In today’s polarized world, it is increasingly difficult to find common ground on environmental issues. Pipelines are good. Pipelines are bad. Fracking is good. Fracking is bad. Etc is good. Etc is bad. How are we to work together for environmental improvement when we tend to spend more time focusing on which finger to use to point at somebody else?
In Virginia, one organization has emerged that successfully builds bridges on some environmental topics. It is one successful model of peaceful discussion that results in unified advocacy. VIRGINIAforever was established as a 501(c)(4) organization in 2006 as a project of The Nature Conservancy utilizing a grant from the Virginia Environmental Endowment. It created a board of directors half of whom were from the business community and the other half from leading not-for-profit environmental groups. The board then sought topics on which to work together. The group quickly agreed that it should support the environmental agencies’ budget requests in two broad categories: water quality improvement and land conservation. VIRGINIAforever has become a lobbying force in Virginia for these two topics ever since.
The two topics made sense to both the business and the environmental members because of the environmental benefit of land and water programs and also for distinct reasons unique to each group. To the environmental community, improved agency funding for water quality and land conservation programs added to the strength of environmental agency programs to protect vital resources. To the business members, increased funding for environmental agencies would help stabilize these agencies resulting in more timely permits and predictable agency programs and outcomes. Each year, VIRGINIAforever works with the agencies, the governor’s office and the Virginia General Assembly to advocate for increased funding. Those efforts have worked. For example, as Kevin Finto explained back in 2019, federal funding decreased drastically during the last administration endangering the viability of essential environmental monitoring and response programs. VIRGINIAforever brought this to the attention of Virginia’s legislators and they made up the shortfall. Although agency funding has increased and decreased over the years, the overall trend has been positive.
VIRGINIAforever operates two boards: a 21-member executive board and a separate 33-member general board, along with four emeritus members. Each board’s membership is equally split between business and environmental group members. The executive board is the decision making board. Both boards are served by a professional staff of government relations and administrative professionals that allow the Boards to focus on policy. Whether the topic is agency funding amounts, the organization’s Five-Year Funding Plan or discussions on substantive environmental policy, VIRGINIAforever makes decisions solely by consensus. If one person on the executive board objects to a proposed action, then the organization does not do it unless a discussion of the issue resolves the matter. There has never been an intractable impasse in the organization’s history. Also, VIRGINIAforever holds an annual fundraising “Bridge Builder Celebration” where a broader community of business and environmental representatives gather to enjoy each other’s company and to bestow the Bridge Builder Award upon a Virginia environmental leader. Past winners have included state legislators from both parties, U.S. senators, governors, environmental leaders and business leaders. It has become a highly sought after honor.
VIRGINIAforever also provides its members something that is often overlooked. Board members actually like each other. The business members know the environmental group members who know the agriculture members. While these folks don’t always agree on substantive environmental legislation, they are much less likely to engage in surprise attacks. The dialogue on environmental matters in Virginia is usually civil, meaningful and productive. That is certainly the case at a VIRGINIAforever board meeting.
VIRGINIAforever members participated in a panel discussion at a virtual plenary session of the Environmental Council of the States (ECOS) 2020 Fall Meeting to describe the organization to more than 40 commissioners in attendance. The current chair from WestRock, a longtime member from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the organization’s contract executive director described the organization. The presentation was well received and the VIRGINIAforever representatives offered to help if other state agency commissioners were interested in establishing similar organizations in their respective states. It is worth noting that at least one other state, North Carolina, has established an organization modeled on VIRGINIAforever.
I have been a member of VIRGINIAforever since the beginning and chaired it from 2016 to 2019. The organization has grown considerably over time and I believe that its mission has created meaningful dialogue and environmental improvement. Please take a look at the website, www.virginiaforever.org, and the organization’s Five-Year Funding Plan. You may be interested in helping to establish a similar organization. If you do, don’t be surprised if some peace breaks out. The environmental agencies will like that. So will you.