Steve Blackmer, founder of the Northern Forest Center, answers questions
What work do you do?
I’m the president of the Northern Forest Center, based in Concord, N.H.
What does your organization do?
We work to revitalize the rural economy and communities and conserve the forests of the 30-million-acre Northern Forest region of northernmost New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine — the largest intact wild area in the Eastern U.S. Unlike the large forest regions of the West, the great majority of this land is privately owned.
Nearly 2 million people live in and near the wildlands, and their communities are having a hard time. The region is losing a lot of its best-paying jobs — many in the paper industry — as manufacturers cut costs in order to remain competitive in what has become a global industry. Lack of economic opportunity had led, in many instances, to strong local opposition to conservation, which some people view as “locking up” land that represents the only tangible economic opportunity.
I founded the Northern Forest Center eight years ago to help the region focus as much time and attention on addressing social and economic needs as protecting land. Achieving landscape-scale conservation depends as much on building sustainable communities as it does on saving land. And making a better life for people depends in large part on living in and around healthy ecosystems, including wild places.
What are you working on at the moment?
Beyond fund-raising (right now, we’re in the midst of a $5 million fund-raising campaign) and management, most of my time and thought goes into building a broader constituency for conservation and sustainable communities. To really succeed, we have to enlist a much broader cross section of the population.
We are changing our view from protecting the “environment” — some abstract thing out there — to caring for the places that people live in and love. Our fundamental premise is that if we can connect people’s love of the landscape with their aspirations for themselves, their families, and their communities, we can build a much broader and stronger movement to care for the places we all love.
It is amazing how much goodwill and cooperation we have been able to create by asking people what they care about, and listening to their answers — an opportunity for a good, living-wage job; good education; an active cultural life; vibrant communities with high levels of civic engagement and good health; and healthy ecosystems with wildness, clean air and water, and public access. Our reasoning has been that if we could identify a core set of values held by a wide cross-section of people, we could begin to break down the barriers that so often have separated people who want decent jobs, for example, from people who want to conserve land. And that has been working.
But the next challenge — which we are deep into right now — is to come up with actual programs that can help improve both the economy and the land. We’ve received funding from the federal Economic Development Administration to develop a blueprint for a sustainable, conservation-based economy. How to actually do this, of course, isn’t so clear, so along with other NFC staff, partners, and advisers, I am spending a lot of time working on this.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
My love of the outdoors comes from my family. I had my first introduction to the Northern Forest in high school in Vermont, thanks to a teacher who took me to the north woods and began teaching me its lore. I attended Dartmouth College and studied anthropology, especially the interrelationships between people and land. After college, I got a summer job with the Maine Forest Service that eventually led me to Yale for a master’s degree in forestry.
I found my way back to New Hampshire and a job as policy director of the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, a statewide conservation group. While I was there, it became clear that the conservation community needed a broader regional approach. I took advantage of an opportunity to join the staff of the Appalachian Mountain Club in order to pursue this emerging vision of a regional coalition and campaign to conserve the Northern Forest. With other leaders across the region, I organized the Northern Forest Alliance — a coalition of conservation groups advocating for protected wildlands, sustainable forestry, and sustainable communities and economies across the Northern Forest. I took on the role of chair of the alliance and, with many others, gradually built an effective coalition and strategy that has spurred protection of about 3 million acres.
After nearly a decade of organizing the alliance — wonderful, rewarding, but also a burnout experience — I turned my attention to the next piece of the puzzle: the people of the Northern Forest. We did not yet have the ability to address the third element of the alliance’s agenda: sustainable communities and economies. So I left the Alliance and AMC to found the Northern Forest Center in 1997.
Could I ever have predicted the path? Of course not. Does it make perfect sense and fit who I am? Absolutely.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
22. I do my best to clear my inbox each week. I have found the book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity by David Allen to be very useful. Not that I have eliminated stress! Or gotten it all done …
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Born in Boston, I live now in Canterbury, N.H. I’m a lifelong New Englander, and my family has been in the region for over 300 years.
What’s your environmental vice?
What are you reading these days?
The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman and Seeking the Heart of Wisdom: The Path of Insight Meditation by Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m always longing to be outdoors.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Obviously the Northern Forest — both U.S. and adjacent Canada — is a special favorite.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Connecting with local communities, such as through the land-trust movement. And the growing efforts to create walkable and livable communities, build green buildings, and promote sustainable local agriculture and forestry.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could it be done better?
Fighting the same old battles instead of tapping into the energy that is bubbling at the local level. At the level of national policy, I often feel we have lost the sense of representing “the people.”
What was your favorite band when you were 18?
What’s your favorite TV show?
Anything with the Red Sox.
What are you happy about right now?
We’re having beautiful fall weather — a real change from the downpours and floods we’ve had recently.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Engage a non-environmentalist in your work. Become engaged in their work. Think about how to make common cause with someone else and their issues.