The lessons of 2020 are harsh and profound: science and leadership matter, resilient natural systems are essential to our health and security, and we have a long way to go on racial equity. As much as we all wish for 2021 to usher in a new era of hope and positive change, the work to achieve that reality is up to us.
The last nine months have made clear that we need to think about and solve our problems in different ways. If we are to ensure a just and resilient future in which people and nature thrive, we must approach challenges holistically, collaborate across sectors, and center equity in all solutions.
Efforts like RLF’s California Conservation Innovations (CCI) program model a potential path for success. CCI zeroes in on intersecting areas of need—working at the seams of equitable parks access, flood and fire resilience, clean water, community health, job growth, and transportation—while empowering new, younger, and more diverse frontline leaders who will drive change and build the health of their communities. And it’s working. Many institutions across the state are starting to center equity, justice, and inclusion in the way they do business, from increasing funding allocations for low-income communities to incorporating climate justice.
What works in California doesn’t always work elsewhere, but in our experience, many of the themes apply universally. Across the Western U.S., the Open Rivers Fund is bringing together water managers, city officials, Tribes, farmers, environmentalists, universities, and community members to address a range of intersecting issues such as river health, fish migration, water quality, Indigenous culture and fishing practices, economic livelihood, public safety, and access to nature. Often working across political differences and competing economic interests, stakeholders are uniting around mutual benefits to remove obsolete dams and modernize water infrastructure.
The effort to protect 30 percent of the Earth’s land and oceans by 2030 (30×30) presents another opportunity to integrate multiple goals: protecting biodiversity, buffering our natural systems against the threat of climate change, and returning the guardianship of our planet’s most precious lands and waters to Native Peoples. Canada’s Boreal Forest, the largest intact forest remaining in the world, can play an important role in the global 30×30 effort. We are proud to support the International Boreal Conservation Campaign (IBCC), which is forging an innovative strategy of collaborative, science-based conservation and stewardship planning, led by Canada’s Indigenous Peoples. Earlier this year, Canadian leadership acknowledged that Indigenous-led conservation is key to the country’s 30×30 efforts. We hope to see similar commitments in other countries.
This has been a strange year to celebrate RLF’s 20th anniversary. But it has offered novel insights that shape how we think about the next 20 years. As RLF looks toward the near- and long-term horizons, our strategy comprises three central tenets:
1) We seek to solve multiple problems at once by seeing the connections between them. It is increasingly clear that the most important issues of the foreseeable future are integrally connected: economic recovery, protection of our natural resources, climate resilience, racial justice, strong democratic institutions, and healthy and safe communities. The intersection of these issues provides rich opportunity for creative solutions that achieve far more benefits than if addressed in isolation. RLF is committed to building and joining alliances where these issues meet so that we can leverage our collective resources, experience, and influence to meaningfully address the daunting array of challenges we face.
2) We must build new, diverse coalitions that challenge the status quo. Our work is enriched when we welcome new voices and see from new perspectives. If we are to succeed in advancing the significant progress our Earth demands, it is incumbent on those of us in positions of power to recruit, listen to, and support colleagues and partners from diverse backgrounds, ages, and racial identities. We need to engage the Black, brown, Indigenous, immigrant, and low-income communities that have been consistently marginalized—especially in philanthropy, conservation, and environmental work—to share the resources and platforms they need to lead on issues that are important to them. RLF believes that people and nature are inextricably linked and that the health of both depends on the full and meaningful participation of all communities in decisions that define and shape a resilient future.
3) Strategic public-private partnerships are essential. RLF has established a 20-year track record of working with philanthropy and the public sector to generate significant, enduring outcomes such as the establishment of the nation’s first statewide, science-based network of marine protected areas. More than a decade later, we’re still working with diverse partners to ensure the long-term success and vitality of the network. In Montana, we brought together diverse interests in a partnership led by Governor Steve Bullock, state agencies, and philanthropists to lay out a strategic roadmap for addressing the funding crisis plaguing Montana’s State Parks. These kinds of partnerships succeed because of mutual commitment and respect, willingness to think outside the box, and an inclusive effort to articulate shared goals. To tackle the immense threats of sea level rise, worsening wildfire, intensifying storms, and mass species extinctions, we all must come together with everything we’ve got: creativity, vision, resources, collaboration, and perseverance. Building on successful models of public-private partnerships that RLF has helped assemble and leveraging the array of complementary tools from our related organizations, Fund for a Better Future and Shared Ascent Fund we look forward to engaging with the Biden Administration, business, philanthropy, and global leaders to secure the policies and funding mechanisms required for the planet and its people to heal and prosper.
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Together, we define and control the rate of progress, and the challenges of the day require urgent action. To deflect expected resistance to change, it is imperative that we demonstrate tangible, unassailable outcomes: job growth and economic recovery resulting from climate action; improved community health from increased access to parks, clean air, and safe drinking water; and decreased income inequality among the economically marginalized as a result of more inclusive hiring and partnership-building practices. As we come together to drive outcomes and showcase benefits, I hope we can hasten the pace of progress to leave the world a better a place for future generations. Thank you for your trust, guidance, support, and comradery in this important work.