There was some trepidation when John Sterling announced his retirement as executive director of The Conservation Alliance last year. Who could take the place of the first and only leader of the organization that has given over $23 million to grassroots conservation groups throughout North America since its inception in 1989? To date, those member dues have helped to save 73 million acres of wildlands, protect 3,575 miles of rivers, stop or remove 35 dams, designate five marine reserves, and purchase 17 climbing areas. Those fears were allayed when it was announced this fall that Brady Robinson would be filling Sterling’s shoes. After all, the accomplished climber spent over 10 years protecting and advocating for climbing areas on public and private land as executive director of The Access Fund and worked as director of strategy and development for Tompkins Conservation, which completed the largest private land donation in history, to create new national parks in Chile last year. A board member on the Honnold Foundation, Robinson has also worked as Outward Bound North Carolina’s director of operations and served as the founding board chair of Outdoor Alliance. Indeed, he has some big shoes of his own. Robinson sat down to talk to us about how he will continue to build on the past work of The Conservation Alliance and move the organization forward.
Why did you want to work for The Conservation Alliance?
It has this incredible 30-year history of grantmaking, of protecting wild places, of conservation advocacy. There have been some incredible achievements. And I also think that the work of The Conservation Alliance has never been more important. The appeal of The Conservation Alliance is that it can be the voice and the conduit of conservation work on behalf of business. Right now, we are facing an incredible test in the form of the climate crisis and this global extinction. To be a part of coming up with some solutions to that and to be able to draw on my long history within this community is a joy and a dream come true for me.
How has your experience at the Access Fund and Tompkins Conservation prepared you to lead The Conservation Alliance?
Running the Access Fund for nearly 11 years, I got to know not only the outdoor industry but also the conservation and environmental advocacy landscapes really well. I also learned how to run and manage a nonprofit organization. And one of the things that brings me to this role is this really deep history advocating for recreation as a core part of conservation—people need to be connected to these spaces. But now, I also have experience coming from an organization that was very focused on deep ecology. Frankly, Tompkins Conservation isn’t as concerned about people visiting the parks it has created as it is just creating these spaces for wildlife and biodiversity. So it was an eye-opening experience. On the other hand when it comes to my time with the Access Fund, one of the things I’m most proud of was some of our public lands work, and our work on Bears Ears when the Trump administration was rolling back monuments. Yes, Access Fund is an organization whose mission is to protect climbing. But you know, I think one of the great things that we achieved—and that they continue to achieve—is pulling people into the conservation movement who might not have self-identified as environmentalists. One of the greatest things that I remember is talking to moderate Republicans who really appreciated what we were doing on public lands. And in a lot of ways, public lands issues are one of the few areas where you can truly get bipartisan support on something.
Is there a danger that recreation can be just as harmful to wild lands as other uses? Are we loving our wild places to death?
I always think it’s a danger. Increasing outdoor recreation participation is great and developing recreation is great, but we are also in danger of losing some of the qualities we value in the outdoors if we aren’t careful as we build out recreation infrastructure and policy. That said, I think one of the downfalls of the traditional conservation movement was to see humans as exclusively the problem, but not also the solution. Like it or not, we’re the dominant species on the planet. We’ve got to be part of the solution, too. And to be an effective part of the solution, people have to see and experience what is at stake.
What are the biggest challenges for the organization and for the conservation community in general in a political climate that seems hellbent on destroying not just environmental legislation but also the idea of public lands?
First, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic despite the current political climate. Early last year, we celebrated the passage of the largest package of public lands bills in more than a decade. The John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation Management, and Recreation Act permanently protected nearly 2.5 million acres of public land, 676 miles of rivers, and reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund. What’s more, the bill passed with incredible bipartisan support (92-8 in the Senate, 363-62 in the House), showing that public lands truly bring us all together.
That being said, it is still true that some of our bedrock conservation laws and protected landscapes are under attack by the current administration and a handful of politicians who have different ideas about what should be done with our public lands. Our community has been effective in slowing down irrationally fast attempts by the administration to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, and to log the old growth forest of the Tongass National Forest, but we must continue to be diligent in this work. While defending our bedrock conservation laws and our protected wild places is critical right now, it’s equally as important to continue to invest in new conservation opportunities to ensure we make the most of the next favorable political climate. Most importantly, we must do everything possible to ensure that we elect a President and members of Congress who value protected public lands more than resource extraction in 2020.
We rely on legal protections for conservation. They have taken years, some even generations, to build and put into place. And right now it seems like those legal productions don’t matter. They’re being eliminated without any public input. What do you think we can do to protect wild places long term again?
Well, we have to fight for it. We have to show up. If things are unpopular, there has to be a political price to pay. And so, it’s essential to communicate to our members and to the public the importance of these bedrock laws and regulations. We can also fight the process. This is why we created the Public Lands Defense Fund (PLDF) in 2017. We have used it to defend the National Environmental Policy Act, the Roadless Rule, the Endangered Species Act, and the Antiquities Act. Anyone can donate to the PLDF and we will pass 100% of those donations on to the groups working to defend these important laws. But ultimately, it really comes down to public opinion and ensuring that there is a political price to be paid for rolling back the protections that we have.
What campaigns does The Conservation Alliance’s have planned for the coming year?
We were in Washington D.C. last week with half a dozen Conservation Alliance member companies advocating for the next public lands package. Our 14 meetings on Capitol Hill were mainly focused around: The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy Act (CORE), Defending the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Upholding the National Roadless Rule, and protecting Montana’s Blackfoot River watershed through the passage of the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act. A handful of other important landscape protections were on our list last week, like protecting Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands, Washington’s Wild Olympics, and of course fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
How can more people get involved?
Support your local grassroots conservation organization, visit our website for a list of groups we support. Sign up for our e-news for action alerts about the campaigns listed above. Follow us on social.
What can we look forward to at The Conservation Alliance breakfast at the show?
We are excited to announce that the breakfast will continue. We will host A Refuge at Risk: Fighting for Human Rights, Climate Justice and Unmatched Adventure in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, a presentation by Gwich’in Elder Lorraine Netro, climate justice organizer and writer Maia Wikler, and professional climber Tommy Caldwell. As always, we promise you will arrive tired and leave inspired!
Don’t miss The Conservation Alliance Breakfast in the Hyatt Capitol Ballroom, 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. on January 30, Day 2 of Outdoor + Snow Show in Denver.