The Nature Conservancy educates local leaders on sustainability 

Cody Pepper poses for a photo at The Nature Conservancy, Monday, May 23, 2016. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Cody Pepper poses for a photo at The Nature Conservancy, Monday, May 23, 2016.

The United Nations estimates the world’s population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050. In Oklahoma City, about 300,000 more people will inhabit the state’s largest city 34 years from now.

Population growth can place a heavy strain on public and private infrastructure. Oklahoma City isn’t alone in facing challenges and opportunities associated with population growth. Efforts like the City of Oklahoma City’s PlanOKC call for strategic measures to help meet the city’s continuing infrastructure and growth needs.

Now, a complimentary effort focused on informing leaders about sustainability issues is underway with the newly established Oklahoma City Conservation Leadership Academy (OCLA), created by the Oklahoma chapter of The Nature Conservancy.

“If we do the math right, by 2050, there will be more people living in the [world’s] cities than currently alive on the plant today,” said Cody Pepper, OCLA coordinator. “That is mind-boggling. … The cities that are going to flourish are the ones prepared for that kind of growth and development. … Between now and 2050, Oklahoma City has the opportunity to really grow in a sustainable way and take its place on a national stage as a leading city, if we are thinking ahead right. That’s why it is important to engage developers, architects, philanthropists and community leaders on conservation ideas.”

The 12-month leadership program with an emphasis on Oklahoma’s environment and sustainability issues kicked off April 21. Fifteen members gathered at Watonga’s Roman Nose State Park for two days of orientation. Through a series of lunch-and-learn lectures, workshops and field trips, members will discuss issues and become better conservation stewards.

“This is really designed for the civic leader who is conservation-minded but doesn’t have a background in Oklahoma conservation,” Pepper said. “They believe there is a place for conservation and they want to increase their ecological IQ. This gives them the opportunity to meet with scientists here in Oklahoma who are managing the functions that make up the ecological regions, like grassland and fresh water management.”

The Oklahoma chapter of The Nature Conservancy works to protect and restore forests, rivers and prairies throughout the state. Mike Fuhr, state director, said the nonprofit takes a “businesslike and entrepreneurial approach to conservation with nature and people in mind.”

The leadership program is the first of its kind for the national organization and could serve as a model for future state chapters to replicate.

“It makes a lot of sense for us to be reaching out and working with leaders in the urban communities,” Fuhr said. “That helps us make sure people stay connected to nature in urban areas. Nature is really everywhere. We hope to open people’s eyes to opportunities to do conservation on a large scale out in our urban areas.”

Leadership framework

Benjamin Franklin’s secret society, Junto Club & Lending Library, founded in 1727, inspired Pepper to create OCLA. The Founding Father called upon community stakeholders and leaders to gather and discuss politics, economics, finances and more. Junto is credited with establishing the first public library and developing the idea for a volunteer firefighter system.

In a way, OCLA is a modern Junto, collectively discussing community issues and potentially proposing solutions. It operates similarly to yearly civic leadership programs but is more heavily academic, Pepper said.

At the most recent lunch-and-learn, T.O. Bowman, Oklahoma City sustainability manager, spoke about sustainability planning and outreach efforts by the city. Bowman’s presentation referenced PlanOKC and issues city leaders face, such as urban heat and near-capacity landfills.

The Nature Conservancy’s Bob Hamilton discussed Oklahoma tallgrass prairies, specifically citing the conservancy’s work on Barnard Ranch in Osage County. Members will travel to the ranch later this year to explore the preserve.

The lectures and field trips will give rise to the public forum developed by OCLA members. In March, members will present a forum geared toward an issue of sustainability and invite speakers to present. Pepper said the public event will be similar to the popular TED Talks videos.

OCLA is designed to bring knowledge about sustainability issues to members who can share it with their work, worship community, family or organizations. The success of the program is based on members’ capacity to influence others to change their behaviors to match sustainability efforts.

“My hope is we both learn from each other,” Fuhr said. “That the conservancy learns from this diverse set of perspectives and the participants learn more about the conservation challenges faced in the Oklahoma City area, across the state and the world. We are trying to develop solutions to conservation problems, which are getting more and more complex. It is going to take us thinking outside of the box. The more people we have participating and identifying opportunities where we can all work together, the more successful we will be.”

Print headline: Shaping growth, The Nature Conservancy Oklahoma works with local leaders to determine what OKC’s sustainable future looks like.

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