The Ground Game

For nearly 30 years, The Conservation Alliance has been proactively preserving open space and wild places. In the last year, the nonprofit funded by concerned companies started to play defense and began training people outside the organization so that they, too, can speak up for public lands.

On an evening in May, roughly 40 people clustered into the Deschutes Brewing pub in Bend, Oregon, for a crash course in public lands. Employees sat down with members of the public as Kirsten Blackburn, The Conservation Alliance’s advocacy program manager, powered through a series of slides and videos. After explaining the mission of her non-profit to fund grassroots conservation organizations via membership dues from brands in the outdoor industry and beyond, she also broke down the basics of the nation’s federal public lands system: Four main agencies steward a combined 640 million acres and several laws guide their management. One designation, such as a wilderness area, differs from another, such a national forest, both in who manages the land and what rules they have to follow in doing so. After detailing these distinctions, Blackburn passed out a pocket-sized checklist for making a difference, including steps like calling and meeting with legislators, writing op-eds, and Tweeting and posting information to boost the grassroots base.

“We try to localize these big wonky laws and show that they’re super important,” Blackburn says of bringing the presentation to her Portland-based organization’s backyard. “They’re actually mandates that allow us, the public, to play a part in the process.”

Her work is part of a new outreach arm as The Conservation Alliance pivots to a place it never thought it would be, running defensive operations for the first time in a nearly 30-year history. If it works, the effort could arm the outdoor industry with a better informed and ready-for-action groundcrew that knows how to make political ears hear its voice.

“The point we’re trying to make every step of the way is that these are public lands, which doesn’t just mean you get to go enjoy them,” says John Sterling, The Conservation Alliance’s executive director. “It also means you have a responsibility to engage in the efforts to say how they’re managed.”

Back in 1989, the heads of The North Face, REI, Patagonia and Kelty formed The Conservation Alliance in order to give back to wild places. Each brand donated $10,000, which they sent to the non-profit Friends of the Payette. In the years since, membership has swelled to over 200 brands and businesses who have contributed $20 million total, supporting efforts to preserve 51 million acres of land, 3,100 river miles, and 13 climbing areas. For almost three decades, there was no need to second-guess those victories. That changed in November 2016. The election put Republicans in power who had run on a platform that hung a bullseye on public lands. Some of the Alliance’s recent wins, like the national monument designations for Bears Ears and Browns Canyon, were suddenly reversed or endangered by a president bent on undermining the Antiquities Act which authorized protecting those landscapes.

“For years, we’ve gotten away with assuming people understand the public lands system, and that worked okay as long as we had some sort of backstop in government that would prevent the worst ideas out there from ever coming to fruition,” Sterling says. “With Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, and Trump in the White House, we realized our worst nightmares could come true.”

To fight back, the organization deployed a couple of strategies. While some political battles are won with voters at ballot boxes, others are undertaken in courtrooms. That’s where the Public Lands Defense Fund, a new grantmaking arm of the alliance, has sent $75,000, where it’ll pay for EarthJustice lawyers challenging the president’s authority to downsize national monuments. There’s no telling the outcome of that litigation yet, Sterling says, but the options include a Supreme Court ruling that the Antiquities Act “is a one-way ratchet—that a president can designate but not undesignate and change. If that happens, that’s a good $75,000  investment.”

Ultimately, Sterling hopes the fund will see the end of its usefulness after four years of the Trump administration.The long game comes into play with the presentations Blackburn has given 18 times as of early June at happy hours and over lunches. For people to feel prepared to speak up, they first have to know what’s at stake and who to talk to about it. The threats have motivated people to get involved in ways that could almost make a diehard conservationist grateful.

“I think we can thank the Trump administration for making public lands a dinner table topic,” Blackburn says.

Her program starts with breaking down basics, like what a national monument is and what law authorizes it. Confusion around these issues is widespread. The Deschutes Brewing event saw one mountain biker ready to gripe about national monuments barring him from riding on those trails, but that’s based on the misunderstanding that all monuments ban mountain bikes when only some do. This kind of confusion has gone frighteningly far up the ranks. The Department of Interior’s report on the national monuments review included several factual errors on rules for monuments.

While it’s not fun to be essentially fixing a flat tire rather than driving down the road, Sterling says, “In the long run, this challenge is going to be really good for our industry and for public lands in general, because had this not happened—this is looking at it glass-half-full—we would not have had this moment of reflection where everyone said, ‘Whoa, our public lands are at risk.We need to engage.’”

The hope is that the momentum lasts after the threats are gone, and that people will continue to advocate for how they hope to see federal land managers run nearby national forests and BLM lands (which are, by the way, overseen by different branches of the government, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior, respectively). That wave reached Grayl, a Seattle-based company that produces water purifiers, a little over a year ago. Soon after company co-founder Travis Merrigan joined The Conservation Alliance, he was quickly recruited to host a happy hour. About 20 people attended, including employees, members of the public and a representative from the American Whitewater Association.

This fall, Grayl employees will spend a day volunteering to see how it all works on the ground, likely building trails. “It’s not directly related to this” happy hour, Merrigan says, “but I think it’s inspired by it and the idea that public lands are ours, damnit, let’s do more than send off some emails.”

Likewise, Deschutes Brewing joined The Conservation Alliance just last year, and Michael LaLonde, its president and CEO, now serves on the board. Over the spring, he hosted the happy hour in part to talk about what the alliance is and does, and why the brewery joined. “All of our co-owners like to go out and enjoy the outdoors—we run the trails, kayak, fish—it’s just part of who we are as a company,” he says.

The same is true of their customers, so it made sense to get more of them involved. It just takes a little education, like the one he got in preparation for the Conservation Alliance’s annual lobbying day. Shortly thereafter, he headed to Washington, D.C., for a Brewers Association event and took some time to talk to legislators about protecting wild places in Oregon, like Sutton Mountain and the Painted Hills, the Owyhee Canyonlands and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument.

Whether those spots see lasting protection hinges on whether the public feels urged to mention to elected officials that they matter—as playgrounds, as economic drivers for jobs and tourism, and, intrinsically, as landscapes the world is better for having. Most importantly, they need to vote as if these wild places matter.

About the future and politics, Sterling is less worried and more hopeful. “I really believe we’re going to come out the other end of this time in a pretty strong position with companies having been through the battle and they will remember these years as an exciting time,” he says. “I’ve been in the outdoor industry for 25 years, and I’ve never seen us galvanized around one issue the way we are now about public lands.”

Elevation Outdoors and Blue Ridge Outdoors magazines are members of The Conservation Alliance.

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