Beyond the politics of no: Luther Propst and collaborative conservation

by Paul Larmer

More than two decades ago, Luther Propst jumped away from a law career back East to found the Sonoran Institute in Tucson, Ariz. Since then, the nonprofit has helped dozens of Western communities -- from Driggs, Idaho, to Rifle, Colo., to Tucson itself -- grapple with growth while incorporating conservation goals into their plans for the future.  In the process, its once-revolutionary model, based on encouraging locals to create and implement their own environmental and economic visions, has become almost commonplace. Now, after overseeing the organization's rise into a regional conservation powerhouse with 50 employees and a $6 million budget, Propst has announced his intent to step down as chief executive by year's end. High Country News Publisher Paul Larmer caught up with him over the phone in early June.

HCN: OK, let's get one thing cleared up right way. You don't sound like a native Westerner. (Propst has a distinctive Southern drawl.) Where did you come from and how did you get here?

PROPST: I was born and raised in the "wrong" part of the country -- I grew up in Concord, N.C., a mill town. I knew from an early age that I didn't want to spend my life in the South. I had a fascination with the West and pored over maps and read everything I could about it. When I graduated from high school, a couple of friends and I loaded up a pickup truck and spent a month riding around the West. I felt like I was reading the table of contents from a book that was the rest of my life. After a stint practicing law and a couple of years with the World Wildlife Fund in Washington, D.C., I finally made the jump West.

HCN: What led you to start the Sonoran Institute?

PROPST: I always wanted to work in conservation, but as a personal matter I was never comfortable with highly adversarial situations. You might wonder why someone conflict-averse went to law school.

HCN: I do wonder that.

PROPST: Well, I am a middle child with two older sisters and a younger brother, and I learned in a family of strong-willed people that I was more likely to get along and succeed by trying to understand where others are coming from and negotiate differences, rather than always having to "win" in arguments and relationships. … In law school, I learned that our legal system is way too conflict-driven and adversarial.

HCN: So your comfort with the middle ground led you to that philosophy in the world of conservation?

PROPST: I had this sense that the conservation movement should supplement its opposition to bad ideas with collaborative approaches to finding good ideas. I was fortunate to practice law with a large Connecticut law firm that let me work on conservation and land use policy. Later, I worked for the World Wildlife Fund on its "Successful Communities" program, which helped communities make land-use decisions that were friendly to wildlife.

Our thought (at the Sonoran Institute) was to bring to Western North America the basic approach to conservation used in the developing world -- focused on how to build beneficial relationships between people who manage wildlands and wildlife, and the people who live nearby. In some ways, this is much clearer in the developing world: If an elephant in Zambia destroys a garden in a village, two things happen -- one is that people go hungry, and two is that the elephant will soon be dispatched. In the U.S., it's not so much about poverty. The threats to the environment are about affluence; you just don't feel sympathetic for someone who wants to build a golf course next to a national park.

HCN: The Sonoran Institute has come out forcefully against the proposed Rosemont copper mine in southern Arizona. Isn't this an unusual stance for a group that professes to look for the middle ground?

PROPST: It’s unique. In 20 years, we've never spoken out in opposition to a resource development project. But we had to step out against the Rosemont mine because it is an egregious idea -- economically, ecologically and with regard to water. It's a marginal (copper) deposit.  For 20 years, we've worked in that landscape -- we were instrumental in creating the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area; we worked with the community there to create a vision for the future. We couldn't sit back and watch an economically marginal proposal for a mine destroy the water resources in Cienega creek. But while on one hand we oppose this mine, on the other we've taken heat from some environmentalists because we've spoken favorably about the proposed Resolution copper mine in Superior, Ariz. We've analyzed the situation and think this mine, with the right kind of mitigation, is the kind of place where we should get copper to meet our society's needs.

HCN: Let's talk about the Sonoran Institute's bread and butter: smart land-use planning. Smart growth and planning are getting beat up pretty good these days by some conservatives and conspiracy theorists, who see a U.N. plot behind planning efforts, especially here in the West. Why are we seeing this resistance now?

PROPST: I don't think this opposition has ever disappeared in the 20 years we've been working on planning issues. We've always seen some version of the (anti-) Agenda 21 movement. The industries and economic sectors threatened by smart growth are always going to fan the flames; plus, there is a lot of fear in this country, and people tend to be afraid of any kind of decision that is going to generate change. It is interesting to see this heated opposition now, though, when the growth pressure has dissipated with the housing bust. As communities start thinking of the next wave of growth, they are responding to demographic changes. More and more people realize that the American Dream is not living on a five-acre wheat field and having to drive in to town 30 or 40 minutes away; the economics of land use are changing, and that threatens people and they respond with things like (pushback against) Agenda 21.

HCN: So we're due for a renaissance in smart growth?

PROPST: We're seeing some changes in that direction. The "drive 'til you qualify" model of development has been discredited; as gas prices go up, people want to drive less. Also, the younger generation was raised on Friends and Sex in the City more than the sitcoms you and I grew up with, based in the suburbs. They want to live in communities where you can walk, bicycle, take public transportation. Right now in the West, there's a huge glut of large-acre lots -- 10 acres, 20 acres, 40 acres Yet it's difficult to find high-quality compact housing where you can walk or bike to work. That's starting to change.

HCN: Where?

PROPST: We see it in Tucson, where we're based; there's very little development happening on the fringes of town now. That's a big change. For 40 years, Tucson has pushed outward toward the public mountain ranges. Now the city is investing in a downtown renaissance, building new infrastructure, including the modern streetcar. We're seeing it happen in places like Teton County, Idaho -- where the county is busy vacating some of the worst subdivisions; and we're seeing more demand for smaller homes on smaller lots in places like West Jackson, Wyo., Bozeman, Mont. and Rifle, Colo., where people can be closer to where they work.

HCN: But Rifle is wedded to the extractive industries with its oil and gas development. Are you surprised that the West still seems so firmly wedded to the extractive industries?

PROPST: Boy, were we naïve. I think many of us (conservationists) thought that the "lords of yesterday" would fade away and that the new economy would be more environmentally benign -- that people would move to the West for high-paying, high-tech jobs and instantly become environmental advocates. The lords of today are different -- the timber industry is fundamentally different. But none of us anticipated that mining or energy industry would be so strong, or driven so much by foreign economies. For a long time, the West was a resource colony for Houston or Denver; now, we are a colony for Beijing. The new economy has its own challenges -- the impact of the new economy on the environment was underestimated -- in terms of golf courses, large-lot housing, and recreational uses such as ATVs, which have a disproportionate impact on the environment.

HCN: What are you most proud of in your work at the Sonoran Institute?

PROPST: I'm very proud of the organization itself; it’s no small feat to start a nonprofit conservation group and keep it afloat for 20 years. I'm also proud of our focus. In the market place of ideas, we've helped articulate that to build a positive vision environmentalists need to go beyond; I'm proud of the local groups that we've helped create to carry out his vision. Next month, I'm speaking at the Beartooth Front Community Forum in Red Lodge, Mont., an organization that the Sonoran Institute played an instrumental role in creating 20 years ago and that has had a profound impact on the community. I'm also proud of specific projects we've worked on -- to restore water to the Colorado River Delta, to expand Saguaro National Monument.

HCN: Any disappointments?

PROPST: Maybe despair is the right word. We've kept beating our heads against the wall on reforming the management of state trust lands in Arizona. We are going to get there on Nov. 6 of this year. I'm also disappointed in the strong anti-conservation and anti-community sentiment in state legislatures around the West. We've had some success with smart growth at the county level, and done quite well at the municipal level, but then you've got these state legislatures that are just pawns, or they are just misinformed about what really matters in the West. Some of their hostility to community values and conservation is stunning.

HCN: Is it getting harder to find money for conservation?

PROPST: Fundraising is a huge challenge. Over the past 20 years, foundations have moved away from making multi-year pledges and providing general institutional support. Now, more funding is project/activity driven. It's a weakness in the conservation movement compared to the property rights movement, for instance, where funding partners stick with groups for years and years. It makes it very hard to carry out long-term projects when you have foundations with very short attention spans.

HCN: Why are you stepping down now?

PROPST: Twenty-one years is a long time. I just decided I wanted to do fewer staff meetings, budget meetings, board meetings, meetings to prepare for board meetings. It is time to turn things over to someone who is excited about managing the organization. To paraphrase E.B. White, I want to spend more time savoring the West, more time being outdoors. I want to work on a few specific projects that really matter to me, including securing water for the Colorado River Delta, protecting lands in Arizona and Wyoming, and helping undo or redesign many of these zombie subdivision in the West.  I want to go back to being a project manager, as I started out so many years ago. The Sonoran Institute has built its work around the premise that change is inevitable. It is, and I'm looking forward to it.

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