Johanna Wald: Great American

This week one of the most prolific contributors to the conservation of our nation’s public lands called it a career after 42 years of some of the most inspired advocacy the environmental movement has ever seen. I admit it; I am hugely biased, but believe me, it’s true. My close friend and much-loved colleague Johanna Wald retired from NRDC last week after decades of distinguished work to protect America’s public lands from mining, grazing, development, and most ominously, climate change.  She was a skillful voice for wilderness and wildlife, and boy am I going to miss her.

 Anyone who has worked in public lands conservation knows Johanna, whose sterling reputation and tireless work inspired generations of environmental leaders to do what they could for nature. An expert on desert conservation and the ins and outs of the Department of the Interior, few people had the sense of overview and understanding of the history of desert protection she possessed.

 Fateful phone call

 So it is perfectly natural that I (working for the Sierra Club at the time) would turn to her for advice and assistance when, in 2006 more than 50 solar energy projects were proposed for the California desert. The number would soon grow to more than a hundred and BLM for their part seemed to have few plans about how to deal with them. The Bush Administration could care less about renewables and still less about wildlife and wildland conservation. This was, after all, the administration that proposed building a new gas plant every few weeks and had the coal industry’s back no matter what the news was on climate change. I needed a talented and brilliant person to work with, someone smarter than me. Naturally I called Johanna.

 That call began an amazing professional journey that was one of the most rewarding experiences of my 30 years in environmental work. Over the next eight years Johanna and I (and the team at NRDC she assembled: Helen O’Shea, Bobby McEnaney, Katie Umekubo and Noah Long) worked closely together to find ways to confront climate change while ensuring that the wildlife and wildlands we loved were protected as best we could while renewable energy resources were responsibly developed. Johanna and I planned together, raised money together (even before I joined her at NRDC), and even learned a new language (the language of “transmission”) together, immersing ourselves in every aspect of the problem to better understand what success looked like and chart a path in its direction. We laughed. We cried.  We went to unintelligible meetings. And we emerged with a plan and the help of numerous other colleagues in sister organizations (Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, Audubon, Western Resource Advocates, Defenders of Wildlife, CEERT, Utah Clean Energy, Western Grid Group etc., etc.). Space prevents me from listing you all. You know who you are.

 Johanna’s leadership in this regard was indispensable: engaging with environmental organizations large and small to promote the concept of guided development (organizing renewable projects into lower impact zones and designing transmission for present and future needs); advising and cajoling federal and state land managers and regulators to develop an orderly plan of development that buffered current resources and preserved opportunities for habitats and species to adapt to a changing world; providing wise but sometimes painful advice to developers about where to put (or not put) projects; and finding solutions to siting dilemmas, litigating only when it was unavoidable. She worked tirelessly to open and maintain a dialog between the environmental community and renewable energy project developers and companies. 

 Legacy of progress and success

 The results speak for themselves. The BLM adopted a guided development approach to solar projects in a programmatic environmental impact statement covered with Johanna’s fingerprints. BLM created solar energy zones and even borrowed our term for it – “Smart from the Start” – to describe that development and conservation planning needed to be done at the same time and not sequenced. 

 Today, much of California’s new transmission is occurring in existing corridors thanks to rational planning she helped launch in California’s Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, and as a leader in the Desert Renewable Energy Working Group, an ad hoc body of environmental and industry leaders supported by the likes of the Wild Spaces and Energy Foundations. Johanna worked closely with President Obama’s team at the Department of the Interior, establishing  productive and enduring relationships with the staffs of two Secretaries, but especially Secretary Ken Salazar’s team and a host of BLM officials in key states.

 Thousands of megawatts of renewable energy projects have been approved in California and the Southwest, and nearly all without litigation being filed. Developers have moved and cancelled projects (such as Bright Source’s Broadwell Dry Lake solar project) and spent tens of millions of dollars on species conservation efforts and long-term habitat protection. So much remains to be done; but without Johanna’s leadership our task would be so much more daunting. Could others have done what she did? I sincerely doubt it. No one was better suited to do it. Johanna’s honesty, reputation, experience, personality and humanity all contributed to people finding ways to work together. Everyone trusted and nearly everyone loved her.


 As for me, our partnership built a bond of friendship that goes beyond our work. Climate change altered the course of both our careers. I know I may not have been able to pivot without her. Johanna referred to her awakening to this threat as an “epiphany.” We both understood that the health of places we worked to protect in our lives was being relentlessly unraveled by climate change. We wanted living wildernesses, not lifeless mountains the naturalist George Schaller calls “stones of silence.” She knew that there are no easy answers. From here on out everything we face is all hard choices and informed guesses. But knowing what we know we are obligated to try, and in so trying helping others to hope that our collective efforts will succeed. 

 Schaller – an inspiration to me – seems to capture Johanna’s spirit perfectly when he wrote: “I learned long ago that conservation has no victories, that one must retain connections and remain involved with animals and places that have captured the heart, to prevent their destruction. I am sometimes asked why, given a world that is more wounded and scarred, I do not simply give up, burdened by pessimism. But conservation is my life, I must retain hope.”

 Johanna devoted her career to making the world better, preserving its beauty and elegance for future generations.  Thank you seems like such an inadequate thing to say in the face of such contributions, but say it we must.  Thank you, Johanna.  We love you.