After layoffs, NWF chief vows to build ‘conservation field army’

By Phil Taylor | 03/03/2015 12:55 PM EST

DENVER — The National Wildlife Federation is beefing up its field staff and intensifying its push to protect wildlife, restore landscapes and get Americans outdoors, CEO Collin O’Mara says.

DENVER — The National Wildlife Federation is beefing up its field staff and intensifying its push to protect wildlife, restore landscapes and get Americans outdoors, CEO Collin O’Mara says.

Since taking office in July, O’Mara has trimmed NWF’s Washington, D.C., staff while empowering its field offices and 49 state affiliates to recruit and galvanize a nation of citizen stewards, he said.

"I really want National Wildlife Federation to be America’s conservation field army," O’Mara, 35, said in an interview last week during a visit to NWF’s Rocky Mountain Regional Center in downtown Denver. "We’re better positioned than any other organization to do that. But to do that, you have to be much more present in the field."


The goal is to stitch together a diverse coalition of hunters and anglers, bird-watchers, gardeners, farmers and recreationists who share the desire to protect wildlife and their habitat, O’Mara said. The group has just shy of 6 million active members and supporters now, he said.

NWF is also expanding efforts to expose kids to the outdoors in an age when electronics consume a growing portion of their lives, O’Mara said.

He is hoping NWF’s broad constituency can ease partisanship in Washington that has hampered funding for wildlife and passage of conservation bills like the "Bipartisan Sportsmen’s Act" (S. 405).

"The wildlife message works," he said. "I can talk to the most conservative tea party crowds in some places and the most liberal crowds in the Northeast, and there’s a consistency there. My biggest goal is to de-politicize."

O’Mara previously led Delaware’s Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, a position he began in 2009 as the nation’s youngest state Cabinet official.

In his short tenure as CEO, O’Mara has visited 37 states, met with 31 affiliate groups and logged 80,000 air miles, he said.

‘Cut as deeply as you need’

His transformation of NWF did not happen without pain.

The organization last summer faced an $8 million annual deficit, he said. By last August, O’Mara had laid off about 50 NWF employees, reducing total staff to 272. The organization downsized its national office and shed some of its federal capacity on climate change, O’Mara said.

The cuts were "very surgical," he said. They targeted senior management positions in an effort to achieve a more horizontal structure.

In July, NWF parted ways with it chief operating officer, Jaime Matyas, one of its highest-paid executives. Matyas became CEO of the Student Conservation Association a few months later.

It also laid off Felice Stadler, senior director of NWF’s climate and energy program, and longtime employee John Kostyack, who was serving as vice president of wildlife conservation. Kostyack in August was named executive director of the Wind Energy Foundation, a nonprofit industry-funded group that promotes public awareness of wind as a clean energy source and supports research.

Last October brought two other high-level departures: Ann Morgan, who had led NWF’s regional office in Boulder, Colo., since February 2012, and Anthony Caligiuri, senior vice president for conservation and education at NWF headquarters. Caligiuri now leads Colorado Open Lands, a land trust based in Denver.

NWF also laid off its chief financial officer, Dulce Gomez-Zormelo.

The group is in the process of selling its Reston, Va., headquarters and plans to integrate operations with its National Advocacy Center at 1990 K St. NW in Washington, D.C., O’Mara said. In recent months, it moved its Rocky Mountain office from Boulder to downtown Denver a few blocks from the statehouse. The move aimed to cut costs but also to get closer to NWF’s state and federal partners, he said.

O’Mara’s overhaul has parallels to his work in Delaware, where he was credited with engineering one of the first significant revamps of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control since 1972, a move aimed at boosting efficiencies during lean economic times.

"My model in Delaware is you cut as deeply as you need to have a balanced budget, but not at the expense of core competencies," he said.

‘We are delighted’

Bruce Wallace, the incoming chairman of NWF’s board, said the terrain is "rapidly changing" for environmental nonprofits — with new funding challenges and political polarization gripping the U.S. Capitol. He said O’Mara has navigated those challenges with aplomb, having faced a similar organizational challenge in Delaware.

He credited O’Mara for leveraging NWF’s regional offices, state affiliates and geographic spread.

"We are delighted" with O’Mara’s work, Wallace said. "We are stable and growing at a time when the country could not need us more."

While NWF lost some federal capacity in climate change, it has increased its ability to address the issue at the state level, O’Mara said. He said NWF will have more "boots on the ground" to support compliance with U.S. EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which will mandate that states reduce emissions of global warming gases 30 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

In part, O’Mara is returning NWF to its roots.

The organization was founded in 1936 by Iowa cartoonist Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling, a waterfowl hunter who was appointed in 1934 to lead the U.S. Biological Survey, now known as the Fish and Wildlife Service. Darling designed the first duck stamp, a federal permit to hunt waterfowl that has funded the purchase or leasing of more than 6 million acres of wetlands habitat.

In that era, wildlife lacked a national constituency to prod lawmakers to support conservation funding and policies, Darling warned in one cartoon. In 1936, at Darling’s urging, President Franklin Roosevelt invited thousands to Washington’s Mayflower Hotel for the first North American Wildlife Conference. The goal, according to Roosevelt, was to "bring together individuals, organizations and agencies interested in the restoration and conservation of wildlife resources."

The conference resulted in the creation of the General Wildlife Federation — later called the National Wildlife Federation — and Darling was its first president. Today, NWF calls itself the nation’s "largest big tent conservation federation."

O’Mara said the organization is returning to its hook-and-bullet base, even as it continues to advocate for members including bird lovers and gardeners. On Feb. 24, O’Mara spoke to the Garden Club of America about the threats facing pollinators and the importance of backyard habitat.

"We all agree we need wildlife funding, we need protections of the Endangered Species Act, protections of the Antiquities Act," O’Mara said. "We’re trying to find that commonality and put that original coalition back together."

Preaching climate change through wildlife

Wildlife has helped NWF bring attention to climate threats, he said.

"If it’s just carbon, it doesn’t span all those groups," he said. "It’s a different kind of center of gravity, or rallying cry for what the organization is. That doesn’t mean we’re stepping back from climate in any kind of way. But it means it’s through a lens of wildlife, and local impacts on wildlife and not just global issues."

Rather than talk about polar bears and puffins, glacial ice melt, or the Maldives being subsumed by rising seas, NWF is tailoring its message to how climate change will affect moose in New Hampshire, mule deer migration in Colorado and the temperature of trout streams.

"You can build a much more bipartisan coalition by focusing on the wildlife impacts than you can if you’re just focused on the man-made question," O’Mara said. "It’s a very different kind of debate."

The wildlife message has resonated particularly with Republicans who may be less swayed by academic warnings about climate change, which can sound abstract, O’Mara said. Showing the impacts "to someone’s backyard," he said, it’s easier to foster conversations on global warming solutions.

O’Mara, who graduated in 1997 from West Genesee High School outside Syracuse, N.Y., where he was class salutatorian and played baseball and basketball, has supported both Republicans and Democrats.

He took a break from Dartmouth College to serve as a staffer for former Rep. James Walsh, a Republican from central New York. As class president at Dartmouth, O’Mara organized hundreds of students in support of Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) first presidential bid, and was later named McCain’s youth coordinator for New Hampshire.

O’Mara would later serve as executive director of the Onondaga County Democratic Committee. In 2012, while he was secretary of environment in Delaware, he donated to President Obama’s re-election campaign, according to Federal Election Commission records.

NWF’s political action committee in 2010 spent $22,000 — all on Democratic candidates. But in 2014, it spent $15,000 on Democrats and $6,000 on Republicans, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

O’Mara said NWF’s priorities moving forward will be to preserve "big landscapes" that host species like bison and bighorn sheep, while defending public lands against state takeover bids.

NWF will continue to support dedicated funding for wildlife both in Congress and in states such as Missouri, where some lawmakers have proposed undoing a dedicated sales tax for conservation, O’Mara said.

Another major effort will be to preserve major waterways, including the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware River and Mississippi River Delta.

NWF will also redouble its efforts to connect Americans to nature through existing programs like eco-schools and backyard habitats, O’Mara said.

It recently signed a partnership with the Fish and Wildlife Service to save the imperiled monarch butterfly, whose population has plunged 90 percent in the past 20 years. NWF’s role will be to inform the public about the importance of milkweed to monarchs and promote its planting across the United States (E&ENews PM, Feb. 9).

‘Richard Louv-style connection’

Youth engagement will be a signature campaign, O’Mara added.

Many of today’s parents grew up on video games and can’t be counted on to get their kids outdoors, O’Mara said. A 2010 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that Americans between ages 8 and 18 spend about 7.5 hours a day in front of some electronic device.

While kids know to turn off lights and recycle, they typically prefer to sit in front of a computer than play in a stream, O’Mara said.

"Kids are doing sustainable things, but it’s not connected to nature," he said. "We need to have that Richard Louv-style connection to nature."

Louv is the author of the 2005 book "Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder."

Key to those efforts will be NWF’s partnerships with the Fish and Wildlife Service, National Park Service, and state and county parks, O’Mara said. NWF is also urging schools to incorporate outdoor learning into biology, chemistry and physics classes.

NWF worked behind the scenes on the White House’s "Every Kid in a Park" initiative, which was unveiled last month to give all fourth-grade students and their families free admission to national parks during the next school year. By NWF’s estimate, the more time kids spend in nature, the more they’ll become attached to it.

NWF also hosts more than 3,000 eco-schools in the United States, where it supports "’green’ management of the school grounds, the facilities and the curriculum." Roughly 4,400 schools have certified NWF habitats. It reaches younger kids through its Ranger Rick and Ranger Rick Jr. magazines, which have a combined circulation of 625,000.

"We just have to make it easy enough for parents and schools, and at the same time attractive enough for kids that it’s worth putting down the iPad," O’Mara said.

O’Mara was in Denver last week to announce a partnership with FWS to help students build wildlife habitats in their schoolyards that mirror local ecosystems. Two Denver schools will partner with employees at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge north of the city to build habitats that support pollinators, migratory birds and wildlife.

NWF sees the program as an investment in kids’ health, intellectual development and happiness, in addition to recruiting a new generation of conservationists.

Morale at NWF has improved considerably since staff layoffs concluded last August, according to one former NWF employee. O’Mara is credited with having an open door policy and inviting constructive criticism from staff.

The organization has stayed financially solvent thanks to its endowment, which totaled $54 million in mid-2013. But the endowment suffered as a result of NWF’s recent financial woes.

The group has yet to file its financial 990 form for the year ending August 2014.

"The budget is balanced, revenues are up, staffing is probably stronger in the field than probably any time in 30 years," O’Mara said. "We’re showing strength. We’re showing how we can mobilize a conservation army in a way that nobody else can. If we can do that consistently and efficiently across the entire country, our best days are definitely ahead."