by: Aileen Lee

We recently commemorated the 48th annual Earth Day. The news cycle around it felt too much like a rising tide of despair — pummeling us with stories of conflicts, crises and impending losses. While there are many good reasons to mark Earth Day 2017 as a somber one, I am grateful that my work at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation brings me close enough to the efforts of our grantees to replenish my hopes for our planet and the people who depend upon it.

In the ways our grantees pursue their conservation work, and in their accomplishments, I see a course toward a future that looks much brighter.

Take, for example, the work of our grantees in British Columbia’s Klappan or “Sacred Headwaters” region, supported by the foundation’s recently concluded Wild Salmon Ecosystems Initiative. Not too long ago, that region looked set to be engulfed by conflict, crisis and loss. Along with myriad other proposed developments were plans to develop a major coalbed methane field. Extracting that coalbed methane would have entailed groundwater removal and a high density of new wells, roads and pipelines — in an area that serves as the headwaters of three major salmon bearing streams: the Skeena, Stikine, and Nass.

Members of the Tahltan First Nation, though not opposed to all development in their traditional territory, regarded the headwaters region as too sacred for this kind of development. Downstream communities in the Skeena watershed also worried about the potential impacts on their livelihoods and quality of life. The Tahltan and many of their allies aspired to assert a more balanced vision for sustainable development of the region, but the odds seemed long.  

At the time, no one could have blamed a realist for thinking the best-case scenario would be a drawn-out stalemate pitting the Tahltan and their allies in opposition to government and development interests.  

Cut to 2017, and the Tahltan and their allies succeeded, not only in averting the worst environmental destruction, but also in advancing a proactive vision for sustainable development and natural resource management in the region. On March 31, the Tahltan Central Government and the British Columbia provincial government announced an agreement for the joint management of the roughly 1.9 million acres in the region. 

The framework centers on a land-use plan and principles that balance ecological, social and cultural considerations with economic development aspirations. The plan puts some 700,000 acres of the most critical habitat in the Sacred Headwaters entirely off limits, and subjects any proposed development in an additional 120,000 acres in sensitive areas to intensified scrutiny. The remaining 990,000 acres are zoned for potential economic development, subject to normal regulatory processes and the guidelines of the joint management agreement governing environmental and cultural protection.

How did the Tahltan and their allies get to this milestone?

Charting all the different individual and collective efforts that navigated this achievement wouldn’t be easy, but some similar tacks are clear. 

  • The people of the region organized, asserted their voices and drew together a coalition of non-traditional alliances.
  • They informed their own deliberations and their dialogue with other stakeholders with data and decision-support tools drawing on the best available science.
  • And, through those inputs, they ultimately found space for and embraced a solution that allowed for social and economic interests to thrive within a context bounded by the ecosystem they depend upon.

As a funder, we had the privilege of helping to support these efforts as the communities of the region brought them together.

Although our grantees work across vastly disparate land and seascapes on a wide range of different issues I find an intensely pragmatic focus on durable conservation solutions running through all their efforts. These solutions differ in shape, scale and scope, but they have some important elements in common:

And while these common elements are by no means a comprehensive catalog of what makes our grantees’ conservation efforts successful, they offer some important lessons about how we can rise to the challenge of delivering conservation wins against long odds.

So while there are days when the volume of news can feel more like a series of gales than following seas, these stories — anchored in the work of our grantees and countless others around the world — offer us hope, and fill our sails, every day.  

Aileen Lee is the chief program officer for environmental conservation at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. 


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