As Conservation Programs Director, Jenny manages the conservation team, supporting their strategic decision making, innovations, and development as individuals. She leads the engagement with Nature United's global affiliate, The Nature Conservancy, and the organization's global conservation programs, focusing on the 2030 conservation goal. As part of the leadership team, she also plays a key role in setting the direction of Nature United as a whole.
Jenny has an engineering degree, and worked briefly as an aerospace engineer before volunteering for the U.S. National Park Service, which ignited her passion for conservation. She then obtained her PhD in ecology from University of California Davis and began working for The Nature Conservancy as an intern after graduating 25 years ago.
Since she began, Jenny has worked for its Oregon program, as a research and monitoring lead at Sycan Marsh preserve and then later as the lead on a groundwater and biodiversity assessment of the Pacific Northwest, and Minnesota program, as the Director of Conservation Science. In 2008, she came to the Canada program to work with First Nations on the coast of B.C. and to support northern conservation.
She lives with her husband, Todd, and two dogs. In her spare time, she is an avid cross-country skier, backpacker, swimmer and gardener, and she volunteers for Methow at Home, which provides services to seniors, allowing them to live at home for longer.
How did you get involved with the organization?
I’ve been working with our global affiliate, The Nature Conservancy since 1997. It’s an organization that I keep coming back to; it’s a place to learn and grow. From my field work in Oregon, to leading conservation science efforts in Minnesota, I realized I wanted to be working with people to build an understanding of the science and make decisions toward a more resilient future for generations to come.
When did you start working in Canada?
In 2008 I started working as the community program leader for the Great Bear Rainforest in British Columbia. That work would ultimately lead to Nature United becoming a registered charity in 2014.
What do you like about Nature United's approach to conservation?
From a conservation perspective, each individual program is empowered to make decisions—but there is connection between the programs through shared organizational goals. I think of the organization as a house, with individual pillars (our programs and rafters, transgeographical connections) to make that house ever stronger.
Celebrating the Great Bear Rainforest Agreement
My first trip to the Great Bear Rainforest was in 2007. As I boarded a propeller plane in Vancouver, I thought I was going to Bella Bella (an isolated community of 1,000 on British Columbia’s central coast, just north of Vancouver Island) to facilitate a one-off conservation planning session for the Heiltsuk First Nation. The initial Great Bear Agreement had just been signed (with support from The Nature Conservancy) and 1.6 million hectares of new conservancies had been created. The Heiltsuk wanted to develop a management plan for one of those newly protected areas, the Koeye River. Easy, I thought, I’ll fly in for a week, lead the group in a few planning exercises, and then fly back home and continue with my science work.
But I was wrong—that week forever changed how I think about conservation. And it was just the start: The pace of change over less than a decade in the Great Bear is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in the 30-plus years I’ve worked in conservation.
I spent that week at Koeye with Larry Jorgenson, the local founder of a community group called Qqs Projects Society (meaning “eyes” in Heiltsuk and pronounced kucks) leading the planning. His daughter, Jess Úst̓i, and his son, William Housty—who were finishing undergraduate degrees in medieval literature and natural resource management, respectively—joined us, along with several others.
The first question I asked was, essentially, what matters to you in this place? I’d brought oversized sticky notes to capture what I heard, and by the end of the first day, the room we were in was wallpapered with notes. (Which may sound overwhelming but was actually quite functional—ever since, every time I visit, I bring Jess a pack of oversized stickies for her latest planning efforts.) Over the subsequent days, Jess and I painstakingly worked through each community value, ultimately building the bones of a plan that the Heiltsuk would negotiate with the provincial government and finalize five years later.
Since that week in 2008, I’ve watched the Heiltsuk step forward as leaders in protecting nature and social well-being in their vibrant, coastal community. William himself has led more than five years of scientific research on the region’s grizzly bears, gathering DNA that suggests that the Koeye is one of the densest bear habitats in North America. His research has also started to illuminate the distances bears travel to reach salmon-rich streams like the Koeye, making the science case for forest management across a much larger area than just the places where bears congregate to feed.
The foundation of this leadership has been a new, integrated resource management department, which the Heiltsuk created to manage conservancies, forestry tenures and all other natural resources in their territory. (Jess and William both sit on the Board.) In fact, in just eight years, nearly all of the Indigenous communities in Great Bear have established their own natural resource offices or governance systems.
If you asked me to describe this work five years ago, I would’ve talked your ear off about place-based communities, a term to describe people who are connected to their local ecology through culture, food, sustenance, history and their role in governing the use of local resources. First Nations fall squarely into this category, and so do ranchers and agricultural communities that rely on local resources for their cultural and economic well-being.
That concept still describes our work, and I now believe that can lead us to big and powerful opportunities to conserve nature that we miss otherwise.
But today, when I describe the work we do with our partners in the Great Bear, I talk in terms of change and leadership. What we’ve seen happen in less than a decade is beyond what we could’ve imagined.