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Policy Director Ryan Henson Reflects on 30 Years at CalWild

by Ryan Henson, Senior Policy Director


April marked my 30th year at CalWild. It certainly doesn’t feel like three decades because I’ve been absorbed in my work like a “page-turner” of a book that I absolutely can’t put down. I thought it would be good to reflect on some of the themes I’ve seen thus far in California federal lands conservation over my time with CalWild, with an emphasis on the positive.

Doing conservation the right way pays off


Ryan (far left) in the Oval Office for the signing of the expansions of Berryessa Snow Mountain and San Gabriel Mountains National Monuments

Over my three decades, I have been deeply engaged in 16 public land conservation campaigns that have resulted in the permanent protection of more than four million acres of California’s federal public lands, including 1.68 million acres through legislation passed by Congress and 2.3 million acres by actions taken by Presidents Barack Obama and Joe Biden. While not considered “permanent” protection because agencies have the authority to reverse themselves, I was also deeply involved in efforts to win increased protections for another 3.8 million acres through the approval of regional federal land management plans that guide how agencies steward federal lands.


Our success is also due to an unwavering commitment to quality such that when we offer a protection proposal for an elected official to review and consider adopting, the person can rest assured that we have dotted every “I” and crossed every “T” in our efforts to draft, research, and build local support for a public land conservation proposal. Not to flatter ourselves, but CalWild’s process for conducting “background checks” on specific regions of federal land and the people who value them is the best such “vetting” process around and helps ensure that our proposals are necessary, sound, and offer few conflicts to trouble our champions. Lastly, right or wrong, we are humble in both taking and seeking credit. While this reduces our visibility and often allows others to claim credit for our achievements, we like the fact that our campaigns are about elevating places and empowering people and not about us.


California continues to elect incredible champions for our federal public lands


CalWild has been very fortunate to work with a long line of elected officials who championed and continue to advocate for the improved management and appropriate conservation of California’s federal public lands. Most formative for me was working with the staff of retired Senator Barbara Boxer and Representative Mike Thompson on a protection bill for northwestern California that was introduced in 2002 and became law in 2006. It was from Senator Boxer that we developed our checklists and best practices for advancing public land campaigns. She taught us that the key was knowing the affected lands and waters on the ground, reaching out to potentially affected Tribes early in our campaigns (“You should reach out in the primordial ooze stage,” she once said in response to a question as to when we should reach out to Tribes), exhaustively vetting our proposals, always telling the truth, recruiting other NGOs to work in coalitions with us to advance protection proposals, building diverse (in every sense of the word) and strong support in the affected counties, and responding quickly to requests from her staff and staff of our other champions. The “Boxer method,” as I call it, allowed us to protect 1,319,000 acres during her tenure. Former Senator and now Vice-President Kamala Harris and now Senator Alex Padilla both adopted the Boxer method and continue her legacy today.


The late Senator Dianne Feinstein was in a class by herself. She had a singular and remarkable passion for the California desert. From 1994 until her death, she authored and doggedly pursued two federal land conservation bills through Congress that designated over 8,110,000 acres (more than12,673 square-miles) as “wilderness,” the highest form of protection available for federal lands under the law.  This represents over 52% of the 15,419,619 acres (24,093 square-miles) of wilderness in the state. Senator Feinstein also succeeded in protecting more than 3,049,000 acres (more than 4,764 square-miles) of National Park Service holdings in the California desert, which represents 42% of all the lands the agency manages in California. Senator Feinstein was instrumental in convincing President Clinton to establish the California Coastal, Carrizo Plain, Ford Ord, and Giant Sequoia National Monuments and in winning President Obama’s support for establishing the 154,000-acre (240 square-mile) Sand to Snow National Monument and, largest of all, the 1.6 million-acre (2,500 square-mile) Mojave Trails National Monument.


CalWild appreciates the fact that our champions hold conservationists to a high standard in that we must develop a compelling case for protecting a particular area and “show our math” in everything from developing maps to building strong and diverse local support in the affected regions.


Coalitions of diverse interests remain essential to our success


The public lands conservation “tent” has gotten larger over my career such that we have been partnering routinely for years with groups like Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, the Outdoor Alliance, Latino Outdoors, and many others who represent the diverse millions who visit and enjoy California’s federal lands. This is as it should be, since when I first started working on conservation campaigns Senator Boxer stressed that when it comes to recruiting supporters for her bills, “the more unusual the suspect, the better.” I took this to mean that calls for bold conservation action are more compelling when they come from as many diverse people, interests, and perspectives as possible. That is why CalWild strives to win the support for our campaigns of a vast array of interests including local historical societies, scientists, and even those that other NGOs do not bother to, or fear to, approach, such as local elected officials whose politics may differ from their own.


If given half a chance, nature finds a way


While it is true that we are undergoing a global extinction crisis, my hope for a better future is based in part on the species here in California that continue to defy the odds and recover after almost being wiped out. When these recovering species rely upon lands that CalWild helped protect, it is a profoundly important reminder of the importance of our work. It has been my great honor and pleasure to help permanently protect places critical to the survival of many imperiled species of plants and animals, including California’s three subspecies of majestic elk (tule, Roosevelt, and Rocky Mountain), gray wolves, and Sierra Nevada red fox, just to name a few. While conditions remain perilous for salmon, steelhead trout, and many other fish in our streams and rivers despite our tireless efforts to protect wild waterways, I’m even optimistic about the future of salmon and steelhead given their tenacious character, importance to Tribes and others who advocate for and treasure them, and ongoing historic habitat restoration efforts like dam removals on the Klamath River.


A blossoming of Tribal leadership in California is great news for federal land conservation


During my career I have seen inspiring levels of Tribal leadership and engagement on federal land conservation in California. This leadership has resulted in, most notably at least in my opinion, the removal of the dams on the Klamath River and a growing acceptance by government agencies of the importance of and need for Tribal public land experience and wisdom. The sharing of this “traditional ecological knowledge” by Tribes with agencies is resulting in, among a long list of other positive things, the increasing use of fire on the land as a management tool. California Tribes use fire as a management tool and did so for time immemorial. The ecological, social, and other consequences of replacing that proven stewardship with a “all fire is bad” philosophy in the 1920s are ongoing and utterly catastrophic for people, plants, and wildlife.  It is my hope for the long-term that California Tribes can increasingly work with federal land managers over the centuries to get “good fire” back on the ground. Cultural burns are becoming increasingly common thanks in part to the tireless efforts of the Karuk Tribe who are at the forefront of efforts to assist other Tribes with their burn programs and to educate the public, government officials, and other Tribes on the importance of cultural burning.


Thanks to Senator Padilla and Representatives Thompson and John Garamendi, 2023-2024 saw the first bills ever introduced in Congress to create legal frameworks enabling willing Tribes to collaboratively manage federal lands in California with federal agencies. While Senator Padilla’s historic bills have yet to pass a deadlocked Congress, progress continues to advance. For example, the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation recently signed an agreement to manage a portion of the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument.  This formal agreement is a first for federal lands in California. This rising tide of Tribal leadership and engagement on federal land conservation shows every sign of not only continuing, but increasing, and it is great news for everyone who cares about the future of California’s federal lands. By helping to empower Tribes in this historic fashion, Senator Padilla, with the strong support of Senator Laphonza Butler, is on the national cutting-edge in this new and exciting area of federal land and Tribal policy.


Walking the talk on social justice


I’m thrilled that CalWild during my time has allowed me to highlight not only conservation, but the social justice issues that impact California’s federal public lands and the people who love them. Over at least the last 15 years, we have striven to be mindful that the millions of people who visit, connect with, and recreate on federal public lands in California do so in many diverse ways and that we must try to meet those people where they are if we are going to find ways to work together to protect these places for future generations to visit and enjoy.  As part of this effort, CalWild’s staff has begun to better mirror California, and 2023-2024 saw a new high in our outreach to Spanish speakers in our conservation campaigns. It makes me happy that my young coworkers seamlessly combine a commitment to doing right by people and communities with a passion for conservation. I’ve never accepted the old “jobs vs. the environment” false dichotomy, and to my young coworkers such notions seem utterly foreign.


CalWild’s work depends upon its supporters, volunteers, and staff


We could not have had such an outsized influence on federal public land conservation over my three decades without the support of our members, other donors, foundation supporters, volunteer board members, and others. I’m deeply grateful to all of them and to the many fine coworkers I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years. While many of them deserve a word of praise here, I’d especially like to recognize CalWild’s Assistant Policy Director Linda Castro who has been with us for a decade now and is a recognized conservation leader in her own right. If it wasn’t for Linda and the rest of our team both past and present, I’d have quit from exhaustion long ago. Conservation done the right way is a team effort, and I’m proud to have quality people like Linda on our team.