Q&A with John Sterling of The Conservation Alliance

John Sterling reflects on what brought him to The Conservation Alliance, memories from his 20 years there, and his next steps.
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John Sterling along a creek wearing a Patagonia puffy

John Sterling has been involved with The Conservation Alliance since 1996.

Fifty-two million acres protected. Three thousand, four hundred river miles preserved. Fourteen climbing areas saved. Five marine reserves preserved. Thirty-four dams halted or removed. The numbers John Sterling leaves behind him—after more than 20 years of protecting North America's wild places through The Conservation Alliance—are staggering.

We recently sat down with Sterling to talk about his past, present, and future in the conservation effort as he makes his transition from The Conservation Alliance into the next stage of his career.

Where did your career in conservation start?

John Sterling: I graduated college from University of California, Berkeley, and my first job was working retail for Sierra Designs. Eventually, I became more interested in environmental work and started splitting my time between Sierra Designs and a nonprofit in San Francisco called Earth Island Institute. It was founded by David Brower, who is one of the icons of the conservation movement. For about five years, I had two jobs: half at Sierra Designs, half at Earth Island Institute. It was during that time that I saw an ad for a job at Patagonia running their grant program. I applied and got it, moved down to the Ventura area, and was there for seven years.

What led you to The Conservation Alliance and what was it like during the early days?

JS: Patagonia is a founding member of The Conservation Alliance and as such, they have a permanent seat on the board. I held that board seat during my seven years at Patagonia. Back then, The Conservation Alliance didn’t have any paid staff. Everything was run by the board of directors, and I was one of the nine board members. We had a lot of conversations about how much more we could do as an organization if we paid staff, so that kind of lodged in my brain. 

My wife and I met at Patagonia and neither of us wanted to spend the rest of our lives in Southern California, so we decided to move to Bend, Oregon. My parents had a second home there, so it was a place I knew very well. I had to resign my seat when I left Patagonia, but on my way out the door, I talked to my fellow board members on The Conservation Alliance and I asked them if they would be supportive of me trying to fundraise for a staff position once I landed in Bend. It took a little while, but a couple years later we had funding in place—thanks to a partnership with KEEN—to open an office and establish our first executive director position.

Tell us about your aha! moment, when you realized how critical conservation work is.

JS: It was a little circuitous, but while I was working at Sierra Designs, I took a little break and worked for a small nonprofit in rural India, Gandhi Peace Centre. I helped them write down what they did [for an English-speaking audience] and was there mostly for my writing skills. But one of the things the organization did was watershed protection. In the villages, people walked for miles to cut trees down for firewood to cook for and feed their families, and over time, the hillsides in southern India were pretty ravaged by people just trying to sustain themselves. They did a lot of work with those villages to both provide gas-burning stoves and teach them about the impacts of deforestation on watersheds.

I was helping with all this, in addition to documenting it, but I spent a lot of time reflecting on the landscapes where I grew up in Oregon and in California. My experience with hillsides was largely these big protected spaces in the West. But I also grew up in Oregon knowing that they were getting hit by logging and the like, so while I loved the work I was doing in India, I felt a longing to do that work in a landscape closer to my heart. I was there for about six months and when I came back, that's when I worked at Earth Island Institute and dedicate my time more to the landscapes that I knew best.

The Owyhee River bisects the Owyhee Canyonlands

The Owyhee River bisects the Owyhee Canyonlands. It's a place close to John Sterling's heart.

Tell us about a place that you feel especially passionate about.

JS: Here in Oregon, there’s an area in the Southeastern corner of the state called the Owyhee Canyonlands. It's one of the largest unprotected landscapes left in the lower 48. It’s about 2.5 million acres of wilderness-quality land that’s bisected by the Owyhee River. Where it goes through these landscapes it's a wild river with great canyons and rapids and Native American cultural sites, and it’s just a spectacular remote wild place. I’d really love to see that get final protection in my lifetime.

The Alliance relies on funding from so many partner brands, but how can retailers be a bigger part of the conservation effort?

JS: Retailers are great because they're rooted in local communities, and so much of conservation depends on the support of local people. For a lot of outdoor retailers, their customer base is usually the same people who are out enjoying the landscapes in their backyards that are many times threatened by development or extraction. I really encourage retailers to think about what role they can play and communicate to their customers about conservation efforts in their communities by organizing events that get people out in those landscapes and maybe putting those people in touch with organizations. 

Here in Bend we have a great retailer called FootZone of Bend and ever since the Trump election, they’ve really tried to educate their customers about public lands and how important they are not just for wildlife, but for the people that buy running shoes and hit the trails. There's such a direct connection between retailers and these natural landscapes, but relatively few of them embrace this responsibility to play a role in conservation.

What about individuals? What can we do?

JS: Don’t underestimate the power of your voice. I’ll use the approval of the Natural Resources Management Act this year as an example. It was a package of public lands bills that protects 2.5 million acres of land, including about 1 million acres in Utah and more than 700 river miles. If you had asked me two years ago if—with a Republican senate and Donald Trump as president—we would have passed the biggest conservation victory on public lands in the last decade, I would have said you’re crazy. But that bill passed because local people each wanted the pieces that were in it.

What do you think is The Conservation Alliance’s greatest accomplishment so far?

JS: We talk a lot about how many acres or how many river miles our grantees have protected, but I think the unique thing that we've done is to work within a discreet market sector and build a real community amongst competitors around something greater than their own interests. The fact that we have Patagonia and The North Face and Columbia and Arc’teryx all pointing in the same direction and advocating for protected landscapes and waters throughout North America—I’m most proud of that. We have nearly 250 companies in the outdoor and craft brew industries. On the side, they're duking it out with each other for sales. But when they step through the doors of The Conservation Alliance, they know they are working together for something that will outlast them.

What's next for you? And what goals do you have for the rest of your career?

JS: That’s a really good question, I don’t really know. I plan to take some time off to reflect on how I want to spend the rest of my career. I’m in my early 50s so I’m not likely done yet. This has been such an all-consuming role that I really feel I need to step away from it for a little while before I jump into something else, so we’ll see. My family and I love it here in Bend so whatever I do will probably be from here. But I can’t imagine straying far from that intersection of conservation and business, so that’s where I’ll be looking.

What tips do you have for your successor?

JS: Build relationships and embrace the staff because that’s who's going to carry the torch forward. I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens to The Conservation Alliance after I’m gone, and I have a lot of confidence that my successor is going to blow me away with what they do at the organization.

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