A Data-Based Approach To Conservation From Laura Bush, For Earth Day

Article & Podcast by: Joan Michelson | Speaker, Coach, Host of Green Connections Radio podcast, ForbesWomen Contributor, Social Impact, Women’s Advancement & Partnerships

Scientists across the globe are attributing the rise of the novel coronavirus to the loss of natural habitats and ecosystems, because these losses lead to more people coming into contact with potentially disease-carrying animals and pests.

“Human impingement on natural habitats, biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation are making virus spillover events much more likely, a major new study from scientists in Australia and the US has found,” Charli Shield wrote recently in EcoWatch. She added that, “The number of emerging infectious disease outbreaks has more than tripled every decade since the 1980s. More than two thirds of these diseases originate in animals, and about 70% of those come from wild animals. Many of the infectious diseases we’re familiar with — Ebola, HIV, swine and avian flu — are zoonotic.”

Because of global travel, these diseases then spread rapidly across the globe, as the novel coronavirus did, causing the pandemic we are currently fighting. A nonprofit organization founded by former First Lady Laura Bush is using creative data-based partnerships to protect land, natural habitats and ecosystems in Texas and ultimately around the U.S.

I spoke with its CEO, Joni Carswell, to learn about their approach and how it’s working. Carswell is not an environmentalist, but rather brings a business and management eye, so her orientation is different than most leaders of environmental nonprofits.

Here are key takeaways from our conversation that could benefit other environmental and conservation groups:

1. Partnerships and data:  When organizations and/or companies reach out to Texan By Nature (TxN) for support with an environmentally-oriented challenge they are struggling to address, TxN develops appropriate partnerships to help them address it, and collect the data they need to measure if their impact. “We say data-based because, as you work with both the science community and the business community, the best way to bring those communities to the table is to talk to them in their own language; to talk in terms of return, to talk in terms of total impact,” Carswell explained.

“If you can prove the science that’s been used for a particular mode of conservation, whether it’s prairie restoration, water restoration, reef restoration, in terms of species impact, in terms of gallons saved, In terms of acres impacted and of the new species that you’re seeing, then you’re bringing the actual scientists to the table…(and that also speaks to the business community).  It’s…. talking about the return we get for the business community, for our overall environment and natural community and for our health and people.”

She told me they are starting to build a database of best practices that will eventually be searchable.

2. Results of data-based partnerships:  At the University of Texas McDonald Observatory in the Davis Mountains, “at around 11pm, you feel like you can run your hands through the stars, because there are so many,” Carswell told me explaining one project.  In recent years, the Observatory started to see a lot of light emanating from oil and gas production sites that was going to negatively affect the Observatory’s research, as well as negatively affect wildlife and other natural resources in the area. To address this, TxN facilitated a collaboration with the oil and gas industry to institute dark skies lighting practices, and as they tracked the data, they found that these practices also benefited the oil and gas industry by both improving safety and reducing costs. “That’s an example of science coming together, from the stand point of lighting engineers and astronomers who work at the Observatory, and working with industry to see the actual impact on their bottom line,” as Carswell put it.

They also worked with Dell on habitat restoration on its own 38-acre corporate campus, including seeding pollinators, and with BAE Systems’ Austin, TX campus on seeding pollinator gardens, restoring native grasses, collecting rainwater and AC condensate, monarch shelters and educating employees about it on their corporate campus.

3. Projects continue despite the pandemic: Even as companies have put some TxN conservation projects on hold due to the pandemic, others continue unabated, Carswell said. For example, Phillips 66’s projects continue, which is interesting considering what a hit oil prices have taken from the Russia-Saudi Arabia spat, as well as from severely reduced energy consumption from the economic shutdown.

That said, TxN is exploring collaborating with industries that have not been hit as hard by the pandemic- economic crisis and at more traditional philanthropic grants as well.

4. Lessons for other nonprofits: Nonprofits need to take more pages from for-profit playbooks, Carswell insinuated to me, especially when it comes to their payrolls, staffing, strategic planning, and marketing. “The whole nonprofit model of paying people very, very little because they should be mission based, and expecting more from the nonprofit model than we do from the for-profit sector and looking at the skillsets that maybe aren’t as well defined in the nonprofit sector,” are a few of the things that she feels that leadership like hers with a business background could help nonprofits with.  She also mentioned having “the right message around it and….the right partners,” which may be new skills nonprofits have not had to acquire before, but that would be very advantageous for them to build.

Maybe if more companies do more natural resource restoration projects we can avert another climate-related disease.

Listen to my full interview with Joni Carswell, including insightful career advice, on my podcast, Green Connections Radio on any podcast platform or on our website soon, and read my Forbes blog of career tips from her career for changing industries.