Missions and Niches, Part 2

A couple of years after I first visited Alaska, my son Tom and I were cooling our heels in Anchorage.  We were wondering what to do during an overnight stay before we headed north on a wilderness trip.  I had no formal relationship with The Nature Conservancy at that time, but I knew it to be a global organization dedicated to protecting nature and preserving life.  I was attracted by what little I knew about the organization’s operating philosophy, which is based on rigorous science and collaborative, market-oriented solutions that respect local interests, including those of native populations. 

A little research quickly revealed that the Conservancy had a small operating staff in Anchorage, led by its then state director, Susan Ruddy.  So, with time on our hands, Tom and I called up the local TNC office and asked if we could stop by to hear about their projects in Alaska.  Susan was out of town, but David Banks and some of the other staff were only too happy to invite us to the downtown office and we were soon poring over charts and maps showing the conservation hotspots around Alaska.  That first meeting led to other visits when we happened to pass through town.  And those encounters resulted in enduring friendships that have grown even closer over the ensuing years.

At the time of our first few visits, political debates over opening the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas development had reached fever pitch, culminating in the passage of a House bill, later narrowly defeated in the Senate, in favor of development.  During this period, David Banks succeeded Susan as TNC's state director in Alaska.  Tom and I had come to know David on a personal level and were hiking with him in the Chugach Mountains during one of our subsequent layovers in Anchorage. 

I took the opportunity of our day hike to bend David’s ear, none too politely as I recall, about what I then considered to be TNC’s inexcusable fence-sitting on the raging debate about the Refuge.  As a conservation organization of international stature, how could TNC not be leading the fight against exploration and development?

David patiently explained several points that calmed me down somewhat and redirected my personal action plan for engagement on the issue.

First, he noted that, at least up to that time, The Nature Conservancy had tended to focus on financial transactions involving private lands – acquisitions, easements and the like.  These models worked well in the lower 48 states, but he acknowledged they might come up a bit short in Alaska, where the overwhelming majority of land is in public, not private, ownership.  Alaska has about one third of all of America's public lands, so advocacy on public land use policy clearly needs to play a broader role.  And in that regard, David predicted with considerable prescience that the Alaska chapter might set a leadership example for future consideration by the Conservancy as a whole.

Even on the public policy side, however, David argued that there are some battles where a collaborative organization like TNC can serve an important function as a neutral and trusted broker, as a convener of ideas and debate, without necessarily digging an entrenched position on a particular issue. 

Individuals can of course debate the merits of this substantive neutrality in specific instances.  You might or might not agree with it, for example, with respect to the Arctic Refuge, the Pebble mine, the Tongass forest or other examples.  But the basic point of David’s argument was that TNC has a strong history and reputation as an honest broker, a developer and interpreter of scientific knowledge, a moderator that is uniquely positioned to bring local and native interests, as well as conservationists, businesses and governments, together for positive and constructive dialogue.

He convinced me that there should be some one or more organizations following this path of moderation.  He also was persuasive that The Nature Conservancy was ideally suited to play this role, at least in the context of that late 1990s debate about the Refuge.

When I pointed out that this wasn’t particularly satisfying on a visceral and emotional level, that it did not resolve my personal desire for direct action and engagement, David stated the obvious.  TNC is just one organization.  There are lots of other NGOs, he said, that are deeply experienced with lobbying, litigating, campaigning and other adversarial tactics of public policy advocacy.  If every organization pursued the same strategy and tactics, they would inevitably be less effective than if each focuses on its respective areas of comparative advantage.

David gave as examples the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, the Alaska Conservation Foundation and the Alaska Wilderness League.  He acknowledged that they would likely be more effective than TNC in those more aggressive activities, whereas it was almost uniquely positioned to add value in a more neutral, collaborative role.  

Following through on  our conversation, I looked into some of those other organizations when Tom and I returned from our arctic trip.  As a result, I later became personally involved with a couple of the groups, notably The Wilderness Society and the Alaska Wilderness League, in addition to being more engaged with The Nature Conservancy itself. 

The lesson I drew from this is that even if a given organization finds a particular niche appropriate to its mission and resources, individuals are not so constrained.  From the perspective of personal involvement, it is entirely possible to occupy a variety of positions along the spectrum of advocacy, all at the same time, through volunteer engagement with multiple organizations.

Read the previous post in the Missions and Niches series:

Missions and Niches, Part 1