R. Michael Wright

It's a Relay Race

Recorded: April 10, 2014

Don't let his modesty fool you. Michael Wright takes his relay races seriously! Michael shares his view about operating "along the edges" of the environmental movement. In nature, ecologists know that this is the zone where the greatest biological diversity exists. A lawyer by education, Michael is extremely agile at maneuvering among the complexities found in this zone. His 35-year career illustrates his special ability in advancing international conservation and poverty alleviation.

R. Michael Wright has been a leading figure in global conservation for more than 35 years.   Wright earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Stanford University and a law degree from Stanford Law School. Michael Wright entered the environmental field in 1970, first teaching at Stanford’s International Studies Center.  Later he joined the Nature Conservancy where he served from 1972 to 1979, first in a legal capacity and ultimately as the first director of its International Program.  He moved to the World Wildlife Fund in 1974, and for the next 15 years held a number of positions, including developing and directing the Wildlands and Human Needs Program which focused on conservation and poverty alleviation.  He was one of the principal architects of the Biodiversity Support Program, run jointly with The Nature Conservancy and World Resources Institute.

From 1970 to 1994, he held several key conservation positions at World Wildlife Fund (WWF), including senior vice president responsible for all programs in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia.   In 1980, Mr. Wright took a one-year leave of absence from WWF to serve as assistant director of President Jimmy Carter’s Task Force on Global Resources and Environment within the President’s Council on Environmental Quality. He served on the Commission on Environmental Law and the National Parks Commission of the Switzerland-based World Conservation Union.  Other organizations he has served in a volunteer capacity include the German Marshall Fund, UNESCO, and the American Committee for International Conservation.

From 1994 to 2002, Mr. Wright served as president and chief executive officer of the African Wildlife Foundation, the oldest organization in the United States dedicated to natural resource conservation in Africa. Although headquartered in Washington, the vast majority AWF staff is based in Africa and under his leadership, 80 percent of program staff are now African professionals.  Mr. Wright served for five years (2002 to 2007) as the Director for Conservation and Sustainable Development at the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.  The CSD program provided grants totaling $18 million annually and while at the Foundation he initiated grant making on adaptation to climate change and a new research focus on advancing conservation in a social context.

In 2007, Mr. Wright was named the first managing director of the Natural Capital Project, a partnership of The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University a program that is designed to make conservation economically attractive and thus mainstream.

Michael Wright is now retired after an extended career in conservation with a particular focus on the linkage between conservation and poverty alleviation.  He is presently on the Board of the Population Reference Bureau and is the co-editor of Natural Connections: Perspectives in Community-based Conservation.


Michael Wright:    At least my career has always been around the edges.  And I think something, I don’t know if it was from you or when I first started the Conservancy, and I knew nothing.  I hadn’t taken a biology class; I mean, I am the most unlikely environmentalist.  But you know, just the diversity of systems is often where edges come together, and I’ve always sort of operated on those edges.  And I think that’s really still, where you take these fields like conservation and you drift out where fields come together. You know there’s often opportunity to do different things.

Huey Johnson:    That’s where things happen dynamically in environment.

Michael Wright:    Well yeah, and I think I got that from you, and I think it’s implied really broadly.  I say, everything takes 10 years, and that one of the problems working internationally is nobody has any sense of how long it takes.  And you never know when the meter starts.  So with Corcovado and with the project in Dominica, I came in and within a couple of years those projects happened, and I thought, “Oh man, I’ve really got the touch.”  Well then, when I started looking into the history of these, there had been people working on them until at least 10 years before, and I just came and shook the tree when the apple fell off, and then took credit for planting the tree and everything else.  So I do think that having a sense of how long these things take is something that people have lost track of.  So the line used to be, you know, it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and now I’ve concluded, at the end, it’s not a marathon, it’s basically a relay race.  You know, we take the baton from somebody, we hand it to somebody else, but you know these places, people are going to keep fighting for them.  There are going to be attempts to take them apart, or change the rules, and so this isn’t a job that ever gets finished.  And I do think that that’s, that’s hard for American’s.  I mean, we’re used to this sort of perfect, sort of Kennedy-esque, put a man on the moon by the end of the century. It’s time limited, it’s specific, you do it, it’s done, and you know, that isn’t this work.  This is a – and it’s one of the reasons that I’m glad you’re on this project, because you know, people don’t know the history.  They don’t know who’s handed them the baton.  They don’t really understand that they’re a part of a chain of activity. That they need to see themselves that way, and I think when you look at yourself in that perspective, you behave differently.  I mean I do worry a little bit that there is the – I hesitate to say the missionary drive that we all had, but we were not trained conservationists.  We were driven by something that was not professional, technical; it was, dare I say, missionary?  And so, I do feel that in many other countries have more of what used to animate us than we have ourselves.

Michael Wright:    As the field ironically is becoming more professionally trained, and more professionalized, so I mean we wouldn’t even probably get hired for the jobs that we used to have.

Huey Johnson:    That’s right.

Michael Wright:    They don’t want to lose their professional credentials by suddenly becoming a fundraiser, a program manager of people – all the things that happen when you’re running an organization.  And so you, you – where are these people going to come from that are going to lead the organizations?  And now we’re bringing people in from the business sector, I mean Goldman Sachs– please.  I mean, I’m sure they’re good, accomplished individuals, but I’ll take the missionaries, you know, any day.  You know, I really worry that things like market share are sort of replacing mission and I…-

Huey Johnson:    Amen.

Michael Wright:    So, you know I do, I do worry, you know, who are the irascible leaders that are going to, you know, do what you had to do to help get all this open space in Marin County?  We got an awful lot done with 4 or 5 people in the western region.

Huey Johnson:    [unintelligible].

Michael Wright:    I mean, you know those, walking around over in Marin Headlands, I mean, its never going to get more tangible than that.  But I’ll tell you, I feel like the luckiest, you know, like Lou Gehrig, the luckiest man on the face of the earth, you know, to have stumbled into this, because of, you know, these sort of incidents early on.  You know, you look back at a career and it looks logical, you know you did, you just sort of progressed through this.  Looking forward, none of it, none of it is what I would have predicted.