April 9, 2018|By Evan Smith

As odd as it might sound for someone whose living depends so much on trees, I’m really a bridge guy. I’ve always been fascinated by feats of civil engineering, the vast public processes it requires, and the invisible ubiquity of it all. I grew up playing soccer in the shadow of a soaring interstate bridge. I was the distracted kid in junior high school, staring out the window at freight trains crossing a distant bridge. I even spent one glorious summer decked out in waders, trudging under our nation’s bridges, studying water and erosion.

In a way, my career path has also focused on creating bridges—not physical ones, but ones that connect two concepts that are too often erroneously viewed as being in opposition: environmental protection and economic vitality. The Conservation Fund has long sought to integrate these principles, which were written into our charter over thirty years ago. At that time, they were regarded as heresy in the mainstream environmental field. But even as others have adopted the mantle of “balancing environment and economics” we have pushed further, seeking to better connect conservation, economics, and community. Our projects generate long-term returns for our partners, investors and the communities we serve.

4 9 BigRiver California ChadRiley012Photo by Chad Riley.

We put these mutually-reinforcing concepts into practice by building bridges, both physical and societal, through Conservation Ventures—a collection of strategic programs at the Fund that harness and drive market forces to strengthen our nation’s green economy, protect natural resources and stimulate economic vitality. Using private finance, investing in businesses, operating long-term projects, our Conservation Ventures team creates these opportunities and connections in a way that is unique in the environmental field.

For example, our Working Forest Fund program exemplifies how working forests can be financially self-sustaining, environmentally healthy and benefit many communities. A working forest is one that is managed for forest products, and we have sustainably managed over 500,000 acres of these forestlands.

Specifically, we own and manage more than 70,000 acres on Northern California’s North Coast, including the Buckeye, Garcia River, Big River, Salmon Creek and Gualala River forests. We work with our partners to skillfully manage both forest growth and harvest to ensure that these forests remain viable ecosystems for generations to come. In addition to restoring the forests’ watersheds and supporting local economies, these efforts also fight climate change.

4 9 Big River Forest Donor Visit CA c Rachid Dahnoun201711086 Big River Forest. Photo by Rachid Dahnoun.

Through our North Coast Forest Initiative we’ve waged a ten-year war on the crumbling roads and bridges deep within our redwood and Douglas-fir working forests. We’re fixing old logging roads, culverts and bridges to reduce sediment that clogs spawning grounds and raises stream temperatures to deadly levels for fish. After close to $10 million invested, we are seeing real progress for water quality, fish habitat (including endangered coho salmon and steelhead trout) and other wildlife.

In Mendocino County, California, we’re improving connections between people and livelihoods along the Garcia River by joining two sides of a 30-mile swath of protected forestlands. The new structure, constructed by Wylatti Resources and managed by Scott Kelly, keeps sediment out of streams to protect the fish, and provides safe passage for loggers. 

Our North Coast effort builds bridges with neighboring communities as well. We support more than 40 businesses and contractors, generating about $4 million in local economic activity every year. This investment brings together the environmental activists and the forest industry in a way no other project could. 

Another example is our Natural Capital Investment Fund program, which is helping connect communities to each other and highlight paths to a prosperous future by bringing access to capital and technical assistance to entrepreneurs and community leaders. We make sure to ask the community what they value and what they want to create in all our projects. That is especially important in southern West Virginia’s coal country, where we have a wonderful local partner in the Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreational Trail Authority. They have created 600+ miles of well-used trails- but, more importantly, they are also building bridges to a future where the local communities have turned the tarnished lands around them into an asset.

The Natural Capital Investment Fund is creating local food jobs in West Virginia with the help of the Value Chain Cluster (VC2) Initiative. VC2 provides business coaching and advisory services to strengthen local food and farm businesses in West Virginia and creates jobs by investing in the production, processing, and distribution of local food. The core strategy of the program is to build profitable, equitable supply chains that create jobs by moving more local food from farm to table.

4 9 Swift Level Farms c Bill Bamberger20170329 0Swift Level Farm and Hawk Knob Hard Cider and Mead are two businesses that have benefitted from the resources provided by VC2. Photo by Bill Bamberger.

Additionally, through our Cold Storage Program in North Carolina, we’ve partnered with NC Growing Together to help underserved farmers get the financing they need to build cold storage units, as well as technical assistance to construct and use them most effectively. This combination of financing and technical support helps extend the shelf life for their products while reducing food waste.

These physical and social connections add up. We’re seeing loggers, coal miners, farmers, bankers and grocers work together to start businesses, create opportunities for youth, and restore their landscape, their towns, and the places they call home. The connections created through the Fund and the work of our partners are measurable, lasting and transformational. It gives me great pride to know that our entire Conservation Ventures team is dedicated to connecting together our private market expertise with our non-profit mission.