Public lands, common ground: How an experimental program in Oregon is empowering new voices for conservation.

Photo by Sage Brown.

On a recent Thursday evening, a group of friends gathered at Adryon Wong and Brooke Evans's house in Bend, Oregon, for a history lesson followed by some political action. They piled onto couches and chairs, and attentively watched a short video titled, "History of Public Lands."

After the video wrapped up, Brooke admitted that before she watched it, she had no idea how America ended up with so much public land. "I felt a little stupid," she said. Her friends protested and shook their heads — they too were mostly unaware of this piece of our country's history.

Their interest piqued, the group moved on to another video: "Birthright — A Public Lands Story." A child's voice filled the room, excitedly chattering about rainbow trout and holding a tiny fishing rod. One after another, people on the screen told their stories of connection to public lands, a heritage they hoped to pass on to the next generation.

"I liked that they included a rancher," Adryon commented afterward to nods all around. "We're not going to save our public lands unless we come together," Brooke added.

Photo of a crowd in bleachers holding up signs that say We love public land
Showing support for public lands at a town hall meeting in Bend. Photo courtesy of Oregon Natural Desert Association.

A rising tide for public lands.

Adryon and Brooke are part of a growing movement of people stepping up their activism on behalf of public lands. They hosted their get-together with the support of a new program called Public Land Leaders, which was launched last summer by the Oregon Natural Desert Association (ONDA), a conservation non-profit where I work as the Public Lands Coordinator.

Just a couple of years ago, it would have seemed implausible to most of us that the very existence of public lands could be threatened. But 2016 changed everything.

The occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge gave Oregonians firsthand experience with the dangers of the "patriot" movement and its mission of seizing America's public lands to "give them back" to states or local entities. When this radical mission showed up in the 2016 Republican Party platform, we knew we'd have to transform our old organizing tactics to meet new and unpredictable threats.

At the same time, a groundswell of Americans were newly energized to stand up for their lands. Looming threats provided an opportunity to engage new communities and audiences, and the potential to bring people together around a shared value of public lands. As ONDA planned for 2017, we began to design a program to empower new advocates for public lands who could engage and inform their own communities.

"The goal with new power is not to hoard it, but to channel it." — Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans

Channeling "New Power."

Just before our annual strategic planning session, one of my coworkers sent around an article from the Harvard Business Review titled "Understanding New Power." We kept coming back to one passage from the article as inspiration for our new campaign to protect public lands. New power, it said, "is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven.… Like water or electricity, it's most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it, but to channel it."

How could we channel this new and powerful movement to keep public lands in public hands? How could we share our power as an organization and include more diverse communities in our work? How could we begin to bridge the partisan and rural vs. urban divides that have kept us from finding common ground in the past? The Public Land Leaders program became our initial response to these big questions.

Picture of maps, brochures, and photos spread out on a tablecloth on a picnic table
One of Oregon Natural Desert Association's Public Land Leaders toolkits. Photo by Gena Goodman-Campbell.

Here's how it works: If you are ready to take your advocacy for public lands to the next level, you fill out a form on our website or get in touch with an ONDA staff member. We then send you a handbook with a discussion guide and ideas for organizing a casual get-together in your community that will inform and inspire others to take action for public lands. Once you get back in touch to share your plans, we send you the full toolkit, complete with postcards, letter writing worksheets, educational materials, and a check for $100 to cover your organizing costs. How you use the resources ONDA provides is up to you.

Giving volunteers funds upfront with virtually no strings attached may seem like a risky endeavor, especially for a non-profit organization with limited resources. A grant from the Brainerd Foundation allowed us to test our theory that putting resources directly into the hands of organizers on the ground would help us reach audiences we otherwise wouldn't have the social or political capital to engage.

One way to share power with new activists is to simply give them resources and then let them get creative.

Turning plans into action.

Over 70 people have signed up for the program so far, and Public Land Leaders have hosted get-togethers in towns throughout Oregon, including communities as big as Portland and as small as Burns.

Beyond building power for ONDA's work, our hope is that the Public Land Leaders program will also help us forge connections with a new cadre of public lands advocates in rural areas and communities of color. For that to happen, we recognize staff must put in a concerted effort to spread the word beyond our existing network.

At times, outreach to people in rural communities can be challenging. ONDA's reputation as a strong voice for conservation and wildlife has made us both friends and foes in Eastern Oregon. A man I reached out to in one community said simply, "Not gonna happen," when I invited him to participate in the Public Land Leaders program. When I asked him if he could elaborate, he said his wife works for the schools, and he didn't want to expose her to a backlash if word got around he was associated with ONDA.

But we have also gotten a positive response from public lands advocates in smaller Eastern Oregon communities like Lakeview, John Day, Prineville, Joseph, and Union. And with the support of the Public Land Leaders program, a woman in Burns recently hosted a potluck which she called "Public Lands, Common Ground." She invited members of the community and the Friends of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge to brainstorm ways the community can better support the refuge, and vice versa.

Picture of people around a table, writing postcards
Writing postcards at a Public Land Leaders gathering in Bend. Photo by Gena Goodman-Campbell.

One encouraging upshot of the Public Land Leaders program is that it has attracted a younger generation of advocates to our work. In retrospect, this makes complete sense. We set out to channel the "new power" of participatory, peer-driven activism, and in doing so we gave young public lands advocates opportunities to engage their communities and networks in ways that go beyond sharing on social media.

One particularly successful get-together hosted by Jeremy Fox had over 40 people in attendance and generated 42 postcards to members of Congress. Jeremy talked with a handful of friends ahead of time and invited them to share their personal experiences with public lands during a group discussion. The resulting conversation was lively and engaging. Towards the end of the evening, one young man said we have to put our elected leaders on notice that we are willing to be one issue voters when it comes to public lands — if they vote to sell off or give away our land, it could cost them their jobs.

The threats to public lands are galvanizing young people to action, but it's up to leaders of the conservation movement to maintain and deepen their engagement. Our experience with the Public Land Leaders program shows that one way to share power with new activists is to simply give them resources and then let them get creative.

Picture of a group of people hiking
The joint Latino Community Association-Oregon Natural Desert Association hike in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness. Photo by Krystal Collins.

Public lands for everyone.

Soon after launching the Public Land Leaders program, ONDA approached several organizations, including the Latino Community Association (LCA) in Central Oregon and the African American Outdoors Association in Portland, to explore opportunities for partnership. Rather than beginning these interactions with a set idea of how they could help our work on public lands, we started by asking about their work, to see how we might partner in a way that would be mutually beneficial.

Milagros Aparicio, the Client Services Coordinator for LCA, is an expert organizer. She spoke enthusiastically about the outings LCA has hosted to introduce Latino families and kids to outdoor recreation activities like kayaking and skiing. Because the Latino community is dealing with a host of critical issues right now, it was clear that an outing to public lands would be a better fit than an educational event. Milagros suggested a hike for families, so we found a weekday when local schools weren't in session and set the date.

Just over a month later, we met for our inaugural hike in the Oregon Badlands Wilderness, some of the closest public lands to Bend. Milagros had proven her organizing skills and filled our trip to capacity. She opted to use the resources from the Public Land Leaders program to purchase sack lunches for everyone and make sure transportation would be covered.

The bright morning sun promised perfect fall hiking weather. We were a little worried about how some of the younger kids would do on the hike, but as soon as we hit the trail, the kids were literally off and running.

We made it quickly to our destination, Little Dry River Canyon, where a prehistoric river carved a smooth canyon into lava rock. When we reached the canyon, the kids immediately started running their hands along the smooth rock. How did it get so shiny and polished, they wondered? Our volunteer guides put the question back to them — how did they think it happened? Hands shot up, but one little girl couldn't hold back. It was the river that polished the rock smooth, she exclaimed.

After the hike, Milagros and I were invited onto a local radio talk show to talk about the partnership between LCA and ONDA. "It was a great experience for our families that got to participate in the outing," Milagros reflected during our interview. "Our community is definitely in need of opportunities to learn more about the public lands available for all of us to use." Through experiences like the Badlands hike, we hope that local Latino families will come to see public lands as someplace they belong — as theirs to enjoy, and protect.

Picture a postcard writting to a representative
Adryon's postcard in support of Oregon's public lands. Photo by Gena Goodman-Campbell.

Towards a more inclusive future.

The Public Land Leaders program is a work in progress. It may not always work exactly the way we expected, but this new tool in our toolbox has clearly bolstered our ability to bridge divides and engage a wider variety of people. This is critical to our success, because public lands belong to all Americans.

In Oregon, public lands give us ample opportunities to enjoy the outdoors and are inseparable from our way of life. Millions of people depend on public lands and rivers for drinking water, clean air, and recreation activities that bolster our mental and physical health. But right now, both the people using public lands and the faces of the public lands conservation movement are not representative of the diversity of Oregon or the country at large. Unless conservation groups like ONDA can increase the geographic, racial, and cultural diversity of the communities we are engaging, we stand to lose the places we cherish.

Simply put, the fight for public lands needs everyone. What Brooke said is true — we're not going to save our public lands unless we come together.