Stephen Hamway
The Bulletin

Before John Sterling took over as the executive director of the Conservation Alliance in 2004, the organization looked quite different.

The Bend-based organization, which works with outdoor-product companies to protect and secure public lands across North America, had no home base, zero paid employees and a smattering of companies as dues-paying members.

Over the course of his 15 years as executive director in Bend, however, Sterling has more than tripled the number of member companies, met his ambitious funding goals and expanded its vision beyond being a conduit for companies to make grants.

“I have felt strongly over the years that businesses need to be advocates for the things that they believe in,” Sterling said. “In our case, that’s conservation.”

Sterling announced earlier this month that he’s planning to step down as executive director, once the organization is able to find someone new for the role. But local business owners and conservationists said his impact will linger, nationwide and in Central Oregon’s small but growing environmental community.

“I think we all owe John our thanks,” said Dan Morse, conservation director at the Bend-based Oregon Natural Desert Association.

The Conservation Alliance was founded in 1989 as a joint effort between four prominent outdoor-product brands — Patagonia, REI, The North Face and Kelty — that wanted to increase industry support for conservation work. The member companies pay fees, which are distributed to conservation organizations to protect sensitive wild lands, from sections of forest that could qualify as national monuments to rivers that qualify for protections under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

In the beginning, however, the organization lacked a headquarters or any staff, simply operating through a couple of board meetings that took place during the Outdoor Retailer conference in Salt Lake City.

Sterling started as a board member for the Conservation Alliance in 1996, serving on behalf of Patagonia. Six years later, he asked his fellow board members if they would be open to letting him come on as the executive director. Around the same time, Sterling and his wife moved to Bend for the city’s quality of life. Once he had raised enough funds to appoint himself as executive director, he began his work.

When he began as leadership role in 2004, Sterling set a handful of goals. He said he wanted to distribute $2 million to conservation organizations, which would approximately quadruple the funds when he started as executive director. The organization gave away $1.9 million in 2018, and Sterling said the organization has enough money to break the $2 million barrier this year.

To make sure the organization could add employees while continuing to funnel all of its dues to conservation organizations, Sterling led a $3.5 million funding drive that companies and individuals donated to. Today, the Conservation Alliance has four employees, which Sterling said has allowed the organization to actively recruit companies that are receptive to the organization’s mission but need additional incentives to want to participate.

“I don’t mean to say they were selfish, but they needed more than ‘it’s the right thing to do,’” Sterling said.

Sterling described joining the Conservation Alliance as “enlightened self-interest” on the part of outdoor-product companies, which largely cater to customers who are interested in recreating in the outdoors. Teague Hatfield, founder of Bend-based shoe store FootZone, which became a Conservation Alliance member after the organization set up shop in Bend, said it made sense because his customers and many of his vendors rely on public lands.

“John made a compelling argument,” Hatfield said.

Perhaps the Conservation Alliance’s biggest achievement came near the end of Sterling’s tenure, when Congress passed a sweeping public lands bill in February that included federal protection for eight of the projects the Conservation Alliance had sought protections for.

For Sterling and other employees, it represented the culmination of years of work with local grassroots organizations.

“Those bills always start as ideas in local communities,” Sterling said.

While the Conservation Alliance funds organizations all over the United States and Canada, Bend has played host to the organization since Sterling settled here in 2002. Hatfield said Central Oregon’s natural beauty helps foster an ethos of preservation among residents and businesses, which works to the organization’s advantage.

“We all, in some ways, owe a debt of gratitude … to the fact that there’s public lands that we can go and recreate on,” he said.

Sterling added that the organization’s culture has evolved to suit its location. Indeed, Central Oregon’s network of outdoor-product companies has evolved significantly since 2002, and prominent local companies like Hydro Flask, Ruffwear and Cairn now number among the approximately 235 member companies.

“If you’re based in a community like Bend, you know every single day how valuable our Forest Service and (Bureau of Land Management) lands are, and how important it is that they’re protected,” Sterling said.

Hatfield, a personal friend of Sterling’s, praised his work in charge of the Conservation Alliance, saying he was able to wed his business background with ideals about conservation.

“He’s been the perfect guy at the perfect time,” Hatfield said.

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