“Foundations” is an occasional series of informal question-and-answer sessions with employees of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation to let them explain their work. Rhea Suh is an Environment Program Officer who works with grantees on environmental issues from the farthest reaches of Alaska, through Western Canada, to the Mexican border. She received a B.A. from Columbia University in environmental sciences, an M.Ed. from Harvard University that focused on environmental education policy, and a Fulbright Scholarship. Before joining the Foundation, she spent four years as a senior legislative assistant to Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, working on energy and natural resource issues.

Why do we group together environmental issues in the West? It’s not something we do with other parts of the country.

As a matter of strategy, the Hewlett Foundation’s Environment Program focuses on issues, not geography. But, at the same time, the Foundation has a long history of funding environmental work in the West, and our board wanted to find smart ways to continue to do so. Fortunately, the West has issues that cut across the whole region, most of them pertaining to the use of public lands. Our goal is to preserve the region and see to it that it’s managed prudently. Doing both embraces a range of issues: wilderness protection, energy development, and water use. The one issue that isn’t specific to public lands is the effort to raise more public money to buy and preserve significant tracts of private land.

Let’s talk about them one at a time. Wilderness protection?

Wilderness protection is pretty straightforward. Right now, roughly 5 percent of all public lands are designated as wilderness, a very small percent of the roughly 550 million acres out there. It’s the highest form of protection you can establish on federal lands. A wilderness designation lets you hunt, fish, and use the land for other recreation, but bars you from any extraction of resources. It’s the crown jewel of what environmentalists work for in public land. The Foundation doesn’t work on legislation, of course, but we support grassroots groups that work with Congress to encourage wilderness protection.

Without a doubt, the environmental movement’s biggest victory in the last decade was the agreement to protect the Great Bear Rainforest in Western Canada. Working with other foundations, the Canadian governments, and the indigenous people who live there, we struck an agreement that will bar logging on 5 million acres and place an additional 19 million acres under strict-and sustainable-land management rules. In addition, a new public/private financing mechanism has been created to support this sustainable land use. In every sense-strategy, tactics, policy-it’s something that’s never been done before.

What about energy development?

It’s one of our most active issues. The focus is on natural gas development throughout the inter-mountain West and in Canada. The pace and magnitude of this development is easily the single greatest threat to the ecological integrity of the West. In a recent three-month period, the Bush administration leased something like 200,000 acres for drilling. It’s not just the drilling that has expanded in recent years, but the leasing as well. It’s laying the groundwork for extraction for the next five or ten years, if there’s anything left. It precludes the possibility of any protection.

What do we do regarding water use?

Right now we have two primary strategies. First, we focus on federal licensing of hydropower-existing dams, mainly-throughout the Pacific Northwest and in California. The issue is not just what comes out of a dam, but when it comes out, that affects the environment. It’s a matter of trying to follow natural patterns to support ecosystems.

The other strategy is to reform water law at the state level. Generally speaking, these laws and regulations are archaic and bad for the environment. For example, most of these laws give priority to whoever staked the first claim to use the water. And if they don’t use all of it, then it goes to the next person who has a claim. But the laws don’t consider protecting the environment a “beneficial use,” so the incentive was for someone to use up the water or they’d lose priority.

For a long time people thought that it would be impossible to reform these laws, but we’ve been funding Trout Unlimited’s Western Water Project for ten years now, and it’s had some impressive results. In Montana, for example, Trout Unlimited was instrumental in supporting the policy work that resulted in the passage of an important groundwater reform bill. And in Colorado, it helped in the passage of two landmark bills, one to analyze how much water can safely be taken from the Colorado River, and the other to allow water court judges to consider the impact that water transfers on the quality of water, which is new.

What else is there?

We also do some work to help improve the private land trust movement. There’s been controversy in recent years that there are land trusts all over the country that buy land but don’t have strategies for setting priorities for what to purchase or for managing the land once they own it. We’re investing to help create a voluntary accreditation system for land trusts to help address some of these problems and to create more accountability in the land trust movement.

Finally, in terms of dollars spent, our largest category is general operating support for the larger Western environmental organizations, like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, the Grand Canyon Trust, and other regional and local groups working on Western conservation issues.   

In the wake of all the talk about global warming, environmentalism seems increasingly mainstream. Have you seen this in your work?   

We’ve done a lot of work to broaden the base of the environmental movement to add new voices. Hunters, anglers, and ranchers have been the most successful spokesmen on all these issues. They’re increasingly vocal about what they are seeing in their own backyards. The magnitude of this development is so huge they can’t ignore it. For sportsmen in Wyoming and Montana there are estimates that the population of mule deer, a popular game animal, has decreased from 40 to 65 percent over the past six years. That’s a huge plummet.
Hunters and ranchers are the first conservationists and the first environmentalists.  A lot of what they care about is what the environmental community cares about. It’s just taken these groups a while to realize what they have in common.

What would you say is the biggest challenge Western environmentalists currently face?

In all of our work, the biggest challenge is to create a true movement around Western environmental and conservation issues so that they are no longer seen as special interests that serve only a few. The goal is for people to see that they are interests shared by all of us, whether we’re hunters or people of color, or live in urban or rural areas.

Environmental organizations have an enormous amount of work to do to get there. They need to be smarter about what issues they choose, how they communicate, and how they enlist local communities as partners. It’s a fundamental question of strategy: do you want to play inside baseball and work with members of Congress, or do you really want to get out in the field and do the hard work?