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.