This Foundation Gives Millions to Protect Awesome Colorado Plateau

Ancient volcanic mountains and high desert mesas with alien rock formations, all ripped open by the Colorado River and its tributaries, revealing eons of geologic activity in deep canyons. If you've ever read The Monkey Wrench Gang, this is Edward Abbey country.

The United States has some amazing landscapes, but for my money, nothing beats the Colorado Plateau for its harsh and staggering beauty. Having grown up in the Southwest, I'm a little biased, but the sprawling 108-million acre stretch that straddles the Four Corners region is as unique as it is ecologically important.

While there are no monkey wrenches involved, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation has devoted around $20 million in the past five years to protecting this region of the country. The foundation has mostly poured funding into large national conservation groups, with the biggest grantees in recent years being Trout Unlimited and the Wilderness Society. But to a lesser extent, Packard has supported efforts among the many Native American communities that control about a third of the region. (See Packard Foundation: Grants for Conservation.)

Why such an emphasis in this part of the country? For one, the Packard family — whose fortune comes from Silicon Valley giant Hewlett-Packard — has always prioritized the American West. Among the largest environmental funders in the country, Packard has five subprograms related in part or entirely to the West. And the Western Conservation subprogram funds work in California, Northwest Mexico, and the Colorado Plateau.

A significant part of one of the largest river basins in the world, the Colorado Plateau is the home to and a source of hydroelectricity, drinking water for millions, valuable oil and mineral deposits, and an enormous ecosystem of diverse fish and wildlife that culminates in the Colorado River Delta. The region has been persistently threatened by extraction, development, and shrinking river flows that have endangered fish species. So ecologically, it's a particularly important chunk of the country.

Packard's five-year funding strategy for the Plateau seeks to protect and restore the Colorado River and the land surrounding it by backing better water and land protection policies, expanding land trusts, adapting to climate change, and building constituencies in tribal communities.

That's taken shape with millions of dollars going to a handful of groups, and smaller five- and six-figure grants going to smaller community organizations. One of the grantees to benefit the most from this program has been Trout Unlimited, a conservation and recreation group that has seen the funding for its work increase dramatically in the past three years to more than a $1 million annually.

Another cornerstone in the program is the Wilderness Society, which works to protect sensitive lands from drilling and mining. Packard has also sent a large amount of funding through the New Venture Fund, a service that helps to distribute grants locally for large grantmaking projects. And what huge conservation effort would be complete without a few million dollars going to the Nature Conservancy?

Packard also has made grants specifically focused on Native American communities. The most recent example was a $250,000 grant to help establish the Confluence Fund. This organization serves Colorado Plateau tribal communities, including their conservation efforts. (Read Director of Conservation and Science Walt Reid's IP profile.)

It will be interesting to see what's next for Packard’s Colorado Plateau work, as the five-year strategy is set to wrap up after 2013. It's hard to imagine that funding in the region will drop, but we'll see if the foundation decides to stay the course with a similar set of grantees.