Bill Bryan

Reaching Out

Recorded: July 1, 2012

How does connecting people with the environment create opportunities to move the agenda closer to what we are all searching for? Why is it important to bring the rural and urban people together on environmental issues? Bill Bryan talks about his experience forming environmental non-profits in Montana in 1972.

When Bill Bryan arrived in Bozeman, MT, there were only three people working in the nonprofit environmental sector in three states. After seeding Montana, Idaho and Wyoming with environmental nonprofits and future leaders, there were 110 people in the sector just ten years later. Today the Mountain West, and Bozeman in particular, is known for its density of environmental leaders and organizations.

Bill Bryan received his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan after completing a master of environmental education degree. He jumped into the environmental world and rubbed elbows with grassroots organizers like David Brower, Huey Johnson and Ralph Nader.

After meeting Huey Johnson, who influenced his career in many ways, he was told to ditch the academic career and “get out in the real world and get some battle scars”—and this is what he did. Huey recommended Mr. Bryan as a Point Foundation agent with a salary of $18,000/year to go to Montana and start a community-based environmental advocacy alliance for the Northern Rocky Mountain states. Mr. Bryan accepted the offer and arrived in Helena, Montana in the winter of 1972. It was a fortuitous move for Mr. Bryan because mining interests had vastly influenced Montana legislators and he filled the niche for environmental leadership. Mr. Bryan quickly became a key player in the state and established a very successful model for community environmental organization that he named the Northern Rockies Action Group (NRAG).

Bill Bryan: I’ve always been committed to the issue of people and the environment, not to the environment per se, but to people in the environment. I came here on a grant from the Point Foundation, which was Whole Earth Catalog money, to live and work for one year in Montana to work on energy issues with cowboys and Indians. And believe it or not, that’s exactly what happened.

There were some beginnings of an environmental movement that was very nascent in 1972, in Montana, Wyoming and Idaho the collective budget was 32,000 dollars and there was one person, a retired lineman from the power company who was the fulltime person in Montana for the Wildlife Federation. There was a half time person in Wyoming and no one in Idaho. In ’72, that’s where it was and that’s why coming to this part of the world at the time was extremely timely because it was ripe for a lot of changes.

I created a nonprofit in ’73. There was a management consulting group, while helping cause-oriented nonprofits, many of them just getting started in this part of the world. One of the great things about Montana is that we just turned one million people and living here for 40 years, you can’t help but have the kinds of connections that you do. I am now the executive director of a small nonprofit called One Montana. What we find is that when you connect people with the environment, you connect people with other people, other cultures or whatever. There’s a trust in it, that connection, brings out a different way of interacting. So that’s what One Montana is all about: bridging the rural urban divide, and that there’s so much of a connection between rural and urban. There’s an inter-dependency there.

So how do you begin to work off of that to create maybe a little different civil discourse? I think–not just Montana-oriented, I mean it is something we’ve got to be looking at everywhere. I find that so many of these conservation groups all have very good agendas, interesting agendas, but let me ask, Why is it that so many of the environmental laws and regulations that were established in the ’70s are being rolled back today? And I would say yes, because we focus too much on the issue and not how you build a constituency; and you don’t build a constituency being ideological–solely. You’ve got to have some… you know, you’ve got to have some of what I would call core values that you can’t compromise on.

But we aren’t building the constituency of today, and so when you don’t have those constituencies, then you start losing the ball game. And the environmental movement in some ways lost its way on that issue. You can’t let free roaming bison in an uncontrolled wolf population–as much as I love wolves and bison– become your agenda. It’s so divisive. Why get into that when you have some of these other issues that you can work on that gets – builds trust, builds connections, builds where you can then work toward the future that we’re all desperately in search of right now.

We have to go back to some fundamentals and not just think that we’re going to solve this issue out there that’s a pure sort of environmental issue. We’re not – you’ve got to reach out. You’ve got to figure this out, because it ain’t working. Zero sum game is not working. I’ve been an advocate but not in a blinding sort of harsh way and some people are real critical of me on that. On the other hand, it has allowed me to create these connections, this network.

And so how do you make those connections in that network? How do you pull that together so things can move forward? You’ve got to stay with your passion. You stay with what you believe in and you just have got to keep trying.

My dad really introduced me to the importance of connection with people from diverse walks of life. He knew the wealthiest person in the state of Maine, and he knew some of the folks that just came off the factory line coming out of [unintelligible] fiber or woolen mill or whatever and he never made a distinction you know, so that’s really important.