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Conservation Groups Retool For The New Administration

02.02.17

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Conservation Groups Retool For The New Administration

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The last eight years were good for conservation organizations, even if it didn't always feel that way. The Obama years saw our nation continue to hem and haw on addressing climate change, and we experienced the largest expansion of domestic oil and gas production since 1970. At the same time, President Obama was good for public land protection, and he used the Antiquity Act to designate new national monuments across the West. Large demonstrations in favor of environmental protection were rare, and advocating for smart policy was an effectively deployed strategy that had a receptive administration.

The new administration has shown a belligerence in the past week that has caught its own agencies off guard. Republicans have already brought forth bills to remove enforcement on federal lands, sell or dispose of federal lands, and open up drilling in national parks. The fear of change is rampant, as changes that usually take months appear to be happening within a daily news cycle. But as far as policy goes, the new landscape closely resembles the federal government of President George W. Bush's first term, and this means a return to grassroots initiatives and activating a public voice in support of the environment and public lands. 

The Conservation Alliance, a group funded by outdoor companies that channels money to conservation groups, has incredible access into the various ways conservation groups are shifting their strategies. After reviewing 55 grant applications for funding in 2017, Conservation Alliance noticed that the void left by the absence of national monument proposals (a land designation approved by the president using the Antiquities Act) was filled by conservation groups seeking funding for land acquisition and the ability to participate in long-term federal agency land management plans. Conservation groups are looking for wins that don't require an act of Congress or the President. But they are also seeing more groups ready themselves to play defense. The Conservation Alliance recently released their strategic plan that expects a major change in tone from the new administration and seeks to engage with the realities of the current climate. The plan is a two-pronged approach to "preserve and defend the integrity of our public lands system" and to increase advocacy efforts where the outdoor industry and conservation groups are strongly aligned. Patagonia and The North Face teamed up to the tune of $100,000 for the Conservation Alliance to hire a new advocacy position in charge of their Public Lands Defense Fund.

This aligns closely with a shift in strategy underway at Oregon Wild, an organization that promotes wilderness conservation and public land stewardship in Oregon. They plan to return to the effective strategy used during the Bush administration years, and they caution against becoming overly emotionally distraught when thinking of the future. "Lost in our memory of the success we had in defending Oregon's environment during [the Bush administration] is the fact that Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress," says Oregon Wild's Executive Director, Sean Stevens. "Our new strategic plan outlines short term goals - goals that will keep us laser-focused for the next four years." To achieve this, Oregon Wild is planning to mobilize and build its strong volunteer corps to promote its mission and to strengthen its ties with allied organizations that can achieve more when working together.

Collaboration is the name of the game at Wild Salmon Center as well. While acknowledging that they are keeping their eye on the ball to understand the changing landscape, Oakley Brooks, Communication Director, reinforced the belief that potential moves by new administration will pull together public lands stakeholders that have often worked on similar issues but not necessarily in a collaborative manner. In terms of its basic strategy, Brooks said the organization would strengthen state-based policy approaches and reinforce the importance of salmon habitat and healthy watersheds that have protected a way of life along the North Pacific Ocean for many generations. But they plan to build more alliances between hikers, hunters and anglers who all see the value of protecting public lands. And Brooks further pointed out that the Congressional Sportsmen's Caucus is one of the largest of the congressional caucuses, with over 300 members from both parties representing all fifty states. Interestingly, this group includes Representatives Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz from Utah, who have been proponents of transferring public lands to the states. H.R. 621, a bill that aimed to dispose or sell 3.3 million acres of federal land, was introduced and withdrawn by Chaffetz this past week. In withdrawing the bill, he made strong reference to his background as a hunter.

Conservation Colorado, which has been mobilizing citizens and working to protect Colorado's natural areas for 50 years, is also doubling down on community organizing. In a recent blog post, Pete Maysmith, Conservation Colorado's Executive Director, said the organization is going to use all of the tools at its disposal, "whether that is engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience, showing up at senators' offices, hiring more lawyers, working in different venues, partnering with different groups, or being more multidisciplinary in our coalition efforts." 

One common theme combines all of these groups. They need our voices and are ready to take a lead on protecting the lands we hold dear. Maysmith signs off with a firm yet optimistic message: "The future I see for Colorado is full of possibility. We have a motivated community that is ready to stand up for the right to clean air and water, public lands, and climate action. We're ready to fight tooth-and-nail for the things that matter most - and our environment is one of them."

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