Dispatches from OpenWorld: The TH Interview—Jena Thompson, The Conservation Fund

Jena Thompson is the Director of The Conservation Fund‘s Go Zero program; she’s a former Fish & Wildlife brat who was a director of international sales and marketing for a software firm before she ran to the conservation world in 2002. Before becoming the Director of the Go Zero program, she was the director of The Conservation Fund’s marketing and communications. She spoke to TreeHugger from OpenWorld, where she’s representing The Conservation Fund and their partnership with Dell and Carbonfund.org to help Dell’s customers reduce their carbon footprints.

What does green mean to The Conservation Fund?

For us, it means a balanced and market-based approach to conservation. When we started back in 1985, we were the only environmental non-profit to have a dual-purpose charter with the IRS for economic development and environmental protection. We were one of the first organizations to really start working with businesses like DuPont and with big paper companies. From an entrepreneurial standpoint, we’re very effective because of these non-traditional partnerships that help us find new money for conservation. But land protection is really our bread and butter; we’ve protected just under 6 million acres, including both pristine land and nationally and regionally historic sites. So, in that way, green means that we can tell America’s story in addition to protecting beautiful land.

Carbon offsets — one of your project areas — have become sort of a green action du jour, a very popular way to take action in the environmental world. How do you respond to people who say that carbon offsets are just a guilt-free way to continue rampant over-consumption?

I would say buyer beware. It’s sort of the “wild west” right now in the offset world, since there’s no clear regulation or laws governing the industry, and that’s unfortunate, because it can give consumers the wrong impression, and they can get greenwashed by providers who aren’t doing a credible job. Doing your homework as a consumer is an incredibly important thing; I recommend that people look for look for permanence, look for transparency, look for how they’re spending your money.

When it comes to The Conservation Fund and our Go Zero program (more details on that here), we only plant in protected lands, and the majority of our trees are planted and monitored by Environmental-Synergy Inc., a group of leading scientists that specializes in reforestation and carbon sequestration monitoring, and verified by Environmental Resources Trust. We spend our money really wisely, with 97 cents of every dollar going directly to our programs.

Offsets are the first step we’ve seen that can engage a new audience in conservation, and that’s really important. Our research has never shown that because you can offset, you pollute more; it’s one more step toward becoming a champion of the environment, like recycling is. It’s something people can own, and a good way to connect with the environmental world.

Tree planting is not going to solve global warming, but the World Bank has estimated that 20% of greenhouse-gas emissions are caused by deforestation; Estimates are that as much as 50% of the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last 50 years may be due to the effects of changing land use patterns. In the United States alone, we lose more than two million acres of forests, farmland and natural landscapes each year to development. And in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, more than 20 million acres of native forestland have been cleared in the last century. Planting more trees in protected areas is a proven, effective tool that we have right now, and we should use it, but use it carefully.

How do you respond to critics of tree-planting schemes?

I disagree. Tree-planting, when done right, is an incredibly effective method to sequester carbon dioxide. The research done in the lower Mississippi Valley has very proven and effective carbon curves. It’s true that you have to be very careful where you work;
The Conservation Fund doesn’t plant in places that have high chance of wildfire, so when we were approached to help restore lands burned in the California wildfires, we turned them down. Forestry is incredibly powerful tool, and it needs to be a part of a toolkit of solutions for solving climate change, given that we touch on all the principles I mentioned before, including permanence and additionality (meaning that trees are planted on land that was once forest but has a reduced chance of regenerating on its own).

The other part that tree-planting brings is the ancillary benefits, like more habitat, which helps increase biodiversity, and benefits like natural flood control in places like New Orleans. We also have the ability to create new places for the next generation to be outdoors, to camp, hike and fish. If we’re not careful and don’t support all the habitat restoration that we can, we won’t have anything left to restore.

If you could recommend something for everyone to do to make the world greener, what would that be?

Take your kids outside. We’ve seen a massive disconnect between kids and nature; if they don’t respect the outside world, they won’t work to save it, and all the work we’ve done to preserve 6 million acres would be for naught. This disconnect with nature also has serious health implications, with things like obesity, so it’s really important. If there’s one thing I’d encourage, it’s to take the younger generation outside and experience nature. You might just have a little fun yourself.

Jena Thompson is the Director of The Conservation Fund‘s Go Zero program.

About the Author: Collin Dunn