December 24, 2020 |Valerie Keefer | Support our Efforts

From a Wild First Date to a Conservation Legacy

Sydney Macy left her Colorado home when she was 18 and headed to college on the West Coast. In 1974 she graduated from Stanford with a degree in Environmental Studies, and a year later landed a dream job with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) in San Francisco. A gentleman named Henry Little was running TNC’s program there, where Sydney joined him and seven other employees to conserve important natural lands across the western United States.

Not far into her career, Sydney met Tom Macy—a conservationist working at the Trust for Public Land and, coincidentally, her boss Henry’s best friend. Tom, a Vietnam war veteran and former stockbroker, was frequently stopping by the TNC office with stories of his Alaskan wilderness adventures.

12 24 20 Tom and Syd Biking in CaliforniaSydney and Tom biking in California. The two met in San Francisco in 1975. Photo courtesy of Tom and Sydney Macy.

“She had taken interest in my wilderness travel,” described Tom. “I think she envisioned a large group of people I would go out camping with, but usually it was just me and sometimes my brother. When she asked to join my next trip, it ended up just being the two of us. So technically our first date was a one month kayaking trip off the coast of British Columbia, and later another month in Alaska’s Glacier Bay.”

From there, it wasn’t long until Sydney and Tom fell in love, were married, and moved back to Sydney’s home state of Colorado to continue their conservation careers. During that time, Tom helped Pat Noonan start The Conservation Fund—the first conservation organization of its kind with a dual mission of environmental conservation and economic growth. Now, over thirty years later, the Macys together have protected roughly one million acres of land involving hundreds of transactions in the American West.

12 24 20 Tom and Syd Top of Highlands Bowl in Aspen copyTom and Sydney enjoy many outdoor activities together, including hiking and skiing. Here they are on top of Highlands Bowl in Aspen, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Tom and Sydney Macy.

Getting to work on the land and in the mountains, it didn’t take Tom long to call Colorado his home. “When you grow up in a place like New Jersey, how could you not love Colorado?” Tom explained. “It’s nice to live somewhere because you want to be there, not because you have to, like when I was over in Vietnam.” For Sydney, Colorado is in her blood. She is a fourth generation Coloradan on both sides of her family, and although the state has seen a lot of change and development over the decades, she wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

“We love all the opportunities to do things outside,” she said. “We’re surrounded by 14,000-foot mountains and the headwaters of many western rivers. It makes it easy to stay in good physical and mental shape. We both agree that going on a hike is the best way to deal with any problem.”

But Tom and Sydney’s connection to the outdoors goes beyond just enjoying it; they’ve gotten to protect it from being over developed. From Colorado’s Mueller State Park and Dome Rock Wildlife Area, to the Salmon and Snake Rivers in Idaho, to Santa Cruz Island off of Santa Barbara, the Macy conservation portfolio is filled with some of the most valuable, beautiful, and well-known landscapes across the West. And in Colorado, many of those efforts involved nearly their entire careers at The Conservation Fund to complete.

One of Sydney’s greatest legacies has been her work along the Interstate 25 (I-25) highway corridor between Denver and Colorado Springs. Driving this stretch of road, motorists are often surprised by the vast, undeveloped landscape between the two cities. Considering today’s real estate market and development pressure in the area, Denver and the Springs would likely be one city if not for Sydney. Over 40 years ago, she had a vision to protect the private ranchlands along I-25, not only to maintain the viewshed for travelers but to enhance trails and establish a critical wildlife corridor for migrating deer, elk, bighorn sheep and other species. Sydney ultimately protected over 37,000 acres, spanning 12 miles of the highway, and helped form the largest tract of undivided land on Colorado’s Front Range between the Wyoming and New Mexico state lines.

12 24 20 Sydney Hiking on JA Ranch along the I 25 CorridorSydney hiking at the conserved JA Ranch along the I-25 Corridor. Photo courtesy of Tom and Sydney Macy.

On the western side of the state, Tom recently completed a 30-year effort to protect 65,000 acres of critical wildlife habitat in the Navajo River watershed. By protecting private ranches surrounded by National Forests and Wilderness, his efforts were able to secure a key corridor for migrating species. In fact, Colorado’s last grizzly bear was discovered near the headwaters of the Navajo, along the southern spine of the Continental Divide before it enters New Mexico. The watershed also supports irrigation and drinking water for one million people in New Mexico, including 90% of Albuquerque’s surface water supply.

Most recently, Tom worked with traditional cattle ranches on the lower reaches of the Navajo River and its tributaries, including the 16,700-acre Banded Peak Ranch which was finally protected in July of 2020. Tom describes the property as, “one of the few large, wild landscapes left in the lower 48 states.” The property’s wildness and natural beauty are reminiscent of Yosemite or Yellowstone National Park.

12 24 20 Banded Peak Ranch Photo by Tom MacyIn the 1970s, the Navajo River watershed was the last place grizzly bears were seen in Colorado. The San Juan strain of the Colorado Cutthroat Trout was re-discovered in the Banded Peak Ranch’s streams in 2018, after being presumed extinct for 100 years. Photo by Tom Macy.

Achieving these milestones didn’t come without challenges. For Sydney, one of those earliest challenges was often being the only woman in the room. But she feels, in many ways, that’s also given her an opportunity to rise above. “One of my earliest successes at TNC was protecting the Mueller Ranch,” she says. “Many of my colleagues, all men and including my boss, had tried to convince the landowner to conserve his 12,000-acre ranch, but none of them could do it. It was a landmark deal at the time.” She attributes her success with Mr. Mueller to three things: her ability to listen, their shared commitment to preserve his ranch, and her willingness to try a new cocktail over lunch.

During both Sydney and Tom’s careers, some key projects did get away. Tom recalled a property in Aspen he thought was a done deal, but then a Florida buyer swooped in, offered the landowner more than the asking price, and developed the land. “In some parts of Colorado, it can be hard to compete at fair market value. There’s just such a high demand,” Tom explained.

Similarly, Sydney experienced how even small, overlooked properties could make a big difference during her I-25 corridor efforts. There were two small properties along the highway not included in her protection plan; they were less than 5 acres and she thought they were secure. But somehow, developers found a work-around and purchased the lands. “I still kick myself every time I drive past them,” she said.

12 24 20 I 25 Corridor Colorado Broyles Bryan 06 Sydney MacySydney Macy overlooks protected land along the I-25 wildlife corridor. Photo by Broyles Bryan.

However, the Macys insist that the ones that get away are also the most powerful lessons. And in many cases, they come back around. “No opportunity is gone until the land has been developed. New landowners bring new chances to try again,” said Tom.

Colorado itself has faced immense development pressure over the past forty years. Several conservation organizations have set a goal to protect 30 percent of unprotected land in Colorado by 2030—an ambitious feat for the next generation of conservationists. In many ways, this goal reflects what Tom and Sydney have been working for their entire careers, and what The Conservation Fund strives to do in every U.S. state.

Tom and Sydney’s advice to the next generation: “Try to ensure public access. It’s what gives projects momentum and attracts national fundraising dollars. Conservation easements are also a good solution not always considered, but are much more cost effective. And lastly, follow your passion. Work on lands and issues that ignite a spark and that you truly care about.”

12 24 20 Tom Hiking at Pt. Reyes National SeashoreTom hiking at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. Photo courtesy of Tom and Sydney Macy.

In addition to their work as conservationists, Tom is most proud of his wilderness exploration and travel. Hiking, camping, skiing and other post-Vietnam adventures are what brought him to Sydney. She cites the importance of swimming in her life, for exercise and for its meditative qualities. Tom introduced her to open water swimming, which included several “Escapes from Alcatraz” in San Francisco Bay. Recently, she completed an 18-month Stanford fellowship in the Distinguished Careers Institute where she developed a passion for writing. Sydney also has a knack for cooking, and notes that Tom is “really great at doing the dishes.”

Thank you to both Tom and Sydney, not only for letting us peer into their extraordinary lives for a day, but for all they’ve done for conservation. They will never be replaced or forgotten at The Conservation Fund.

Read more about the Macys’ greatest conservation accomplishments:

Written by

Valerie Keefer

As Media Relations Associate for The Conservation Fund, Val conducts media outreach, drives press activities and supports messaging strategies across the organization. She enjoys sharing the Fund’s holistic approach to environmental conservation and economic growth with the community and communicating the local and global impact of the Fund’s many projects. Val is an avid nature enthusiast who loves camping, hiking and rock climbing.