant to move most Wilderness legislation. It is unlikely that the Democrats can reclaim the House of Representatives, but they have a good shot at winning back the Senate. If they do, then pro-conservation Senators will chair the committees that oversee our public lands, and we will have more leverage to move Wilderness bills. I think it’s safe to say that our public lands would suffer under a Trump, Cruz, or Rubio Presidency, particularly if Congress remains in Republican hands. Cruz and Rubio are on record as supporting giving the states primary control over the federal lands and energy reserves that lie in those states. Trump has not stated his position, but for other reasons, President Trump is a frightening concept. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton has a long record of supporting protected public lands, and though she is not her husband, President Bill Clinton protected more than 26 million acres of federal land during his presidency.
JR: What is the future for the organization?
CA: For the foreseeable future, we will remain focused on protecting the special wild landscapes – mountains, rivers, deserts, forest, and coastlines – that are so important for habitat and outdoor recreation. We plan to grow at a modest rate, increasing our grant fund and funding more projects. We also plan to spend more time engaging in advocacy efforts in support of the projects we fund. Business leaders have a powerful voice, and we are in a unique position to bring that voice to bear on conservation issues.
JR: How can we (the people) help or get involved?
CA: Because we are a business organization, our primary goal is to engage outdoor businesses. If you work for one of our member companies, we can plug you into our advocacy efforts. If you work for an outdoor company that is not a member, help us get them to join! In the bigger picture, everyone who cares about federal lands needs to let their members of Congress know. Speak out about your favorite piece of BLM or Forest Service land. Support one of the many nonprofit organizations that works 24/7 to protect our wild landscapes. And vote!