Highlights of EGA Retreat Plenary: How Passion and Partnerships are Protecting and Restoring Large-scale Ecosystems

EGA’s plenary session on Tuesday, September 27th 2011 featured a highly informational conversation regarding collaborative efforts to conserve large-scale ecosystems. It opened with a short video specially commissioned for the plenary, with moving footage of northern locales and birdlife, with an emphasis on the Golden Eagle, a pivotal cornerstone species in North America whose numbers – despite commendable efforts – are still falling. However, the projects and partnerships discussed offer a means for more successful environmental conservation.

Three projects in particular were covered by the expert panelists: the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, efforts to conserve and restore the Great Lakes basin, and the Crown of the Continent Ecosystem in Montana. The lessons learned from each ongoing program contribute to the broader conversations vital to both funder knowledge and the foundation-grantee relationship. It is particularly important to engage communities at the grassroots level and encourage them to develop their own answers to environmental questions. A combination of addressing issues at scale and partnering together would inherently make grantees more participatory while removing the perception of “outsider” or “interest group.”

The discussion’s first takeaway was the collaborative partnerships among ‘strange bedfellows.’ Solely environmental coalitions lobbying for an initiative face a steeply uphill battle. However, finding common ground with unlikely partners will yield increased results. For example, in the Great Lakes basin, chambers of commerce have joined hands with environmental groups, as remnants of industrial pollution and the threat of invasive species present a real danger to basin’s fishery, a foundation of the region’s economy. Similarly, in Montana differences between wilderness advocates and the timber industry were settled due to a shared sense of frustration, and their resulting partnership paved the way to a 150 percent increase in the Forest Landscape Restoration Program’s budget from FY2010 to FY2011. Cases such as these simply require some aligning goal, vision, or shared environmental interest in order for significant progress to be made.

While these partnerships are proving to be quite effective, there is one cautionary note. The first is that rather than attempting to agree on everything or sway the other side, it is generally counterproductive to do so. The 80/20 idea presented holds that groups might agree on 80 percent of an issue and disagree on the other 20 percent. This is to be expected, as those involved are coming together from in some cases opposite ends of the political or environmental spectrum. Come into a partnership ready to collaborate; a predetermined mindset is not a way to reach out, regardless of prior experience. The speakers agreed on what can be called the “pizza theory,” which states that no ‘ingredient’ is more important than the other. To paraphrase: a foundation may be the dough that supports the sauce and cheese (grantees and other partners), but without the latter, all you have is crust. As a relatively new conservation method, collaboratives are potentially powerful advocacy mechanisms, but also incredibly fragile, so it is important that no one side attempts to get an advantage or leg up on the other because it can have a serious destabilizing effect.

Finally, our question and answer session was especially fruitful because the panelists were specially questioned as to what funders were doing that was helpful and what had been done in the past which was not. Among the questions answered was the role of litigation as a tool in collaborative efforts, the importance of engaging today’s youth, and how exactly funders should go about adopting these new collaborative efforts vis-à-vis older strategies. For more information, send us an email or join us at our next retreat!

 By: Adam Fishman, Intern, EGA