The Conservation Alliance was born in 1989 when Patagonia, The North Face, REI, and Kelty came together around a shared belief that the outdoor industry needed to do more collectively to ensure that wild places are protected for their recreation and habitat values. It has more than succeeded. Now consisting of more than 220 member companies, it has contributed more than $20 million to grassroots conservation groups throughout North America since its inception. Those member dues have helped to save 51 million acres of wildlands, protect 3,102 miles of rivers, stop or remove 30 dams, designate five marine reserves, and purchase 13 climbing areas. Much of that work has come thanks to the organization’s first and only executive director, John Sterling. Last month, Sterling announced that he is ready to move on from the organization that he has grown for the past years. He sat down to talk to us about what the Conservation Alliance has achieved, where he has taken it, and the future.
How did you first become executive director of the Conservation Alliance?
The Conservation Alliance was founded without any paid staff. It began as a very lean operation run by an all-volunteer board of directors. The idea was that structure would allow the organization to contribute 100 percent of each member company’s dues into the grant fund so it could all go out in the form of grants to conservation organizations. For 15 years, we never had staff.
I represented Patagonia on the board for seven of those 15 years. While I was on the board, we always said: “God, if we had staff, we could do so much more: We could recruit more members. We could give away more money.” But nobody really had the capacity back then to make that happen. So, when I decided to leave Patagonia and move to Bend, Oregon, one of my ideas for what I would do next was to figure out a way to raise enough money to hire myself as the first paid staff or the organization. My fellow board members all supported that idea. So over the course of two years, I built some relationships with funders and got to a point where we had an opportunity to launch our first full-time executive director position through a partnership with Keen.
What was your initial vision upon taking the executive director position?
I always thought that there was a huge amount of potential that we weren’t tapping into because we just didn’t have the capacity. At the time, the Conservation Alliance had about 50 member companies and we were giving away $350,000 to $400,000 a year. We knew we could double or triple or quadruple that grant-making total. So, the first vision was to see how much we could grow membership and how much money we could give away. Shortly after hiring me, we realized that we had to revisit the idea of an organization whose entire operation is arranged around not having operating expenses, but we never wanted to give up contributing 100 percent of our members dues to conservation organizations.
We realized pretty quickly that we’re going to have to come up with a sustainable operating revenue model because we couldn’t count on Keen to bankroll our operation forever. So, my next goal was to make sure there was a solid revenue model for the operation of the Conservation Alliance. We launched our legacy fund endowment in 2008. Our goal was to raise $3.5 million dollars which would help defray our operating expenses. We achieved that goal, but it only covers about a quarter of our operations. So, we eventually developed a pretty diverse and stable revenue stream for our operations that I never take for granted.
Then the last thing I really wanted to add to the Conservation Alliance was a comprehensive advocacy program. We’ve always been primarily a funder and I think we always will be. But we recognized that as a collection of businesses that support conservation, we had real opportunities to bring those voices to bear on the conservation initiatives that we’re funding, and we started shoe-horning in advocacy efforts. Shortly after Trump was elected, we hired our first-full time advocacy program manager. And I think advocacy is only going to become a bigger part of our work.
So, my three big goals were getting the grant fund up, supporting the operation, and adding a sustained advocacy presence to the program. We absolutely filled all three of those at this point. And we’re going to give away $2 million this year.
What are some of the victories that the Conservation Alliance funded that you were most excited about?
There have been a lot of them. I’m super proud of the work we did on this most recent package of public lands bills [the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act] that president Trump signed this week—which is insane. It’s even more satisfying that in this totally toxic, dysfunctional Congress, we helped move a package that protects 2.5 million acres and 675 river miles around the U.S. We funded and we provided advocacy support for eight of the bills that were included in that package.
The work we did on national monuments during the last four years of the Obama administration was also huge. And along the way, I think we really helped get the outdoor industry more focused on public lands. So when Trump took over and started threatening those lands, our industry was poised to really respond with unity and with passion against those threats. I’m not going to claim credit for all that happened with the industry, but I think the Conservation Alliance played a key role in putting public lands at the center of it.
How were you able to do that?
I give full credit to our grantees. There’s only four of us and one full-time advocate. The Conservation Alliance really contracts out conservation work to organizations that know how to do it, and I think a lot of our member companies are pretty capable partners for our grantees. But none of this happens without our grantees’ local grassroots organizing.
So those are the big victories. Are there any small victories that you feel really good about that may not have made as big of a splash?
There are a lot of them and they’re all really satisfying. That’s the coolest part of this job. I’ve learned about so many little landscapes through our funding program from these passionate local activists. For example, acquiring Castleton Tower in southern Utah. Castleton Tower is a very popular climbing spot and our grantee, Utah Open Lands Conservation Association, worked with a bunch of local climbers and managed to convince the state to sell it to them instead of to private developers. Galbraith Mountain outside of Bellingham, Washington, was another chunk of private land that had a really popular hiking, running and mountain biking trail network on it. Then one day the owner decided he wanted to shut it down. And so we worked with the Whatcom Land Trust to buy that property. There are dozens of stories like these. So, a lot of this job is getting to know these little places that may not be destinations for a lot of people, but they’re so important to local communities.
The Conservation Alliance breakfast—”Arrive Tired Leave Inspired”—has become one of the most important events at Outdoor Retailer. Who are some speakers at the breakfast that really stood out for you and really made a difference to the people who walked out of the room?
We’ve always tried to book speakers who are timely. Right after the show moved to Denver, we had Kevin Fedarko and Pete McBride, a writer and a photographer, talk about Grand Canyon and public lands and how important it was that every generation stand up in defense of those lands. They were great. Terry Tempest Williams has spoken at our breakfast twice and there’s never a dry eye in the room. Wade Davis has also has given two talks at our breakfast. He’s a genius storyteller and committed to the intersection of indigenous people in conservation. He’s been eye-opening. We’ve had some pretty interesting Arctic presenters, too, who show us these places that a lot of people will never get to but are still important to protect. Cheryl Strayed was pretty funny too. She probably gave us more f-bombs than any other speaker.
So what’s next for you now?
I wish I knew. I don’t have a new gig lined up. I’ve been so consumed by this organization and it means so much to me. I knew at some point I would leave this position, though, and I’ve spent the last few years trying to figure out when the right time is. Given the strength of our staff and board, I felt we were in a good place. I’m going to focus my next six to 12 months on this transition and making sure my successor has a handle on things. Then, I look forward to seeing what new opportunities there are for me.
What kind of person are you looking for to fill your huge shoes?
Well, that’s a good question for my board because this is on them. [Laughs.] I think obviously we want someone who understands the power of the outdoor industry to have an impact on conservation, but also someone who understands the value of relationships. I think one thing that’s really helped the Conservation Alliance since I’ve been involved has just been a lot of one-on-one work with the leaders of our industry and conservation organizations.
What gives you hope for conservation for the future?
Actually, the passage of this last lands bill gives me hope. In one of our darkest political moments, Congress came together and passed conservation legislation. We also saw that in 2009 when the great recession was at rock bottom. Congress passed a big land package then, too [The Omnibus Public Land Act of 2009]. So I really believe that when it comes down to it, public lands are something that unites us and that we turn to when we most need them.
I also am really encouraged by the way the outdoor industry has responded to threats to our public lands. It wasn’t always that way. Now, we’ve got a great industry that really cares and is ready to step up and use their voices. And I’m super psyched about the younger generation. I’m seeing more and more young folks in our industry and amongst our grantees. They are very values-focused people and they want to make a difference in the world.
Come celebrate the Conservation Alliance’s 30th Anniversary sponsored by Keen, Patagonia, The North Face, REI, and Merrell at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market on Day 2, June 19 at 6 p.m. The party will take place the lot across directly across the street from the Colorado Convention Center. Each sponsor will host an advocacy activation and there will be other surprises. The Conservation Alliance will also be hosting its famed breakfast on the same morning.