Lessons Learned: Protecting America’s National Heritage (Spring 2011 Trust Magazine)

Source Organization: Pew Environment Group

Author: Richard Silver and Scott Scrivner

08/05/2011 - In 1886, a young Theodore Roosevelt said of America’s lands, “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune.” Roosevelt’s insight was ahead of its time. Indeed, in later saying, “when I hear of the destruction of a species, I feel just as if all the works of some great writer have perished,” he intuitively grasped what modern conservation biology demonstrates to be true: The nation’s old-growth forests and public lands play a critical role in supporting terrestrial ecosystems and preserving biological diversity.

It was both hard science and a similar recognition of the unique heritage that America’s public lands represent that in 1992 led Pew’s Environment program (now the Pew Environment Group) to launch its effort to protect intact old-growth forests and wilderness ecosystems. This program met with success in its early years, with a 1999 evaluation finding that it had both won protection for key areas and developed considerable momentum for further progress. Building on the recommendations of this early evaluation and staff’s assessment of emerging opportunities, the Environment program developed an ambitious 10-year strategy for protecting public lands, with the goal of protecting 50 mil-lion acres of public lands through a combination of executive branch and congressional actions.

In late 2009, as the strategy’s 10-year period drew to a close, Planning and Evaluation and the Pew Environment Group agreed that the domestic public lands protection portfolio was well suited for a second evaluation. All of Pew’s programs set specific goals and hold themselves accountable for delivering results, and evaluations are designed to provide an objective assessment of how far programs have come. But they’re also designed to improve program effectiveness by providing insights about what worked, what didn’t and why.

While Planning and Evaluation designs and manages evaluation efforts, we engage with independent experts to conduct the fieldwork and analysis to ensure that we obtain objective, candid feedback about Pew’s efforts. The team of senior professionals who conducted this review included Sheila Leahy, an independent consultant who specializes in strategic planning, evaluation and campaign development; David Gardiner, president of David Gardiner & Associates, an environmental consulting firm; and John Willis, director of campaigns and research at Strategic Communications Inc., where he designs and evaluates advocacy campaigns.

Summary of Evaluation Findings and Key Lessons Learned

The evaluation found that between 1999 and 2010, Pew’s program was a central force in winning administrative protection for up to 53 million acres (depending on the definition of “protection” used) of public lands through the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, as well as affording an additional 4.6 million acres the highest level of federal protection through congressional designation under the Wilderness Act of 1964. In the evaluators’ words, “Pew is widely credited with both catalyzing and maintaining the heartbeat of the public lands protection movement in the United States over the past 10 years.” Specific findings and key lessons learned included the following:

Be disciplined about developing a sound strategy—and making adjustments as needed to reflect conditions in the field. American humorist Will Rogers once quipped, “Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.” The evaluation found that Pew’s program faced several challenges to its efforts and recalibrated accordingly. First, a change in the political environment for public-land protection required Pew to shift its focus from winning new administrative protections under the roadless rule to sustaining the substantial progress that had been made. Second, in its efforts to win legislative protection for key tracts of wild lands under the Wilderness Act, Pew revised its original goal in response to changing circumstances and opportunities and adjusted its strategy to support more effectively key local stakeholders and then link them with state and national efforts. This change in approach set up nearly a decade of successful wilderness protection efforts. In both cases, the evaluation credits program staff with having the insight to understand changes in context and the discipline to make deliberate and effective modifications to its strategy.

Develop new and diverse allies. The evaluation also found that one of the program’s strengths was its ability to work with coalitions of different interests. The program was credited with bringing together new and diverse constituencies, including hunters and anglers, whose voices were typically not part of the policy debate. The evaluators commended Pew for mobilizing local interests and bringing those influences to bear on policy makers within Washington, DC. Pew was adept at marshalling support for its goals from across the political spectrum and greatly increasing the program’s reach inside the Beltway, even during years of divided government.

People matter. Pew had assembled a team of talented, experienced staff with deep campaign savvy and a long-running commitment to public lands issues. The Pew Environment Group’s leadership and campaign staff were particularly praised for their acumen in bringing about positive policy change. The evaluators said that staff was “appreciated as good strategists and have exceptional instincts for picking ‘winners.’ They know how to build a campaign, put it in motion, and bring it to closure.”

The importance of recruiting the right people for an initiative, which has been a theme across Pew’s more than 20 years of evaluation work, may sound obvious, but is easy to lose sight of during the complexities of planning a campaign.  The evaluation found that in its staff, the Pew Environment Group had built “a national repository of knowledge and experience about how wilderness bills are done.”

In sum, the Pew Environment Group has been a key player in securing substantial protections to the nation’s public lands. The program’s strategy was skillfully executed and the staff’s expertise, adaptability and foresight, combined with a focus on long-term goals, allowed the program to be successful.

The End Result: Putting Lessons Learned to Good Use

Pew prides itself on running initiatives with clear, measurable objectives and on achieving meaningful results. To this end, evaluations are not only a powerful accountability tool but also a valuable learning opportunity for the institution. The value of an evaluation increases dramatically when its findings can be applied beyond the specific program or initiative in question. Planning and Evaluation judges its own success by the degree to which key lessons are put to use in the interest of more effective programs throughout the organization.

This case was no exception. In December 2010, the Pew Environment Group began to deploy an updated strategy that was informed by the findings of the evaluation and the efforts of an independent team of Planning and Evaluation’s planning experts. The resulting strategy builds on the campaign’s strengths and incorporates the lessons learned over the previous decade. Pew continues to be well positioned to successfully advocate for the protection of the American treasure that is our public lands.

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