At the time, accelerating, largescale development was threatening California’s ocean bluffs, rolling hills, mountain forests, and rich valley farmland. Much-needed efforts to protect these lands had been stymied by diminished government budgets, counterproductive environmental regulations, siloed non-profit organizations, and pro-growth business interests. Meanwhile, the West Coast philanthropic sector had yet to assert a catalytic role in conservation.
“Michael and his team always had an important ability to listen deeply and find a path forward. That went far in earning trust with the Foundation and continues to be vital in RLF’s work with all partners."Jeanne Sedgwick, former Conservation Director, David and Lucile Packard Foundation In 1996, with an infusion of assets from David Packard’s multi-billion-dollar bequest, the Packard Foundation started thinking bigger about California land protection. Jeanne soon convinced Michael to leave his post in state government to consult for the Foundation, planning what would become one of the largest privately funded conservation initiatives in the United States. In consultation with myriad experts, they took a multifaceted approach to mapping out a vision of California defined by large, protected landscapes that people would enjoy for generations. The effort was launched in 1998 as the Conserving California Landscapes Initiative (CCLI) , a five-year endeavor to protect 250,000 acres, design new statewide policies, create new public funding, and build local organizational capacity.
Realizing the conservation goals of CCLI required more than creativity, vision, and an unprecedented financial gift. Trust was at the heart of it. Jeanne and Michael secured the Foundation’s confidence to develop and implement the strategy. And to successfully coalesce stakeholders—especially those at odds with one another—they had to establish and nurture trust among funders, policymakers, the nonprofit and business sectors, and leaders in urban and rural communities. “Michael and his team always had an important ability to listen deeply and find a path forward. That went far in earning trust with the Foundation and continues to be vital in RLF’s work with all partners,” says Jeanne.
RLF learned early on that in order to achieve enduring environmental outcomes, it needed to build broader support for conservation and listen to community needs. Through some of its early projects—such as the Children and Urban River Parkways program and aspects of CCLI and the Preserving Wild California program—RLF and its funders began building relationships in communities underserved by parks and access to safe outdoor spaces. These communities—often low-income and/or consisting predominantly of people of color—also experience the worst air and water quality impacts as a result of California’s development patterns and are routinely excluded from public policy and funding decisions affecting them.
“We learned how important it is to start with the end in mind and keep building a bigger table for those who would continue to lead after we left.” Mary Scoonover, former RLF Executive Vice President RLF invested time and money to establish trust, creating accessible opportunities for community members to share their priorities, establish relationships with decision makers, and co-design outcomes. “We learned how important it is to start with the end in mind and keep building a bigger table for those who would continue to lead after we left,” says Mary Scoonover, RLF Executive Vice President of 18 years. “Without community support to sustain political pressure and steward environmental outcomes, success can be fleeting.”
As RLF works to create a more just and resilient future for people and nature, it has been shifting its measure of success beyond acres and square miles of land and ocean protected to community-driven initiatives. Through programs like California Conservation Innovations, International Boreal Conservation Campaign, Open Rivers Fund, Land-Sea Connection, and many others, RLF and its funding partners are building capacity among diverse, new leaders and deepening partnerships with Indigenous Peoples who are driving conservation solutions to today’s intersecting issues of climate change, community health, and social equity.
After 20 years, RLF remains committed to the breakthrough strategies that led to its founding and achievements. This creativity positions RLF to refine and redesign its aspirations, partnerships, and strategies as it adapts to new challenges and opportunities, while leveraging the relationships and skills the organization has honed over time. Early RLF partner and former CEO of The Nature Conservancy Steve McCormick says, “RLF continues to RLF itself. Innovation is in the organization’s DNA.”
Seeing the threat of anti-democratic influences growing in American politics, RLF and its partners recognized it was no longer possible to think about the environment—or any issue of importance—apart from a healthy democracy.
“RLF continues to RLF itself. Innovation is in the organization’s DNA.”
Steve McCormick, former CEO of the
Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation In response, RLF helped launch a partner 501(c)(4) social welfare organization, the Fund for a Better Future, as a vehicle for donors to invest quickly in causes that uphold democratic values, protect the environment, improve health, and advance social equity. Supporting the new entity, RLF also launched a separate nonprofit 501(c)(3), Shared Ascent Fund, as an avenue for funders to invest directly in efforts that bolster democracy and advance economic, racial, and gender equity.
In 2016, several RLF funding partners were seeking an organization to sponsor and incubate high-impact initiatives that lack and do not seek 501(c)(3) status. The professionalism and integrity of RLF’s program management and administration attracted funders. RLF quickly adapted to provide back office support to important donor projects in need of fiscal sponsorship and to add programmatic value where useful and desired.
These new funds and services continue to add significant flexibility and strategic opportunity to the philanthropic platform that RLF created 20 years ago—giving donors a broad array of tools to effect change amid the enormous challenges facing communities and ecosystems around the world—while expanding the range of partners, talent, and knowledge that RLF engages.
Scroll through our timeline below.
David Packard, co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Company and innovating conservationist, dies at age 83 and leaves his family foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, a multi-billion-dollar bequest. Jeanne Sedgwick and Michael Mantell begin mapping out a strategy to conserve large areas of California’s Central Coast.
Michael Mantell leaves his job as Undersecretary for the California Natural Resources Agency mid-year to provide legal consulting expertise on a number of environmental projects, including work with the Packard Foundation.
The Packard Foundation launches the Conserving California Landscapes Initiative, a five-year, $175 million program to conserve at least 250,000 acres in three California regions—the Central Coast, the Central Valley, and the Sierra Nevada—build supportive public policies, and capacity and expand public funding for the environment. Led by Jeanne Sedgwick and Michael Mantell, it was one of the largest private land conservation programs ever created. Ultimately, the program would protect nearly 500,000 acres and leverage almost $800 million in additional public and private funds.
Jeanne Sedgwick and Doug Varley create Resources Law Group and Resources Legacy Fund for Michael Mantell to lead. Steve McCormick joins Michael as partner in the law group, before leaving to accept the position of President of The Nature Conservancy. Mary Scoonover joins RLF the following year and helps lead the organization for 18 years.
U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein asks RLF to facilitate a deal among federal and state governments and philanthropy to purchase, protect, and restore 16,500 acres of salt ponds around the San Francisco Bay. RLF finalizes the $100 million transaction in 2003—with state and federal funding and contributions from the Goldman Fund, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation—transferring ownership of the Cargill Salt Company lands to the federal and state authorities. Over time, the philanthropies provide a total of $38 million for acquisition, planning, stewardship and restoration. RLF helps lead several successful campaigns that create over $700 million (as of 2021) in new federal, state and regional funds for SF Bay restoration.
RLF launches the Sustainable Fisheries Fund to support fisheries around the world move to more sustainable, credentialed practices. Led by the Packard Foundation and joined later by the Walton Family Foundation, it remains active and to date has supported 50-plus commercial fisheries worldwide in achieving sustainability certification. Bringing in diverse interests, RLF also leads the successful $2.6 billion bond—Proposition 40—for land, water and coastal conservation in California.
RLF launches Preserving Wild California Program with a $150 million, five-year effort to preserve wildlands in California. It helps achieve protection for 1 million acres of new Wilderness and other federal designations, acquire over 210,000 acres of land, and it supports over 170 organizations. At this time, RLF also expands its to work to include select parts of the Western US and on key federal policy issues.
RLF signs a formal agreement with the State of California to advance a phased strategy and public-private partnership for implementing California’s Marine Life Protection Act on behalf of several foundations. The rigorous process results in a statewide network of 124 marine protected areas, completed in 2012, that covers almost 17 percent of state waters including 9.5 percent in no-take protection. This becomes the first network of marine protected areas in the US and is now a recognized global model for ocean conservation.
With support from the David and Lucile Packard, Irvine, and S.D. Bechtel, Jr. foundations, RLF launches the Children and Urban River Parkways program, to help underserved communities and community organizations in Los Angeles, San Diego, the San Joaquin Valley engage in public decisions about funding, design, and implementation of local river parkway projects. RLF leads the effort to secure over $10 billion dollars for water, ocean, parks and land conservation in California through two successful ballot measures: Proposition 84 and 1E.
With support from the Marisla, Packard and Sandler Foundations, RLF launches the Northwest Mexico Program to protect priority coastal areas on the Baja California Peninsula. Through 2020, this program has protected more than 3.5 million acres.
RLF creates the Renewable Energy Working Group to guide federal policy to break the gridlock between renewable energy, utilities, developers and conservationists. The working group’s recommendations guide the Department of the Interior’s decisions to site tens of thousands of megawatts of clean energy production across the Southwest in harmony with land and habitat protection priorities. RLF helps lead the campaign in California to uphold its precedent setting climate change law.
RLF begins incubating the Water Foundation, an effort that was critical to the passage of the 2014 Sustainable Groundwater Management Act. The organization becomes an independent entity in 2017.
With support from the Packard Foundation and building on prior experience, RLF launches the California Conservation Innovations program, as a new approach to conservation that centers on the strategy of building new conservation constituencies more reflective of the state’s increasingly diverse population and developing a cohort of young and diverse new leaders advocating for conservation funding and policies that meet their communities’ needs.
With a $50 million investment from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, RLF launches the Open Rivers Fund, which supports local communities to remove obsolete dams, modernize infrastructure, and restore rivers across the American West. The Fund works closely with Tribes to restore ancestral fishing practices and helps bring together groups with often polarized opinions to find win-win solutions.
RLF helps launch Fund for a Better Future (FBF), a 501(c)4 platform for donors who want to invest quickly in activities that strengthen democratic institutions as a mechanism to secure enduring progress on issues related to conservation, equity, and climate. Between 2016 and 2020, FBF invests more than $80 million supporting efforts that advance voting rights, immigrant rights, reproductive rights, access to healthcare, and environmental protection across the country while advancing successful ballot measures to increase public funding for parks, outdoors access, safe drinking water, climate resilience, and ocean conservation.
RLF begins fiscally sponsoring high-impact initiatives that lack 501(c)(3) status. Initial projects include the Center for Western Priorities and the Western Energy Project. This area of work quickly expands to include the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition and several international projects, including the Argentine Protected Areas, International Boreal Conservation Campaign, Campaign for Nature, and South American Conservation Fund.
RLF leads a coalition of partners to design, pass, and implement the $4 billion safe parks and clean water bond, Proposition 68, that California voters passed on the June 2018 ballot. It dedicates at least 40 percent of funding to urban and disadvantaged communities, more than any previous statewide natural resource bond. Fund for a Better Future chaired the campaign to pass the bond.
RLF helps launch the Shared Ascent Fund (SAF), a nonprofit 501(c)(3) designed to provide sustained support for efforts to confront the growing threat to American democracy. SAF invests in initiatives that advance a vision of shared prosperity, women’s equality, racial equity, and a healthy democracy.
Building on its success in formal public-private partnerships in California and Montana, RLF enters into a Memorandum of Understanding with the state of Hawai’i and the Hawai’i Community Foundation to help Hawai’i achieve its commitment to marine managed areas. RLF also helps gain broader state funding for land conservation and public access in Montana by building a diverse coalition and working with FBF to invest in a successful ballot measure.
RLF builds new synergies in its fight against the climate crisis by formally partnering with the state of California to meet its 2030 biodiversity goals and working to build new capabilities to advance strong climate policies. RLF also sponsors Climate Power, a strategic communications organization building political will and public support for climate action. These efforts complement other climate-targeted RLF projects and programs, including the Campaign for Nature, a global 30×30 initiative; the Hawai’i marine 30×30 effort; and Indigenous-led conservation efforts like International Boreal Conservation Campaign.