by Carolyn Shea
If you're feeling dispirited about the bad news streaming in from the environmental front, a conversation with Jeff Hardesty '79 will likely alleviate your blues.
Hardesty is the senior advisor for strategy and conservation business planning at The Nature Conservancy, the world's largest environmental group. A million members strong, with a presence in 33 countries and all 50 states, the Conservancy has helped protect more than 119 million acres around the world—18 million in the U.S. alone.
From working with the Conservancy, with its corps of 550 scientists, Hardesty—a scientist himself—has a great deal of hope for the future. To paraphrase the anthropologist Margaret Mead: He sees firsthand that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can indeed change the world.
Over its 60-year history, the Conservancy has become a global leader in conservation planning; its collaborative, science-based approach to conservation has been widely used and adopted by governmental and nongovernmental organizations working to solve environmental problems in developed and developing nations from North and South America to Africa, Asia and Australia.
Hardesty, who joined the powerhouse nonprofit almost two decades ago, is currently leading an organization-wide initiative to overhaul the Conservancy's core conservation and business planning processes so that it is "more results oriented, more transparent and more accountable" in order to make more of a difference in the planet's most ecologically important places.
Indeed, making a difference is Hardesty's raison d'être. He developed his love of nature early in life. "I spent every waking moment outside and I was never happier than when exploring wild places," he reminisces. "I had the great good fortune to grow up a couple of blocks from the Willamette River in north Eugene—a mini-wilderness right on the edge of suburbia—and in a family that spent many weekends and summer vacations camping and hiking and exploring Oregon's wild places."
He also experienced the heartache of seeing nature destroyed. "I became super sensitized to the loss and degradation of some of those same places by logging, dams, overgrazing," says the fourth-generation Oregonian. "At the same time, I had empathy for the people that made their living from the land, including members of my own family [the farmstead is still in the family]. I knew that I wanted somehow, someway to be involved in finding a better way to live on Earth. I wanted to make a difference."
Balancing the needs of people and nature is at the heart of Hardesty's career. After high school he became an outdoor educator for the National Outdoor Leadership School and Outward Bound, taking people on wilderness expeditions and teaching them technical skills and environmental ethics in some of the world's wildest and most awe-inspiring classrooms in Alaska, Washington, Wyoming and Colorado.
He brought this background to Evergreen as an older student, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, and then working as a field biologist for a tribal-state fisheries project in Forks, Wash., and a climbing ranger in North Cascades National Park. An interest in "using education to engage more and more people in conservation" took him to the Teton Science School, in Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, where he stayed for five years, becoming a program director and pitching in on the school's first capital campaign, expanding the curriculum and number of students, and broadening its focus.
He also helped a group of friends from Evergreen develop the initial business plan that jump-started the North Cascades Institute in 1986. From then on he says, "Every organization I've been involved in, I've participated in whatever their strategic planning processes were." Done well, strategic planning, "shapes and guides organizations," he says. "You can have influence."
In Wyoming, Hardesty participated—along with The Nature Conservancy—in a forest-planning project to support watershed-scale management in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. He says this experience with the Conservancy convinced him that "that was the organization I wanted to work for. I liked that they were very pragmatic, science-based and had a very business-like approach that really appealed to me," he says. "They were fundamentally focused on finding collaborative solutions."
Around this time, Hardesty "became interested in the then nascent field of conservation biology to figure out how to apply science to conservation decision-making." He earned his M.S. in the field from the University of Florida and began working with the Conservancy's Florida chapter on a small project in collaboration with Eglin Air Force Base to help endangered red-cockaded woodpeckers recover. That effort resolved longstanding conflicts and resulted in restoration on Eglin and adjacent lands of the imperiled longleaf pine habitats upon which the birds depend, an increase in the species' population there (as well as other species of animals and plants), and a plan that became a standard for integrated, ecosystem-based management of federal lands.
Another outcome was the formation of a broad coalition—of public and private landowners, government agencies, communities—called the Gulf Coastal Plain Ecosystem Partnership that exists to this day and is working collaboratively to conserve and manage more than a million acres in Florida's fast-developing western Panhandle. "Eglin was a good example of taking a local project and leveraging the lessons learned, the relationships formed, the science and successes to have influence at a much larger scale," he says. "It's been through four administrations: from Bush I to Obama. And so far the gains are holding."
Hardesty has since held numerous leadership positions at the Conservancy—so many that his business card shows only his name, no title. Among his previous positions: director of ecological management and restoration; director of applied conservation science; and senior strategy advisor, where he helped define and focus the Conservancy's current global strategy portfolio. He has also served on technical, scientific and advisory committees to governments and multilateral organizations concerned with ecosystem-based management.
Hardesty says Evergreen sparked his interest in focusing on conservation strategy. "It wasn't one course or professor, but rather the emphasis on critical thinking, innovation and social change. No matter what organizations say are their priorities, in reality, their priorities are reflected in how they work and allocate people and money. My current job is to evolve the way we make decisions with the end goal of having greater impact."
In the Conservancy, "strategy and business planning are all about helping staff at all levels make better decisions; focus on the most important problems, opportunities and solutions; align resources, and be collectively accountable for showing results. We have great people doing fantastic work, but we can and must be even more effective if we are to make a real and lasting difference in the world."