Conservation Leadership More Important Than Ever

Photo: Steve Lonhart, NOAA

As the COVID-19 pandemic ravages lives and economies around the globe, all other issues, including conservation, have taken a distant backseat. On this 50th anniversary of Earth Day it’s worth remembering that adversity can spur progress: now is the time to lean into our collective efforts to advance conservation, environmental justice, and climate action.

History shows us that even in the most difficult times, leadership and vision can advance largescale environmental successes with far-reaching ecological, social, and economic benefits. In 1933, as Great Depression unemployment peaked at almost 25%, newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to put millions of Americans to work on environmental projects. Known as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” the CCC played an important role in economic and social recovery, not only creating new jobs and developing new skills, but also making lasting contributions to forest management, flood control, and the development of our state and national parks.

As Roosevelt lobbied to pass the bill, he referred to America’s forests as “the lungs of our land [which] purify our air and give fresh strength to our people.” Those words ring even truer today. In times of hardship, nature continues to bring us solace and inspiration.

The importance of sustaining conservation leadership in the face of economic downturn has modern precedent as well. During the Great Recession (2007-2009), home foreclosures more than doubled, unemployment spiked, and the S&P 500 index cratered by 57 percent. This economic devastation hit right as California’s Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative was at a critical crossroads. Adopted in 1999, the MLPA called for establishment of a science-based network of marine protected areas (MPAs) along California’s 1,100 mile coastline. Initially, California struggled to implement the law due to fiscal constraints following the bust and the sheer magnitude of the undertaking. In 2004, Resources Legacy Fund and the State of California launched the Marine Life Protection Act Initiative, a multi-year, public-private partnership to implement a stakeholder-driven process to implement the law with philanthropic support.

In August 2008, as the MLPA Initiative was gaining momentum, then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger faced the difficult decision to lay off 10,000 state workers and slash the pay of 200,000 more. His orders also directly impacted state funding critical for the MLPA Initiative, threatening to capsize the effort.

Times of great challenge also present opportunities for leadership. Amid layoffs and the precipitous plunge of our nation’s economy, David and Lucile Packard, Gordon and Betty Moore, Annenberg, Marisla, and Keith Campbell Foundations recommitted support to the MLPA Initiative and its goals to preserve the vitality and long-term economic benefits of California’s ocean. As financially challenged agencies were forced to prioritize existing programs over new efforts, the partnership with philanthropy was not only a fortifying force, but essential to meeting the state’s ocean conservation goals.

As instrumental as philanthropic support was to keeping MPA planning on track, state commitment and diligent planning were also critical. Key gubernatorial, legislative, and agency leaders kept an eye on the MLPA Initiative’s long-term goals and were steadfast in their support, even when faced with political opposition and fiscal challenges. And even before the Great Recession hit, RLF and its partners had prioritized smart planning. We took the time and devoted the resources needed to establish a strong base for this complicated and dynamic effort—incorporating best readily available science, building broad stakeholder engagement, utilizing expert facilitation, and focusing on extensive, high-quality communications and outreach. From there, we confidently structured an MPA-design process that leveraged private funds with public resources and cost-effective MPA implementation, monitoring, and enforcement.

Vision, strategic planning, state leadership, philanthropic commitment and perseverance carried the MLPA Initiative through the Great Recession. In 2012, California completed the first MPA network in the nation, protecting almost 17 percent of state’s nearshore ocean waters. That investment is now paying dividends in healthier, more resilient ecosystems, diversified coastal economies, and rebounding fisheries.

Today we face an even bigger challenge, with unknown long-term ramifications. The COVID-19 pandemic has already proven devastating to individuals, families, communities, and economies worldwide, with no end in sight. The impacts are falling especially hard on the most vulnerable. Low-income communities facing chronic pollution have higher COVID-19 mortality rates, and also lack equitable access to parks and other outdoor opportunities to enjoy the mental and physical health benefits of nature. Nevertheless, while so much of the world shelters in place to slow the spread of the virus, pollution levels have dropped, typically smog-filled skies are suddenly clear, and urban and open spaces are practically desolate. Can we learn from this moment to craft a shared path forward that prioritizes clean air and water, healthy oceans, accessible parks, and climate resilience for the long-term health of the planet and all of its people?

Now is the time for leaders in philanthropy, community organizations, Tribes, business, and government to come together with the vision, innovation, and collaboration exemplified by leaders like President Roosevelt during the New Deal and RLF’s partners in the MLPA Initiative. Their perseverance, in the face of serious challenges, secured a timeless legacy of conservation and economic benefits. It has never been more evident that we need bold action to advance a clean, healthy environment, resilient and equitable communities, and a stable climate. Let us make sure that today’s crisis does not become an excuse for inaction, but instead serves as the inspiration to work together to build a brighter future.

Related Reading

Beyond Polarization: Public Process and the Unlikely Story of California’s Marine Protected Areas

Lessons Learned from Implementation of California’s Marine Protected Area Network

Lessons Learned from California’s Marine Protected Area Network Monitoring Program

Lessons Learned from the California Marine Life Protection Act Initiative

A Guide to California’s Marine Life Management Act