rickjohnsonRick Johnson has served as executive director of the Idaho Conservation League for 16 years.  ICL is Idaho’s leading voice for conservation.

Interview by Chris Gertschen

CG: Is there one particular event or series of events that led you to a profession in conservation?

RJ:  Yes, if you focus on the profession part.  I got into conservation as a volunteer for a lot of reasons wrapped around love of Idaho’s outdoors and a sense I could contribute, but I got into the profession because of a single event.

At the time—early 1980s—I lived in the Sun Valley area, had a construction business, and wrote a bit for the local newspaper.  As my business did better and wilderness issues heated up I devoted a lot of time as a volunteer with the Sierra Club and the Idaho Conservation League.  This led to a couple opportunities to be part of lobbying trips to Washington, DC, again, as a volunteer.

On one of those trips to DC, in the summer of 1984, I was part of a lobby effort in Congress and in the room for portions of the negotiations between the staffs of Sen. Jim McClure (R-ID) and Rep. John Seiberling (D-OH) over an Idaho wilderness bill.  They were chairman of their respective committees.

As the week ended I was both exhausted and exhilarated sitting in the conference room of the old Sierra Club office on Pennsylvania Avenue.  Late afternoon light was streaming in the window and I’d just heard stories of the then recent passage of the Alaska Lands Act and the conservation work revolving around the office.  The Club staffer I’d been working with gave me a can of cheap beer.  We talked about conservation as a job. I remember the moment like it was yesterday; right then I knew I needed to figure out how to do this work for a living, a sense of career goal I’d never experienced.

A little over a year later I’d gotten a job running the public lands program of ICL.  Two years later I was on the Sierra Club staff—a goal directly connected to that afternoon in their DC office.  For eight years I represented the Club on lands issues in the Pacific Northwest out of Seattle.  My work included Idaho wilderness and a really crazy eight years related to the spotted owl and the region’s ancient forests.  For a while I spent as much as 100 days a year in DC as a “frequent-flyer lobbyist.”

In 1995 I came home and for over 16 years I’ve been running the Idaho Conservation League.  Every time I’m in DC—as I was just last week—I think of that afternoon in the Club’s old office.  That staffer who gave me the beer became an important mentor and is still a close colleague.

And it is still great work I’m lucky to do.  It’s hard, wildly frustrating, and has exceeded every expectation I had for it.

CG:  I had a life-changing wilderness lobbying trip as well.  There is something about seeing the issues we are so passionate about from a broader, national perspective. I would imagine that throughout your many years in conservation you’ve seen some remarkable changes.  Can you tell us about some of the positive changes you’ve observed?

RJ:  Positive changes?

Two things jump out.

One is the change in how people communicate and how that empowers people to engage in new ways.  Our government processes are still unsettled on the impact of new tools, but even if the results are not yet known the world has fundamentally shifted.  Impact on social systems, media, government and all that is the big picture.  Closer to home, simply how I communicate with my colleagues has changed in no less revolutionary a manner, both in immediacy, but also in sharing of content. As a volunteer in the early 80s I had a leg up because of a few paragraphs of ‘insider’ news I got once a month in the mail.  Imagine how crazy that sounds in an era of Facebook and Twitter!

The second thing is how—on a good day—we’ve been able to reduce the partisan edge to conservation.  Some of our most impactful relationships today are with Republicans as well as with Democrats.  Commonsense conservation should not be a partisan issue, we all know that.  It was not always that way and, obviously, it often still is and often for good reason, but we are better at what we don’t actually push our work into a partisan corner by our own actions.

Other good things?  I’m super encouraged by the smart and energetic young people who want to get into this work.  There was a time when young folks were unplugging from the environment and what I see now is a resurgence of really capable young people.

An interesting change with that point about youth is their extreme confidence in technology.  Some of that is good, some of that is, well, I’m not so sure.

CG:  What are some of the challenges that ICL faces?

RJ:  The biggest challenge is big.  Our success is based on many factors, but ultimately we make progress by seeking closure in forums where policy gets made.  Often this means the legislative branch of our federal and state government.  To be generous, let’s just say Congress and the Legislature are not exactly great for anyone these days.  This means that our biggest challenge is one of America’s biggest challenges.  Our government—particularly our legislative forums—are not rising to the needs of the country today.

ICL has done very good work building bridges.  We have developed relationships with both sides of the political divide that few organizations can match.  That said, the actual stage where difficult problems are solved—Congress and the Legislature—are fail to act in the only way they ever successfully do their work: crafting compromise solutions.

Unfortunately, this leads folks to seek alternative venues.  The Courts. Ballot measures.  The streets, even, with things like Occupy Wall Street.  Failure to solve issues does not make them go away.  Our nation’s founders came up with a pretty amazing system of government.  It’s not working well for anyone right now because people on both sides care more about their side than solutions.

I’m pretty confident there are solutions—good ones—to lots of what we work on.  We can only do so much to set the stage.  Whether it’s the environment or anything else, ultimately decisions have to get made.  The places where decisions get made isn’t working very well right now, and that’s bad for everyone.

CG:   I find encouragement in citizen action and I wonder if it is most effective when it is closer to home, perhaps on the community and regional level – grassroots movement from the bottom up.  I am thinking of a shared dream of understanding the land and its inhabitants, a vision of a society that lives well within the limits of the natural world.  I am wondering if there isn’t a strong connection between conservation and environmental education that might be able to support that vision.  Collaboration is not easy, I know, but perhaps taking it to the local level would be more effective.  One example might be cooperative regional conservation centers where resources of many kinds could be housed.  What do you think about that idea?  Do you have other cooperative projects that you’d like to see happen?

RJ:  I don’t know about prospects for a regional conservation center or such a thing but do strongly support local collaboration and ICL has helped be a catalyst for and participant in several noteworthy examples.

As you note collaboration is not easy.  What’s also not easy is making actual forward progress without it.  Conservationists have made an art form out of stopping bad things, and that’s important and often necessary work.  But stopping bad is a lot different than advancing good.  Conservation, in my view, is a public interest movement and if it is to endure it must be built on public support and moving forward.  A ‘movement’ that only fights bad can too easily be reduced to being just a special interest.

I see the challenge of creating forward movement on wilderness, open space, public health, energy conservation and a whole host of other issues to be the most exciting part of my job.  It comes at various levels for us: local, regional, and statewide.

And it’s really hard.  Collaboration between a diverse set of players, when it’s working, is a fascinating process to watch and be part of.  I literally just returned from a meeting of a ‘collaborative’ table bringing elected leaders, the timber industry, conservation interests, mining, and more.  A key lesson from this and every other table we’re part of is that each one is different.  It’s an art, and not even close to a science.  The collaboration results from getting the right people together at the right time, often at the right moment, often after a lot of difficult history.  For this reason I don’t think it can be easily centralized or ‘cooked.’  There is no formula.  This makes me a suspicious about success of trying to institutionally create it through a ‘conservation center’ or such thing.

CG:  I was thinking of regional centers as “places” that house resources for those engaged in teaching and learning about the places where we live.  The Crown of the Continent Consortium for Ecosystems Education is a model for what I am describing.  Or, perhaps what I envision is a website that links many conservation resources with those who need them; and links those who want to be more active in conservation with those who can use a hand.  I am hopeful that these interviews will spawn a conversation that leads to more effective and widespread conservation. I’ve learned in the course of these interviews that most conservation organizations are short on funds and thus have staffs that are working way too hard.  If I could grant you a wish of funds to increase your efforts, what programs and projects would you be most interested in pursuing?

RJ:  There is no question that we’re short on funds, and all the more so now with the tough economy.  Part of it might be that it’s hard to say no to good work that might not be done by anyone else otherwise.  We do have a broad mission so we work on a broad portfolio and I’m certain that breadth of work makes us more effective and we certainly learn more and expose ICL to a broader set of policymakers and the public at large.  But it is expensive.

If there was one place where I’d put new funds to work right now would be towards telling our story.  The business model of a typical conservation advocacy group—which is more or less what we are—is that we’re built around communicating to our members.  The fact is we represent everyone in Idaho who cares about the air they breathe, water they drink and lands they love.  That’s a lot more people than we can now talk to.  I am certain with greater resources to inform, inspire and empower citizens who care, we would build a much deeper and broader constituency for conservation who’d like what we do and how we do it.  We have some work in place today that has started this process, and while it’s enhanced our audience by thousands, we could do much more.

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Chris Gertschen is the founder and former director of the Sawtooth Science Institute. She is conducting a series of talks with the leaders of conservation in the west to get their perspectives on the relationship between conservation and environmental education. Read her introduction here.