How has land conservation changed over the decades? Will Rogers, the president and CEO of the Trust for Public Land (TPL) sees increasing pressures on land, including issues related to climate change. TPL is a nonprofit organization that works to connect people with nature and believes that a livable city is one that allows people to live within a 10 minute walk to a park. What will it take to solve some of the challenges in conservation today? How will we come up with solutions? How have politics and environment changed? Hear how TPL has adapted to the changes in conservation and is still on the cutting edge to connect people with nature.
Will Rogers is the president and CEO of The Trust for Public Land. He has been with the organization since 1991, first as the director of California, Hawaii, and Nevada operations and as CEO beginning in 1998.
Rogers is a nationally recognized advocate for land conservation and has given major addresses or interviews to the Urban Land Institute, the National Smart Growth Conference, the National Brownfields Conference, and Talk of the Nation, among others.
Prior to joining The Trust for Public Land, Rogers managed urban projects for a Chicago-based real estate development company, managing both new construction and the rehabilitation of vacant industrial buildings for commercial, office, and residential use. Before becoming a developer and then an “undeveloper,” Rogers was a commercial beekeeper, founding and managing a commercial honey production company in Bogotá, Colombia.
Will is a graduate of Stanford University and received his MBA from Harvard University. Will lives with his family in Kensington, California. In addition to tending to the chickens, beehives, and vegetables in his backyard, his favorite outdoor activities are hiking, backcountry skiing, and bicycle touring.
Huey Johnson: Many years ago, I spent a lot of time in land conservation. It has changed a good deal. Can you reflect on that?
Will Rogers: It has changed. I think you know, in just looking at the trajectory of the Trust for Public Land over 40 years now, an organization that you founded, we have, when you look outside the city limits there are certainly changes going on out there. Sprawl has been a much greater factor, of course that comes and goes with the real estate cycles, but the pressure on our farms and ranches and land outside the city limits has increased dramatically. We have climate change, which is a whole new factor in how we’re dealing with land conservation, you know, either too much water or too little water, things like beetle kill, forest fires, huge impacts in terms of habitat protection, but also human habitat. And then when you come inside the city limits, there’s a whole new set of challenges as well. Because we’re focused on really connecting people with nature, you’ve got to be doing that close to home. We think everybody should be within a 10-minute walk of a park or a garden or a safe green place to play.
Huey Johnson: Good.
Will Rogers: When you look at cities now, over the last 40 years there’s been an in-migration. People are–you know, 40 years ago people were moving out to the suburbs. Now, people are starting to move back into the cities. So you’re seeing a lot more people coming back into cities, demanding quality of life, demanding more green. You’ve got cities competing with each other for a young, upwardly mobile workforce, and they want quality of life, and they want walkable cities and green neighborhoods. There’s a lot happening in cities and climate, frankly. You’ve got huge storm events, you know, Super Storm Sandy in New York City. You’ve got 750 cities with combined sewer and storm water systems. Every time you get a 10-year flood, which happens every year now, you get overflows, pollution, etcetera. So there’s a huge new set of challenges that we’re all trying to deal with when we try to figure out how to make our cities livable.
Huey Johnson: Can you reflect on the future as you predict, another 10 years, 100 years?
Will Rogers: One of the fascinating challenges about leading an organization that has a very, very powerful mission in our instance, is the connection between people and place and the connection between people and nature. How do you reinterpret that mission in response to what’s changing around you in the world? I think there are interesting things going on with social media, and how people come together quickly around sort of flash mobs and flash solutions to issues. I don’t know what the implications are going to be for how we deal with social problems, but I think there’s – its going to become much more fluid, and much more technology–and Internet-based. How that works with sort of traditional membership-type organizations–interesting question. In terms of philanthropic support and people’s willingness to actually step up and fill gaps left by government, which I think is a significant challenge that we have right now, hard to say what impacts are going to be there. So it’s easy for me to see that the problems we’re going to face, because I think we’re there, a lot of them are already in process, particularly climate. How we’re going to come up with solutions is going to be a function of evolving technology. I think there will be new organizations and new movements coming into play that we can’t even conceive of right now. And whether the ones that have been around for a while will continue to stay relevant like ours–interesting question. It’s a big challenge. The more successful you are in doing what you’re doing, the harder it is to change and evolve to new sets of conditions.
Huey Johnson: That’s a good point. Thinking in terms of the politics of environment, how has that changed in your 20 years?
Will Rogers: You know I often say that when we look at current politics, it’s – things are so dysfunctional, particularly at the federal level. I mean the oppositional politics and the rhetoric is so depressing in many ways that you can—it’s hard to be optimistic. The good news is– the entire time I’ve been at the organization–we’ve developed different tools to address changing needs and conservation. And one thing that we do that arguably, we’re national leaders in, is this whole idea of conservation finance and voter approved funding initiatives for parks and open spaces. And the organization has done about 35 billion dollars worth of initiatives at the state and local levels since the mid ‘90s.
Will Rogers: And what we find–this is the good news–that whether it’s the most conservative county in the interior West, you know, or New England, or the Sun Belt, or the Rust Belt, or young or old or white collar or blue collar, people actually go to tax themselves. They’ll reach into their own pockets and pull out their wallets and essentially say, I care enough about these places to protect them. And that is above politics. And we get the same kind of results; about 80% of these voter approved initiatives pass nationwide, if you can get them on the ballot. And I defy you to find another theme that has that kind of success rate, it’s extraordinary.
Will Rogers: The underlying connection is still there, and our challenge is often times to inform and educate elected officials about what their constituents want. So that’s the challenge.
Huey Johnson: The real job.
Will Rogers: They’re so out of tune with the constituents that it is frightening. So I think there is a fundamental passion and connection that is there, regardless of what the politics are. You have to figure out how to talk about it, but it is there. And so that gives me real hope and optimism, for at least the area that I work in. When it comes to that conservation connection, the importance of nature in people’s lives, and the place that they care about and give meaning to their communities–that’s something people can get together on.