In a New Era, a Conservation Giant Looks to Communities, Equity and Local Progress

 Bear's Ears, Utah. Photo:  VinceBradley /shutterstock

 Bear's Ears, Utah. Photo: VinceBradley/shutterstock

Strategic updates at foundations walk the (usually rather stodgy) line of making sure they’re not throwing out the rulebook along with current grantees, while also not being too slow to adapt to changing conditions.

In 2018, however, such an update at a major conservation funder demands more. The Trump administration and GOP have launched a full-on assault on environmental regulations, and the conservation community has been otherwise evolving its thinking about how to achieve durable results in difficult times. 

Hewlett recently came through with a relatively dramatic new strategy, and as a result, is updating its Western conservation program in ways that include placing greater priority on equity, building support among more diverse constituencies like indigenous and rural communities, and shifting focus to local and state progress. 

In many ways, the strategic update is responding to the fact that federal land and other environmental protections have become fragile in the face of exceptional hostility from the GOP. It also reflects recognition in the conservation community of the need to contend with systemic change and the complex needs of diverse local populations—slower, harder work that land protection often doesn’t account for. 


A Different World

Hewlett’s latest five-year strategic refresh is important in this context, as it’s one of the largest environmental funders in the nation, giving $174 million to the cause overall in 2017, $38 million of which went to Western conservation. Hewlett’s previous strategic update in 2013 had mostly stayed its course, seeking to protect landscapes largely through a variety of federal policy approaches, and to maximize the Obama administration’s final years. 

That had landed Hewlett grantees significant wins, “moving nimbly to take advantage of conservation opportunities on national public lands,” the updated strategy states. By the time the foundation evaluated the program again, however, it had become clear how fragile federal protections for these chunks of the landscape could be. While it’s unclear how much of it will withstand legal challenges, the Trump administration has taken a chainsaw to environmental rules, including rolling back national monument designations. 

“The volatility of national politics teaches us that we must not count on easy wins at the federal level, and any conservation win is subject to politically and ideologically motivated reversal,” states the strategic update, which draws upon grantee surveys, retrospective program evaluations, and other commissioned research.  

“More, it teaches that enduring conservation of the critical lands, waters and wildlife of the North American West will be achieved when it reflects the values of engaged communities.”

More Durable and Democratic

There’s a lot of that kind of refreshing talk in the update, coming from such a long-running player in Western conservation (the program’s been around 50 years, as long as Hewlett itself). It’s one of a number of foundations that have changed their tones in response to having their bells rung post-2016 election. 

It’s also reflective of other trends in the field, as Hewlett points out, toward “place-based, collaborative conservation.” This describes an approach that emphasizes local participation, including marginalized and indigenous voices, to come to shared agreements of land use, rather than top-down land protections or purchases. While a broad concept, it seeks outcomes that are more durable and more democratic. 

The foundation also references future emphasis on the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, a set of justice- and equity-focused best practices established for environmental groups, which are often overly white, as they work with communities and especially communities of color. Hewlett aims to use these principles to engage a broader range of stakeholders in conservation.

“This is not simply a moral exercise. Rather, it is critical to finding and advancing conservation outcomes that are enduring because they are politically, culturally and economically relevant to the diverse communities of the North American West,” the updated strategy states.

This stronger grassroots framing doesn’t come out of nowhere; the previous strategy recognized after the 2010 climate legislation failure that the environmental community had insufficient advocacy power and needed to deepen and broaden its support and become more political savvy. At that point, however, it seemed more focused on demographics like sportsmen and conservatives, while now, there’s more explicit emphasis on supporting Native and indigenous people and communities of color.  

The program is also prioritizing equity, inclusivity and diversity for the foundation and its grantees. Hewlett previously disclosed its own diversity numbers (several green funders have not), and according to Guidestar, its board is 29 percent people of color, and for full-time staff, that number is 33 percent. 

Getting Local 

The other major change in the strategic update is that the foundation is aiming more at progress at state and local levels, a result of a hostile executive branch and dysfunctional Congress. This is a pretty big difference, as this had been a lower priority in a previous strategy that focused a lot on federal policy.

Of course, as with all such strategic updates, it’s hard to say how much will change in grantmaking. Chances are that a good chunk of the grantee mix will stay the same. They’re still primarily focused on policy, and the foundation notes it will fund work in many aspects of that realm, including communications and the ever-important litigation. 

But this is a significant shift in tone and strategy for a large institutional funder. One thing that’s familiar in the conservation strategy is Hewlett’s dedication to overcoming political polarization and partisanship, embodied in its Madison Initiative. “We stubbornly believe that conservation of our rivers, wildlife habitat, parks and public lands can and should be apolitical,” writes Andrea Keller Helsel in the update’s announcement. 

But land use issues, such as Bears Ears and Standing Rock, feel more political than ever, and for good reason. And doesn't polarization here really just mean broad attacks on the environment coming from one political party? A major question for Hewlett (and for environmentalism) is whether it can overcome this political reality through the kind of local, inclusive action it's prioritizing.