The Common Sense Colloquy: Q&A with Brian Sybert of Conservation Lands Foundation
We’ve had the pleasure and privilege of working with a number of leading environmental and conservation organizations over the past eight years. We’ve included them in this series whenever possible, and we’re happy to add to that list this month with a new Q&A with Brian Sybert, the executive director of the Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF).
Brian leads an organization that is focused more on “doing the work” than on “taking the credit,” but that doesn’t mean their work is any less important. In fact, Conservation Lands Foundation has made a remarkable impact on public lands preservation by focusing on the value of National Conservation Lands. As they explain, “You can hike, hunt, fish, camp and bring your dog on National Conservation Lands and they are the remaining valuable and vulnerable public lands needing protection.” These public resources are managed by the “largest manager of public lands in America, Bureau of Land Management, and include: National Monuments and National Conservation Areas; Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas; Wild and Scenic Rivers; National Scenic and Historic Trails; and Cooperative management and protection areas, outstanding natural area and forest reserves.” You’ve likely enjoyed recreation on these lands, maybe without even realizing it. Continuing to ensure their preservation is the mission of Brian and his colleagues.
Brian has more than 20 years of experience in nonprofit conservation advocacy including service as the Wyoming Director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and executive director of the Montana Wilderness Association. At Conservation Lands Foundation, Brian and his team partner are growing a national movement of community-based advocates – they call it the Friends Grassroots Network. They’ve grown the Friends Network to 80 community-based organizations in states across the West. These local advocates work to ensure that communities are part of the conversation about public lands protection.
Conservation Lands Foundation’s focus on public lands protection is matched with its commitment to ensuring that tribal members, veterans, people of color, women, youth, business owners and the sporting community are part of the conservation community. With our focus on Equity, we’re happy to work with groups like Conservation Lands Foundation that share common values. In fact, we had the pleasure and privilege of working with Conservation Lands Foundation in 2021 and 2022 on the launch of The Climate Atlas, a “first-of-its-kind online public lands mapping tool” that helps policymakers, regulators and advocates understand the unique attributes of public lands so they consider how best to conserve them.
We were proud to work with Brian’s team on The Climate Atlas, and we’re happy to have this opportunity to spotlight Brian’s work and the impact Conservation Lands Foundation has had across the nation.
My thanks to Brian for sharing his wisdom with us – and you.
Q: What makes public lands – and specifically National Conservation Lands – unique? Why are they deserving of conservation?
They provide habitat for diverse and abundant populations of wildlife. They include rivers, streams and wetlands that are essential for clean water and fish. They also provide for an array or recreational opportunities and access to nature which we now know is not a luxury but critical to physical and mental health.
These lands are also important to ensuring wildlife and waterways remain resilient in the face of climate change. These lands give wildlife and rivers the essential space they need to adapt to a changing climate.
Given the fact that these lands are also the ancestral lands of Native Americans they provide cultural continuity for contemporary tribal communities. In addition, these lands hold important historical sites that help to tell the diverse stories of the American west.
Q: With so many conservation and environmental organizations working across the country, how does Conservation Lands Foundation stand out? What do you bring to the conversation that others may not?
First, Conservation Lands Foundation is the only organization that is solely focused on the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management and, in particular, on the protection, stewardship and expansion of National Conservation Lands. The lands the Bureau manages are rich in natural and cultural sources, provide some of the best opportunities for protecting remaining biodiversity and wildlife habitat, and are also some of the most threatened lands in country.
Second, Conservation Lands Foundation achieves its mission by supporting and uplifting the voices of local citizens who are passionate about preserving these lands. We provide local citizens with the tools and skill to be effective advocates. Everpresent community connection and support is the key ingredient to ensuring these lands are protected and stewarded for their outstanding natural and cultural values.
The unrelenting engagement and advocacy of our Friends Network across the west is what has led to the establishment and therefore permanent protection of 36 million acres of National Conservation Lands and there’s a lot more public land we are collectively working to protect.
Q: Your career has been focused on public lands protection across the West. What have you learned in your various roles, particularly about the importance of community engagement, and how has that shaped the work you’re doing at Conservation Lands Foundation?
We know from experience that places will not get protected and be well stewarded without the constant involvement and oversight of nearby community members. When organized and mobilized, communities can compel elected officials and agencies such as the Bureau to be responsive to the conservation of the land and our natural and cultural heritage. Public lands are great unifier and community engagement is the one constant as our national politics whipsaws after each election. When it comes to protecting and stewarding of National Conservation Lands, nearby communities have the power to make change. Conservation Lands Foundation provides the fuel to the community advocates and harnesses their power to make that change possible at the national level.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you’ve received?
Start with where people and communities are and find the connections with their values. When it comes to protecting public lands, we see the values are defined by place that no one wants to lose regardless of politics. Whether it’s natural beauty, Indigenous cultural continuity, clean water, access to great places to hunt, fish, camp or a hike with your dog. These are values that most people can agree upon and hold dear.
Q: What’s the best “common sense” advice about communications you've given to others?
Seek to communicate in a way to allows you to find common ground based on commonly held values. The purpose of communicating shouldn’t be to prove you’re right it should be to connect with people. Once that connection is made, great things can happen from there.