Founder of the Trust for Public Land (TPL), Huey Johnson, interviews Will Rogers, president and CEO of TPL, about his role in land conservation, his passion for bee keeping and his natural leadership skills. Will shares why parks in the urban environment are so essential to urban living and how TPL helps to create these critical urban open spaces. Will shares his thoughts about leadership and risk taking within the context of land conservation.
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: You are president of The Trust for Public Land. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Will Rogers: Sure. For the last 22 years, I worked for a national nonprofit land organization that has a focus on people. You, Huey, know a lot about it since you founded it. But the idea that people are sort of the–in a way, the overlooked species–so much of the traditional conservation was focused on protecting habitat, and plants, and critters, and the idea that if we don’t think about protecting people habitat and giving people a healthy place to live, not only will their lives be diminished, but we won’t have any constituency for wild nature. And so the organization I work for is very much about how do you make that connection between people and nature, and not just in the wild places, but close to home, in the hearts of our cities. So that’s what I’ve been working on nationally for the last 22 some-odd years.
Huey Johnson: Well, you’ve done an admirable job. You’ve saved a lot of landscape; do you tally up all the acres these days?
Will Rogers: It’s more than 3 million acres.
Huey Johnson: Wow.
Will Rogers: More than 5,000 land protection projects that we’ve done, but we’ve also along the way, done hundreds of community parks, green school playgrounds — you know, thousands of miles of trails and greenways, river parkways, you name it. So, a lot of work in cities–that’s often times more about creating places where people can connect rather than protecting them, which is more the work outside the city limits.
Huey Johnson: That’s a nice thought. One of the things that intrigues me about you is–you are a beekeeper and I had the good fortune of enjoying some of your honey. Tell me how you got into beekeeping for heaven sakes?
Will Rogers: To make a long story short, I took 10 years off between my junior and senior years of college, rode motorcycles to Tierra del Fuego, only I ran out of money in Colombia and ended up living in Colombia for five years. Thought I would learn how to speak Spanish and while I was living outside of Bogota, a swarm of bees landed in my backyard. And I thought, “Gee, if I caught this swarm I could have my own honey.” I became a large commercial beekeeper in Colombia for about five years and the killer bees chased me out of Colombia. Then I went to North Carolina and had a business there for a while, and the bears chased me out of North Carolina. Eventually I went back to school and got into real estate and now I’m an “undeveloper,” working in land conservation. But I’ve always– I’ve always kept bees. For me, its therapy. There’s nothing that takes your mind off work quicker than standing in front of an open hive of bees.
Huey Johnson: The quality that has reoccurred in this interviewing of more than a hundred people, you reflect and that is, somehow keeping contact with nature. Almost the more intense your responsibility in day-to-day affairs, a desperate importance of balance. And a lot of old guys will say, Yeah, I was able to survive it because… I went fishing, or whatever.
Will Rogers: Yeah.
Huey Johnson: Your example of beekeeping and other things is just a wonderful example for people.
Will Rogers: You remind me of – I was up in Anchorage with someone else with the Trust for Public Land, and we were looking at opening an Alaska office. We were up there meeting with federal agencies, and, you know Fish and Wildlife, the National Park Service… We’ve done work in Alaska over the years but we were looking at having an on the ground presence rather than doing our work out of Seattle. And I get up one morning and everyone was standing around the television watching the World Trade Towers be bombed on 9-11. There we were in Anchorage being–you know, as horribly impacted as we all were by that event, I ended up going fishing, and it was one of the most restorative days –
Huey Johnson: How nice.
Will Rogers: I had spent on the Kenai River, and just taking that heartache and incredible shock and being, you know, going back into nature was for me profoundly important.
Huey Johnson: Your work involves taking risks, I assume.
Will Rogers: My career has been full of different kinds of personal risk, and it was never a course that I charted beforehand. There was a lot of serendipity involved. And to some extent it was a risk for me going to work for a nonprofit that I hadn’t– I had never done that kind of work before, but there was something about the mission that really appealed to me. And then, having gotten there and realized that often times the way you can make a bigger difference is to take a bigger risk. And, you know, working for an organization that kind of believes in risk taking, but does everything it can to actually mitigate the risks.
Huey Johnson: Yeah.
Will Rogers: There’s an interesting balance there.
Huey Johnson: The process of risk-taking in your line of work usually involves money for sure, but it also involves eccentric people. That often, the very – somebody inherits huge landscape and they have spent their life defending it. Then you walk in and you’re trying to help them for all-time to establish it, or something. My memories are often along those lines, of those eccentric people and things they stood for and the passions they felt to the extreme, willing to cash in everything to save a little marsh, or whatever it was.
Will Rogers: Yep.
Huey Johnson: Does that still exist in your work?
Will Rogers: As I think about the work that the organization has done and the relationships that we’ve had over the years, invariably there is some person who cares so much that somehow we end up getting pulled into the situation. Because land conservation for the most part is profoundly local, and it’s about an intimate relationship with a place, and a desire to protect that place, or to improve your neighborhood, or whatever. As a national organization, we’re never–we’re never truly local. I mean yes, we have offices around the country, but invariably there is someone in the community or someone who has a relationship with that landscape that is so powerful that they create their own gravitational field. We will get sucked into that gravitational field and ultimately offer up whatever resources we can to help make it happen. But it starts with that passion and it’s profoundly inspiring.
Huey Johnson: You have a wonderful attribute, which could be called leadership. How do you define leadership?
Will Rogers: First of all, I never set out to be a leader, and don’t actually even really think of myself as a leader. My approach to doing what I’m doing–I like people. I believe strongly in the work that I’m doing. I naturally have self-confidence about what I’m doing and I think that’s an important part.
Huey Johnson: Sounds like it.
Will Rogers: I think that’s an important element of leadership, you’ve got to be confident in yourself. But my goal was never to lead, it was just to do the best job I could possibly do and frankly, to support the people around me, hopefully who are smarter and more thoughtful and more effective than I am. If I can surround myself with better people than I, and then give them the support that they–that they need—then to me, I’m doing my job.
Huey Johnson: I think that’s a very important principle that you stated for organizational leadership.
Will Rogers: So you know, I think if you set out to be a leader, you probably are going to end up causing problems for yourself.
Huey Johnson: Running for political office.
Will Rogers: If you set out to help other people be successful, maybe you’ve got better chances.