Strong and Resilient: Supporting Western Conservation Communications

Photo: Amy S. Martin, courtesy of Grand Canyon Trust

In early March, seemingly a lifetime ago, Alastair Lee Bitsói and I were excitedly preparing for Utah Diné Bikéyah to host the Advisory Board meeting of the Western Communications Hub (the Hub)* in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Hub, which supports non-profit organizations in advancing high-priority communications efforts, received 44 compelling project proposals and the board was tasked with selecting just six to fund. This work is perhaps more important now than ever as in-person communications have screeched to a halt, making digital communication vital to the ongoing work of so many organizations. I have the honor of managing the program for Resources Legacy Fund. Alastair is a member of the advisory board and spokesman for Utah Diné Bikéyah.

Alastair displays handwritten sign that reads "Strong Resilient Dine"
Alastair Lee BitsóÍ, Utah Diné Bikéyah, Hub Advisory Board member

As COVID-19 was just beginning to emerge as a global pandemic, we made the early decision to cancel our in-person meeting, and instead conduct it virtually. I remember wondering if we were exercising a ridiculous abundance of caution. Little did we know that by the time our meeting was held on March 13, Alastair himself would be presenting with COVID-19 symptoms, and after being denied multiple times for testing, was finally diagnosed as COVID-19 positive. At the time, none of us knew how devastating this invisible respiratory virus would be to his Diné people and the greater Navajo Nation, which the Washington Post just reported has one of the highest death rates in the world. Heartbreakingly, our most vulnerable populations are proving to be at greatest risk from this pandemic, and our Indigenous communities tested, once again.

We had no shortage of things to discuss that fateful day in March. The Hub Advisory Board— consisting of experts in the fields of communications, digital outreach, and grassroots advocacy—have consistently supported marginalized communities telling their own stories. In determining which organizations to fund, priority was given to projects that raise the voices of Indigenous and underrepresented communities, and employ creative digital strategies to empower diverse voices for conservation. After much deliberation and thoughtful discourse, the following six grantees were chosen to receive a $30,000 Western Communications Hub grant:

Storytelling for Alliance-Building to Protect River-to-Ocean Ecosystems

The nonprofit Natural History Museum and the Lummi Nation of the Pacific Northwest will be partnering to gather stories from Indigenous leaders and others that bring attention to the need to protect interconnected salmon ecosystems from the Lower Snake River in eastern Washington to the Salish Sea and Bristol Bay, Alaska. Grant funds will enable the Natural History Museum to produce and promote a digital gallery of interviews, writings, audio, and video featuring the voices and perspectives of Lummi, Umatilla, Yup’ik and other local leaders, scientists, and historians on threats to salmon populations, the orcas, and the environmental and economic future of the West. The goal is to break through entrenched positions on environmental issues and cultivate the ground for new collaborations.

Protecting New Mexico’s Outstanding Waters

Amigos Bravos, the New Mexico Acequia Association, and Climate Advocates Voces Unidas are collaborating to increase awareness among the public and policy makers about the importance and vulnerability of New Mexico riverways. The nonprofits are launching a multimedia and public outreach campaign with this grant, elevating the stories of Hispano farmers and ranchers and Native communities in Northern New Mexico concerned about their rivers. One of the outcomes will be an interactive storymap about the risk of development and federal deregulation to New Mexico water users and ecosystems.

Amplifying Indigenous Voices to Protect the Grand Canyon’s Little Colorado River

Grand Canyon Trust has long been an advocate for rural and Native communities disproportionately impacted by development and resource extraction in the Four Corners region. In October 2019, a developer submitted proposals to build multiple dams on the Little Colorado River within a half mile of Grand Canyon National Park that would destroy sites sacred to Navajo, Hopi, and nine other Tribal nations. This grant will allow the nonprofit Trust to work with Native videographers and editors to gather and promote online videos of Indigenous perspectives from affected tribal members, including activists, traditionalists, and community leaders. Trust staff will serve as curators of the video project, providing technical support, a digital platform, and access to media outlets, but will minimize their editorial role so viewers may experience the first-person stories unfiltered.

Reclaiming Indigenous Narratives to Heal our Mother Earth

Utah Diné Bikéyah has been instrumental to the creation and protection of Bears Ears National Monument—an Indigenous-led effort to protect ancestral territories and cultural landscapes like Bears Ears, a place of healing, reciprocity, and cultural practices among Indigenous people of the Diné, Hopi, Zuni, Ute, Paiute, and Puebloan Peoples. In 2017, President Trump illegally reduced protections for Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, and left the remaining areas vulnerable to environmental and cultural damage. Litigation brought by Utah Diné Bikéyah, sovereign tribes, conservation and recreation groups, and others, is now pending. Using Indigenous storytellers and filmmakers, the nonprofit will produce 10 videos about Bears Ears, which will be created to promote cross-cultural healing through the amplification of Native voices across Utah Diné Bikéyah’s extensive social media networks. (Note: Advisory Board Member and Utah Diné Bikéyah Communications Director, Alastair Lee Bitsóí, did not participate in the review or discussion of this proposal.)

Activando Nuestra Conciencia Ambiental (Activating our Conservation Mindset)

Hispanic Access Foundation (HAF) connects Latinx communities with opportunities to improve their lives and create an equitable society. HAF recognizes that Latinos have been an integral part of the history of our public lands, yet Latino access to public lands and representation of their cultural heritage and connection to these lands are not always equitable or shared with the public. HAF is launching a 12-month communications initiative with this grant that utilizes both human behavior and strategic opinion research to build and activate an online community of advocates willing to take action on public lands conservation and climate change, and share their own stories and motivations to inspire action.

Empowering Western Native Voices through Digital Storytelling

Western Native Voice, an Indigenous-led non-partisan social justice organization, is partnering with NdigiDreams, a woman-owned and Indigenous-focused consulting and training company, to host a three-day workshop to train tribal community members from across Montana in digital storytelling. Each participant will create a brief video to be used in advancing public policy objectives around conservation of Montana’s land, water, and wildlife. In partnership with the Montana Outdoor Heritage Project, which RLF helps to lead in Montana, Western Native Voice will then work with over 40 conservation organizations and businesses to disseminate these first-person narratives, using the power of digital storytelling to educate the public and policy makers about critical conservation issues facing Indian Country.

Alastair, I am relieved to note, is now fully recovered, and has set up a GoFundMe campaign to assist his Diné and Navajo communities ravaged by COVID-19.

As the effects of this pandemic continue to take a toll on our daily lives, we hope that the stories that will emerge as a result of this grantmaking will shine a light on the link between healthy communities and healthy landscapes, and perhaps redefine the new “normal,” where equity, conservation, and climate resilience are prioritized for the long-term health and security of people and the planet.

* In 2019, the Hewlett Foundation established the Western Communications Hub at Resources Legacy Fund (RLF) as a five-year program to bolster the effectiveness and inclusivity of storytelling and communications strategy toward conserving the ecological integrity of the North American West for wildlife and people.

Deb Love, RLF Intermountain West Director, oversees the Western Communications Hub. She can be reached at