A behind-the-scenes look at what it's like to work at major conservation education and advocacy groups — with National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O'Mara
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A behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to work at major conservation education and advocacy groups — with National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara

A behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to work at major conservation education and advocacy groups — with National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara

This interview has been brought to you by theRising as the first of many articles geared towards helping college and high school students gain a better understanding of careers in sustainability. Today’s piece focuses on conservation advocacy and education groups — which are highly influential in the passing of conservation-related legislation and spreading awareness at scale. For this piece, we wanted to present a behind-the-scenes look at one of the largest organizations: the National Wildlife Federation.

After 80 years of operation, the National Wildlife Federation has become the largest private, nonprofit conservation education and advocacy organization in America, with over 6 million members and supporters and $97 million in annual operating revenue.

We sat down with none other than National Wildlife Federation CEO Collin O’Mara to bring you this story. Enjoy — and let us know what sustainability careers you’re interested in learning more about and who you want us to interview next at pitches@therising.co

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How the National Wildlife Federation coordinates a nation-wide operation

How does the National Wildlife Federation coordinate and organize wildlife conservation efforts across 52 States and territories — what seems like a complicated task?

The interesting thing is most wildlife management in this country is actually led at the state level. The federal government has trust responsibilities for endangered and migratory species. But for the most part, states have jurisdiction on the local level, so it’s more about making sure that folks have sufficient resources and good state wildlife action plans. These are basically just designed to help recover species to the greatest conservation need in each of the states.

So what we help do is help put together those plans, then help coordinate them both within states and also across states. The idea is that the issues facing the multiple States in the Great Plains, the Great Lakes, the Gulf, or the Northwest have a lot of commonalities. So we try to show how habitat ranges and things like that can learn from each other.

But the National Wildlife Federation is unique in that we are a federated structure that is like a learning network. We can get the best practices on the ground and replicate them quickly in different parts of the country at the same time as we’re learning from each other.

Best practices at the National Wildlife Federation

Speaking of best practices, what do those look like for the National Wildlife Federation’s work?

Science has to drive decision making and I think we’re learning that every day right now. And what happens when we don’t follow sound science? And I think you’re trying to keep the politics out. A lot of the biggest wildlife victories over the last 80 years have been through the results of just incredible collaboration on the ground through well-resourced efforts.

So we spend a lot of time really trying to make sure there are those resources available. Because if you don’t invest, we end up in this kind of crisis position where a species is declining to the point where it needs protection under the Endangered Species Act.

We’ve learned that we could have spent a few dollars really early on as prevention, as opposed to having this catastrophic situation with so many species because we’re not making those investments. So for us it really all comes down to a combination of sound science and preventative, collaborative restoration efforts.

And then just more education. I think that as more folks are living in cities and having virtual lives, the connection with wildlife has been lost a bit. I think there’s probably a greater appreciation now than six weeks ago. But we need to make sure that folks understand that when we save wildlife, we can save ourselves.

Clean air, clean water, and good habitats aren’t just good for birds and deer. It’s also good for all of us to have a healthier environment and less toxic pollution and the likes. So making the case between human health and wildlife conservation is always incredibly important to being successful.

The most common challenges for conservation advocacy and education organizations

What are the most common logistic challenges that the National Wildlife Federation has run into in the most recent years? And how has it adapted to overcome those challenges? 

A lot of our challenges aren’t very logistical. I think we’re pretty well coordinated and I just think technology is amazing. The fact that we have almost 400 folks telecommuting all across the country and all interacting virtually — we’re kind of blessed to be able to do that.

I think a lot of it just comes down to prioritizing around so many competing trends. And you think about how in some places the issue is just habitat loss because of rapid development. In other places, it could be toxic pollution coming from a few industrial facilities. While in other places, it could be massive climate impacts that are accelerating and exacerbating all the underlying challenges. So it’s just a matter of how do you make enough progress given the scale of threats that we’re facing right now. 

There was a report that came out last year that showed that more than a million species around the globe are facing a heightened risk of extinction, a report that came out about seven months ago that showed that there are 3 billion fewer birds in North America today than there were 50 years ago, and a report we’re putting out next week that’s going to show that of the species facing the greatest risk around the globe, 90% are declining still right now.

So this isn’t academic. The implications of having declining pollinator populations are devastating for agriculture. And not having good wildlife populations is brutally harmful in the outdoor economy in this country. We’re trying to make both the economic and, increasingly, the health case, that these are things that should be prioritized.

For example, if we didn’t have an illegal wild animal trade in parts of Asia, we’d likely not be in the same position right now with this pandemic. And so I think the challenge for us isn’t so much logistical coordination — it’s more about demonstrating relevance. It’s about convincing folks that investments in nature are a way to solve the challenges we’re facing today. This could require going as far as reframing the issue in a way that’s more relevant to people.

A successful case study

What have been the most successful conservation efforts for the National Wildlife Federation?

One thing I’m really proud of is that we’ve been able to make bipartisan progress in a not strictly bi-partisan age. We’ve seen massive investments in forest management, conservation on private lands, the farm bill, and a lot of investment in water infrastructure.

There was a huge public lands package that was completely bipartisan in the past. And it protected a couple of million acres of land around the country. And all of that happened below the radar. It didn’t wind up on the president’s Twitter feed. It didn’t make MSNBC. These were things that were forged in such a bipartisan way that they almost weren’t interesting to a lot of people because they weren’t contentious.

But the amount of work that went into making them not contentious and getting through that is something I’m really proud of. And I am convinced that there’s no Republican smallmouth bass or Democratic deer. So these issues should be less partisan. 

Now, I think one place where we’ve struggled is on the regulatory side. There’s been a pretty big assault on a lot of the foundational elements of our Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. So there’s more work to be done there. But at a time when folks in Washington often can’t agree on whether the sky is blue, we’re seeing some that are raising the light that conservation can bring people together.

How the National Wildlife Federation balances opposing interests

So how do you weigh the oftentimes opposed human and ecological interests in the National Wildlife Federation’s conservation work? 

That’s a good question. We try to make the case that good conservation is also good economics. And there are places where they come into conflict. But we ended up paying for it one way or the other. So if you have a project that massively contaminates the water, it’s not just important for fish health. It’s also important for human health. And we ended up paying billions of dollars, whether that’s in treatment to try to clean up water after the fact or healthcare costs because we don’t clean it up and people get sick.

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So now we constantly try to point out the economic implications and not just one dimension of it. And most folks appreciate that. It’s been a bit harder with this administration — that’s probably an understatement. But we don’t have to choose if we can have both. We’re not in this 1960s dichotomy where you can’t have a healthy environment and a strong economy. With very few exceptions, most folks realize that we need to figure out ways that work for both.

And frankly, as climate impacts become more and more intense, nature’s going to play a huge role in re-sequestering emissions and making communities more resilient. And so I do think that there’s just increasing awareness that places that have healthier, natural resources fair better. Places that have wetlands that can absorb water or healthier forests are less likely to have mega-fires. So folks are realizing that it’s not simply an environmental issue — it’s really about health and safety. And if we make that paradigm shift, then all of a sudden these other arguments become a lot easier.

How the NWF engages with various stakeholders

Can you walk me through how the National Wildlife Federation engages with different stakeholders and what role do they play in your decision making?

We’re constantly engaging folks from all across the spectrum and we do a lot with frontline communities experiencing the horrible health effects of environmental injustices. We’re dealing with workers that are often in unsafe conditions, business owners, residents, and all kinds of folks. 

The Federation itself is a coalition. There are folks who love to bird and garden. We have folks who love to hunt and fish. We have folks that like to just paddle and hike. So I view us as playing a major convening role. I’m also very convinced that if we can bring people together to have those conversations beforehand, we’re better off bringing up solutions that have already been forged.

It’s better to find a compromise that has already been brought to decision-makers as opposed to asking the decision-makers to choose among different constituents, which often leads to very suboptimal outcomes.

And so we spent a lot of time trying to find that common ground. And we often say that with the Federation, that kind of collaboration is our brand. We want to be a group that’s not just throwing bombs, but just really trying to bring people together to get big things done. And at a time of such stark divisiveness, that’s probably needed more than ever.

The NWF’s playbook for tackling new conservation challenges

Can you walk me through the National Wildlife Foundation’s playbook to tackle new conservation problems?

We have a pretty elaborate strategic plan that identifies all kinds of major issues and threats to the conservation of wildlife. There are a lot of new things that kind of just pop out of nowhere. And we kind of know where most of the threats are. Sometimes it has to do with individual facilities. Or, there’ll be an oil spill in the gulf or some kind of natural disaster that happens. We’d have to mobilize. But usually, It’s often trying to figure out ways to expedite the response and then prevent the next one.

Normally, my standard operating procedure is, to pull together the scientists immediately to have a great characterization of the problem. You’re then bringing together policy folks. And you have to think about the suite of both immediate response needs as well as longer-term needs. You convene stakeholders across the country to try to make sure that you’re as coordinated as possible. And then you’re going into the problem with a united front to address the problem.

And we’ve done this in response to natural and man-made disasters and right now, the pandemic. Right now I’m trying to bring expertise together. This way, folks have the best outcomes and decisions available to address the crisis.

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