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Molly Stevens

INTERVIEWEE: Molly Stevens (MS)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT), David Weisman (DW)
DATE: November 19, 2018
LOCATION: Austin, Texas
TRANSCRIBER: Robin Johnson
MEDIA: HD video
REEL: 3479

DT: My name is David Todd. I’m here for the Conservation History Association of Texas. It’s November 19, 2018 and we’re in Austin. And we are visiting with Molly Stevens who has been a charitable nonprofit manager for many years, working with the United Way, with the Nature Conservancy of Texas, with the Environmental Defense Fund’s Texas office, and, more recently, has gotten involved in environmental education, working at Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center and active with Children in Nature Collaborative and Families in Nature—and many other ventures. But just want to take this chance to thank Molly for spending time with us.

MS: My pleasure.

DT: So we—when we were on camera before, we got a little chance to—to get introduced to Miss Stevens and I thought that you might be able to st—start us off and tell us a little about your childhood. I understand that you grew up in—in Michigan and I was curious if there were any influences that you could point to in your early life that might have suggested you’d go into the charitable field and—and conservation more specifically?

MS: Hmm. Well let’s start with conservation because I think it is my childhood that pointed me in that direction. My father and uncle and grandfather built a cabin in Northern Michigan in—between 1927 and 1929 and on a lake, Beaver Lake, which is in the northeastern part of the state near Lake Huron. And, as I was growing up, that was as a common of a part of my life as—as Flint was. We—we went up there for most of the summer, learned to fish, sail, hike, swim across the lake, canoe.
So a lot of my summer life as a child was spent out of doors and around—around Beaver Lake. And, in particular, it—it—it—World War II, all of the white pine was taken off in the early 1900s to build the naval ships during World War I. And, but there was a small stand of—of white pine on Beaver Lake that wasn’t taken off, for whatever reason, and my father really held it as kind of a holy place. And early in the morning, he would often get us up right at sunrise and we’d go back in the woods and go visit these virgin white pine trees that were back there.
And I—I think I understood kind of viscerally at a early age that that was—that was sort of a—a—a glimpse of what conservation was about and—and also, what it was like to kind of worship in nature without sounding too religious.

DT: I’m—I love hearing the story about visiting the white pine stand and I’m curious if you can dredge up any other memories of—of canoeing outings or swimming or sailing, I mean, all these activities you—you did outdoors.

MS: Well so, in addition to a childhood in the—and the privilege of Beaver Lake, which was a absolute privilege—still is—still part of my life—I was a camper. I went to camp in the summertime. And I went to one of these camps that, over the course of the years that you go there, you start out as a—as a—a—a very person. And as you move through the camp syst—system, you have more and more challenges, whether it’s that you go from a beginning swimmer to a—to an advanced swimmer. You go from a rower to a sailor.
But one of the key things about this camp was that, as you became a young teenager and a teenager, you really had the opportunity for some very advanced outdoor adventure. And as a 12 and 13 year old, we—we canoed the rivers in Michigan. Michigan has some beautiful wild rivers. And then when you got to be 14, 15 years old, you would go up to Quetico, which is the Ca—Canadian part of the Boundary Waters’ ecoregion northern Minnesota area. And that was a three-week long paddling adventure through the lake country of Quetico.
And so there was a competency that was developed over that time in being outside and in nature and—but there was also a real reverence that built, during that experience as well, around caring for nature and how to comport—comport yourself in nature and such. So, you know, in addition to Beaver Lake, I had that wonderful experience that I think was also a real anchor to who I am today.

DT: All right. You—you mentioned that your dad was—was your—your guide and the person who woke you up I guess to go see these white pines. And I’m wondering if there was somebody or maybe more than one person who was a camp counselor or a teacher in your childhood who was sort of a mentor?

MS: Yeah. You know, I didn’t certainly recognize it at the time, but there were two women who took the trip out to Canada with our group and they—they—they were pretty remarkable women. You know, we were 14, 15 years old. They were probably 21, 22. They seemed much older at the time, but they were so competent at catching and cleaning and cooking a fish and making sense out of the environment where we were keeping everybody safe. You know, I never worried that I wasn’t safe.
I think about it now and I think about who let their kids go with these 21, 22 year old people up into the wilds of Canada like that, but we did. And then I actually took those trips out myself later as a counselor at the same camp. So—and I don’t remember—I don’t remember their names. I can picture—I can picture them but I don’t recall their names. But they were exceedingly competent and—and I aspired to be equally competent.

DT: You’ve told us a little bit about what you were doing during the summers when you were a child. Is—is there anything you could describe for us about during the school year perhaps as you’re growing up that might have introduced you to the outdoors as well?

MS: Well, you know, Michigan, first of all, is a—just an amazing—it’s—it’s an amazing state in terms of its natural resources. It has the Great Lakes. It has all these fabulous rivers. It has four very distinct and strong seasons. And so it—it was a—it was a life that was spent as much outdoors as indoors…all four seasons. And I have particular memories of the winter. I love the snow. As I was a—a young adult, I, in addition to sort of growing up skiing, I began snowshoeing and cross country skiing. And so, you know, I—I—my life was very connected to the out of doors always.
And I think about school, hmm, not so much. I mean, I went to kind of a—a typical school environment that was all indoors. We rarely went outside. In elementary school, I suppose you went outside and played on the jungle gyms and things like that, but there was—there was no effort to connect us to the natural world or—or to create nature on campus that was accessible. I don’t recall there being any sort of connection at all to the—to—to nature that was school based.

DT: Well the—I don’t want to skip any chapters, but I—I think I understand you went to college at Olivet. Is there any sort of—sort of passage while you were there that—that was significant and in a environmental way or introduction to the outdoors?

MS: Yeah. So I was pretty we—well introduced to the out of doors by the time I went to college. I—I was a—a real outdoor enthusiast I would say. And we looked at several small, private colleges in—in Michigan and part of why—why I ended up at Olivet was they had black squirrels, lots of them. The—the—it’s built around a beautiful grove of—of oak trees. But, as I was walking around and visiting with faculty and such, I was just amazed by all these beautiful dark black squirrels.
And so, at the end of the day, that was sort of the—the tipping point for me was to go to Olivet because they had black squirrels. And I was just back there recently. I was driving up from Indiana to—to Michigan and I drove and spent some time at Olivet. And I was thrilled to see the black squirrels. I still like them. Yeah. But the—one nice thing about—about Olivet was there was a—a really lovely, shallow lake there where a lot of the geese rested while migrating. So there was—there was that opportunity to observe large, huge flocks of geese coming through and resting.
And there was a quarry with a big rope sw—rope swing that we could swing out and drop into the quarry. But I don’t recall any other sort of nearby nature experiences there. I think I sort of held that for when I was out of school, I would do those things.

DT: Well, see if I have this right. In—in ’77, you graduate from Olivet and then is your first job with the United Way or do you pretty quickly go to the United Way?

MS: Yeah, yeah. I—right after I graduated, my boyfriend and I took almost—well almost three months and did sort of a long drive and backpacking trip through the West. We—we started out in Michigan, of course, and out to Colorado and then down through New Mexico and Arizona, to California and up the California, Oregon, Washington State Coast, to Canada and across Canada and eventually back to—to Michigan. So that was a—a terrific experience. An—I—and another, I think key part of that time in my life was that my brother was killed in a car accident and soon afterward my mother died my senior year in—in college.
And so, you know, one of the things I would say about that adventure was the discovery of how healing nature can be and—and a connection. For me, I think that’s one of the strongest tethers between me and nature is this awareness of—of how helpful and healing the joy and wonder and beauty of nature can be. And it especially showed up in that—in that trip across the West. And then when I got back to—I came back to Flint, in part, because of that experience—the—the loss of my brother and mother.
I had other siblings and my father in Flint and—and so I—I came back to Flint because I felt the need to be near family and to be helpful if I could to my father. And old family friends had a let’s find Molly a job party—a—a lunch with several people who came together. And, at the end of that lunch, I had an interview lined up at United Way in Flint and was hired shortly thereafter. And so I was a political science major in college and I was very interested in the whole notion of community organizing and Saul Alinsky, his sort of theory of community organizing.
And somebody said, “Oh well, you know, United Way uses volunteers better than any organization in the world. You should go—you should learn what you can about—about community and about volunteer leadership from an organization that does it very well.” Of course, there could be no—no more different world than Saul Alinsky’s and United Way I don’t think. I mean, they were very different worlds, but they did have in common community and how to leverage community, how to engage community, inspire and motivate community.
And I learned a lot in my years at United Way about—about community. And I will say that United Way I think attracts to its leadership some of the—some of the most benevolent and—and smart people that there are in a—in a community. So it was a fabulous experience for me to—to work in that environment for the years that I did.

DT: You know, it seems interesting to me that the United Way is such a large organization and—and stable and, you know, universal you—you find in so many communities, but that it’s built on altruism and volunteering and giving back, these things which are—are—are not required. And—and I was wondering if you could give us some insight of the—the view from, you know, starting with that kind of career and following through where, you know, you’ve been in the—this—this nonprofit world for decades now.

MS: Yep, yep, decades. I must be decades old. That’s the—that’s the only way I could be doing this for decades. So yeah, I—I—you—the—I was thinking about this reading yo—this question in your papers and so there’s sort of two—two things that I might say about that. On—on the one hand, my experience working with volunteers in the nonprofits that I’ve worked in has been really the high point of my career of working with people who give significant amounts of their time and their money and their creativity and entrepreneurship to the nonprofit world.
It is—it’s sort of the fuel for—for effective nonprofits I think is their ability to attract really strong community leaders. And—and it’s—and it’s also fuel to you as an individual to do your work well because—because if you have this added layer of—of benevolence that has been afforded you and your organization, that’s definitely I think something that has been a pretty constant drumbeat in my career has been the privilege of working with really motivated and talented volunteers.
The other thing that I’ve just been sort of thinking about and reading about lately is where did—where did this charity and altruism come from. It’s not a universal—it’s no—I mean, it’s more universal than it was, but—but the notion of charitable giving and—and the emergence of a whole nonprofit sector that is dealing with human care services and health services and the environment and education and such is—to—to some degree, came out of ear—the—the—the convergence of capitalism and Christianity in—in our society.
As—as Christians began making significant amounts of money, charity became kind of a way of tithing or of—of making—squaring it up with God that it’s okay to—to make a lot of money so long as you give some of it away in support of—of charitable efforts. And so that really is sort of the early emergence of—of a charitable sector in—in our country is trying to kind of square up making a lot of money with being a Christian.

DT: Sort of like a secular tithing?

MS: Yeah, absolutely. And I, you know, on some level, I think that’s still kind of true. When you think about major indiv—huge gifts that are made by folks who have made a lot of money, I think it is still a little bit of a secular tithing that—that drives—drives that kind of charitable giving.

DT: So you—you worked in Flint under United Way’s umbrella and then later in New Orleans. And I—I was curious if you would talk about the—the—both those two communities and what you learned from them and—and maybe some of the—the work that you did there?

MS: Yeah. Well in Flint, I was the Communications and Marketing Director for the United Way there when I left. I started out as a CETA [Comprehensive Employment and Training Act] employee. I don’t know if you—you know what—CETA stood for—I don’t even know anymore. It was kind of a government subsidized internship that was popular in the 1970s. And so kind of straight out of school, I had a CETA position as a writer for United Way in Flint. And then—as when I left, I was—I was doing marketing communications there.
Worked for a very talented marketing and communications person who—who is still a very good friend, who’s—-who’s actually now in New Orleans. That’s a long story but—and then I sort of reached the point where I felt like my time in Flint had reached a good—a good point for leaving and you could do something called “activate your file” with United Way, which meant they would begin sending it into different communities where you might be interested in working. And I said anywhere but the southeast.
I don’t want to go to the s—I want to go to the South or the South—the Southeast. The next thing I know I’m interviewing in New Orleans. And I remember flying in—flying in and—at a window seat and looking out the window and seeing the swamps of Louisiana—flying over the swamps of Louisiana from Michigan and th—then this being a—a—like landing on the moon. And I thought I’m just going to go and exchange my ticket and get back on the plane because there’s no way I’m going to live in Louisiana if this is what Louisiana is.
Anyway, of course, I got off the plane and interviewed and—and fou—found it pretty exciting and interesting and took—and took the job there as the Marketing and Communications Director for the New Orleans United Way. And there were so many things that surprised me about that change. I expected, you know, the sort of historic segregation to be much more rigid than—that it was in Flint and certainly I didn’t expect women to be particularly well treated because it was the Deep South.
And none of that was true. In fact, I found it to be a more progressive community in a significant way, a more progressive community than Flint, particularly in how I was treated as a woman. I felt it was a—a—a significant change from my experience in Flint. And it’s an integrated community. I lived in an integrated neighborhood. And it—it was nothing that I expected and I fell in love with New Orleans. It’s a wonderful—a wonderful city. And I had a wonderful experience there.
Worked for United Way for almost thirteen years total, but my first four years in New Orleans I was the Marketing and Communications Director. Then I took a year leave of absence and I went on a big wander around the world. And when I came back, I was offered the opportunity to run the campaign there. And so that was my last four years in—in New Orleans. I—I ran the annual campaign as the chief fundraiser.


DT: Well so when you were in Flint, you were in marketing and communications and then again in New Orleans. And then you—you get promoted to run the—the annual campaign which a big responsibility, but I guess there’s a thread through all that work that you are asking people to give of themselves their pocketbooks, their time, to this nonprofit venture to help other people. And—and I think you touched on this idea of secular tithing and—I don’t know if that’s accurate phrase for it—but can you talk a little bit about how you—how would you make the pitch, what would your spiel be for persuading people to—to volunteer their time or—or money?

MS: I—I often compare fundraising to dating or making a new friend. You know, you meet somebody and you—you—there’s a spark there and you think, “Hey, this person’s interesting” and you have a communication and—and conversation and you discover that you have some things in common. And so then you become better friends and eventually, you know, maybe you become best friends. And then that relationship is—it is cared for over—over time. I think fundraising is very much the same. You—it’s—it’s building one genuine relationship at a time.
You meet somebody. You find out that there is a spark or an interest in the organization or the work of the organization. You—you—you cultivate and nurture that relationship and, at the right time, you invite their engagement as a volunteer or a fund—or a funder. You know, I think that it is—it is building one relationship at a time. And a foundation or a corporate giving program, those exist for the purpose of giving money away. And so I think that it’s easy to have courage in navigating those relationships because they’re going to give money to somebody and it may as well be you.
And—and so very similarly, I think it’s developing one relationship at a time. But—but it is—it is I think an easier part of fundraising to raise funds from an organization that exists for the purpose of being charitable. When I think about individual giving, most of us are philanthropists as well. We give—we give to our kids’ schools. We give to the—the PTA, the—our church or our synagogue or, you know, we—we are—we’ve grown up in a society that is benevolent and that—and that is charitable.
And so particularly when I’m working with our—our board around the courage of fundraising, I talk about it being very much like approaching a foundation or a corporation. Individuals are generous and they share their wealth with other organizations and institutions and it’s up to you to make the case that your work is worthy of their support. So I don’t know if that answers your question or not, but I—I think that all of the fundraising that I’ve done has been about making the case that what we’re doing is important and worthy of—of investment from funders.

DT: So it—it sounds like it’s—it’s—there may be two—two efforts here. One is—is maybe telling a story of the—the program and—and the people that are being served, but it’s also about this idea of building a relationship of trust and confidence between a donor and you as a—an applicant I guess. Is that true?

MS: Yes. Well, yes, absolutely. I mean, people—people want to know that it—regardless of the size of the gift, they want to know that it’s—that it’s going someplace that’s going to be well used, used for the purpose that—that you think it’s going to be used for and—and stewarded and—and have an impact. So, you know, at the—at the core of all fundraising is “this is who we are, this is what we do, and this is why we matter.” And then it’s up to the donor to decide if that’s where—where they want to make their own personal investment.

DT: I—I think it’s—it’s intriguing that—that you worked in—in two communities—Flint, Michigan and New Orleans, Louisiana—that have had struggles with—with justice and—and equal opportunity that were highlighted by the lead controversy in—in Flint and then by Katrina back in ’05 in—in New Orleans. And—and I was curious if you could talk a little bit about—about those—those efforts to try to, you know, right or wrong, try to equal the—level the playing field maybe?

MS: Well, I think, in both cases, you’re talking about a story of environmental injustice. Certainly start with Flint. When I left Flint in—in 1980, the population was almost 400,000. I think it’s now less than 100,000. So it has been an absolute flight from the city largely because of the closing of all the General Motors operations in Flint. It was a real one-horse town. And that was a hell of a horse when I was growing up. I mean, Flint was like the Silicon Valley of the Midwest.
It was one of the most robust and healthy cities in the country with an enormous upper middle class of people who—who made their income working in—for General Motors. And I think something like 70 percent or 65 percent of the population, in some way, was directly connected to General Motors when I—when I was living there. And as General Motors shut down and all of those opportunities evaporated, anybody who could pretty much left. And the folks that remained in Flint were those that didn’t have the sort of opportunities and capacity to—to do something different.
And so Flint has been really left with a population of people who struggle financially and—and—so when this whole lead crisis came about, already the city had been stripped of its sort of financial management. That had been taken over by the state years before. And—and talk about an un-empowered population of people, a—a population of people that were low income, didn’t have direct responsibility for the operation of their city. The city manager was reporting to the State of—of Michigan.
So when—when this whole lead crisis emerged, it really left—is this going to be a problem—sorry—it—it really left the—the population with some significant challenges and a lack of power to really address them. New Orleans, I think was—was similar. I mean, I have—we have very dear friends who lost everything. We have several friends who lost everything—everything—except for their glassware and china that couldn’t be dissolved by whatever was in the water that floated into their house.
But and—and—and so that was a little bit more of a—a—a universal flood and it affected lots of people at lots of income levels, lots of communities. But the rebuilding of New Orleans has largely focused on the wealthier parts of the city and the wealthier communities. The Ninth Ward in Irish Channel have been the last to really receive the sort of investment and rebuilding effort that other parts of the city enjoyed earlier—earlier on. So, you know, those are environmental injustices about not having the voice and the power to be able to influence the outcome.
And in both Flint and in New Orleans, you see—you see that play out in communities that are underserved, underrepresented, underfunded, undereducated, underinvested in.

DW: Underwater actually.

MS: Underwater, yes.


DT: So I think you’ve carried us from 1977 through 1990 and your work and life at—in—in Flint and in New Orleans and—and your work in the United Way. I understand that in 1990, you came to San Antonio. Is that correct?

MS: Um-hm, that’s right.

DT: To work for the Nature Conservancy of Texas. And I was curious what brought you here and what—what your hopes were and how—how things worked out?

MS: So Sam and I married in ’87. And, as I mentioned earlier, I had taken a year’s leave of absence in ’85 and traveled extensively. And I didn’t quite have it out of my system yet. And so—and Sam had been in the Peace Corps and had a lot of connection to the Far East. And we cashed in our retirement funds and—and took a—another big wander around the world. And we quit our jobs. We quit our jobs; we cashed in our retirement funds, which—which we’re now regretting [laughing] a little bit. But—and—and we tr—and we traveled.
And when we got back to New Orleans, we were ready to start a family and we didn’t feel like we wanted to—wanted to stay in—in New Orleans. It’s—it’s a—it is a—the public education system there is poor and we being servants of—of the nonprofit and government world weren’t going to earn the kind of money you need to be able to pr—put your kids through private school. And so—and there were a lot of—a lot of reasons that we left, but—but that was a big one. And Central Texas was one of our three high priority communities that we wanted to consider.
Sam’s mother was born and raised in Austin and hi—his father was born and raised up on the Red River. We had a cousin that we were very close to here. And we liked Austin a lot. And so we sort of focused on this area. And I applied at—and I wanted to make the shift—I think this is the heart of the—of this question—I really wanted to take my nonprofit experience and fundraising experience and apply it to the environment. That was—I—I felt like I was going to be more satisfied long-term if I could align my interest in the environment with my—my fundraising skills.
So that was very intentional. Every job I applied for here and elsewhere was related to the environment. And—and Sam and I found work in Central Texas within a week of each other and me for the Nature Conservancy. And—and, at the time, the Nature Conservancy was planning to move to Austin. And so they said, “Don’t worry. We’re going to, you know, have Sam focus on—on Austin.” We’re going to move—we’re going to move to Austin. And, but by the time we got here, the board had shifted its intention to stay in San Antonio.
So we lived in New Braunfels for three years and commuted opposite directions every—every day. That was how we—how we started. But th—that was what brought us to—to—to Central Texas. And Sam was working for the Health Department, which was what he wanted to—what he wanted to do as well.

DT: Well, so that’s interesting. This was a very intentional focused thing that you—you wanted to make the jump from I guess general…

MS: Health and human care services sort of was the focus of United Way.

DT: To—to more conservation work. And—and so you—you started at the Nature Conservancy which, at the time, was a much smaller group than it is today. And so I’m curious what—what inspired you to—to choose the Nature Conservancy over I guess other nonprofits that you could have worked for?

MS: Well I—yeah—as I recall, I think I applied for work with the Nature Conservancy and with—there was a Travis Audu—or a Audubon position in North Carolina that I applied for. I really wanted to—to work in la—in conservation. And, you know, I—I was increasingly aware of the kind of—of sort of paving over of our natural world that was happening all over the country and—and wanted to put my foot into that—in that world of being able to conserve land and habitat and water for wildlife and for people. So—so, you know, that was very much my—my focus.
And, at the time, as small as the Nature Conservancy was, it was probably the largest conservation organization nonprofit in the country. So—so that was at the top of my list was the Nature Conservancy.

DT: And—and your duties there were to raise money for both the staff and for land acquisitions?

MS: Yep. I was—I was doing both fundraising, marketing, and communications was sort of all part of my responsibility when I—when I came to the Conservancy. And I had a small team of people—somebody who was doing sort of the membership program and somebody who was focused on marketing and communications and such. And I had a fulltime secretary who typed everything that I wrote. I wrote it all out longhand and handed it to a secretary who it’s har—hard to imagine that I was—that that’s how I functioned back then.
But all of my years at the Nature Conservancy, I was still writing everything out longhand.

DT: So it sounds like you were juggling several different programs to do outreach, educate people about what the conservancy was doing, but also to—to raise money. And—and I guess some of it was maybe more of a mass market appeal and—and then others on—on individual donors and then some on foundations. Is that fair? Was it sort of those three areas or how—how did that work?

MS: Yeah, I—I would say that it was pretty foundation dependent. We were getting into some of this sort of joint marketing work between corporations and United Way, where they wanted to be able to use our name in their marketing and in their—in exchange they were generous to—to United Way. I forget what the term was for that now. But—but it was a lot of foundation revenue and membership at the time, maybe this is still true. All of the funding that went into the national office from Texas was then sent back to our office as part of a, you know, significant part of our operating revenue.
We—we picked up at—at like a hundred dollars. So a member was then I think a fifteen or twenty dollar membership. That money came back from the national office. We—anything over one hundred dollars was really kind of managed out of this office. At the time, it was a pretty short list.

DT: Who were some of the—the larger donors that you, you know, you don’t need to give names but if there’s a way to sort of describe the profile of a large donor or—or of a—a foundation supporter at the time?

MS: Well I think that some of the big foundations in Texas were just beginning to develop kind of a environmental portfolio, if you will, of organizations that—that they were funding. And so some of the big foundations that you might think of in—in Texas—do you not want me to mention names?

DT: Oh no, please.

MS: I mean, you know, Houston Endowment, Brown Foundation, Meadows Foundation, Kleberg Foundation, the your fo—your foundation, the—the—the Wray Trust. But those were all certainly participating organizations. And, of course, early on was the emergence of the Environmental Grantmakers Group (Texas EGG). Those members were certainly part of—part of the early leadership around funding. Mary Kay Cosmetics was a huge funder for the Nature Conservancy.
Interestingly enough, the leadership of—of Mary Kay was very interested in—in—in conservation and the environment and we had some significant leadership from that organization on our board and heading up sort of our communication strategies and such. So those were some of the key leaders at the time.

DT: And when you think of the conversations that you had back then, what do you think was—was persuasive, first of all, that they should give to habitat protection and then secondly, to give to the Nature Conservancy?

MS: You know, I think that there had to be some of a pre-disposition th—of value for nature. You know, I think that somebody who didn’t think about it or where you didn’t have a leader within an organization who valued the natural world, I think is very hard to penetrate and make the case that this was important work. So, you know, I think, first and foremost, you had to kind of find somebody for whom nature and wildlife and conservation and water mattered. And I think about that now.
I think it would be very hard not to find somebody in all—almost any organization that has that pre-disposition. But, in the early ‘90s, that wasn’t necessarily true. And so—so I—I think there—I think that there was that. And then the Nature Conservancy had a terrific track record. They had acquired and protected some spectacular places around Texas. And Texans are pretty proud of Texas.
And so this—fo—for people who did have some predisposition toward caring for nature looked at, you know, the conservation of Sandyland Sanctuary in East Texas or Honey Creek in—just outside of San Antonio, some of these really spectacular places in the state and saw that—that this was a—a—an important way to work on conservation in Texas. So I’m going to stop for a minute and take a drink.

DT: So—so Molly, you were talking about how you could appeal to donors to get them enthusiastic and generous about some of the initiatives that—that the Nature Conservancy had. And—and I think you mentioned Sandylands and Honey Creek as ways to connect with people’s pride in Te—the Texas landscape. And so I’m wondering if—if that was often the pitch, that—that there are these iconic scenes, these—these views of Texas that people really fall in love with, or if it was a more scientific abstract thing about the wildlife and, you know, the—the bugs and beetles that lived in that place that was persuasive?

MS: People come through all kinds of doors. Somebody comes through the scientific research door because we’re doing research and that’s important to—important to them. People come through the fish door because they’re interested in the conservation of—of saltwater fish. And so the work that you’re doing on the coast is important. Somebody comes through the door of, you know, caring about birds and they want to conserve habitat for all kinds of birds. So it’s a—it’s one of the delightful things about working in this field is—is all the different things that motivate people to engage.
People come through the door because they grew up in that space and habitat and have their own wonderful memories of—of growing up there and they want to see it conserved for human recreation and—and enjoyment. So I think there’s all kinds of ways that—that people come to conservation coming to the environmental philanthropy world. At the Nature Conservancy, we were also endeavoring to do landscape scale conservation, the notion of being able to preserve 28 acres here and 90 acres there, had very limited impact.
It was a little chunk of beauty that could be preserved but in terms of really allowing that habitat to flourish, it was—those were islands of—of conservation. And—and so there were three big, what we call bioreserves preserves proposed at the time. You may recall that one was the—the Hill Country, the—the Edwards Plateau bioreserve. There was another that was the Davis Mountains area of West Texas, a bioreserve in—in that area. And a third was along—along the coast. So to do major landscape scale conservation, the—the idea I think was right.
You do need significant conservation in order to protect certain species. I think the golden cheeked warbler is a great example of—of the work that’s been done here in Central Texas through the Habitat Conservation Plan. Westcave is part of the Habitat Conservation Plan where there’s enough land set aside really to be able to sustain the health of a species or a—or a—a habitat community. The downside to this was that rural landowners freaked out when they realized that their ranch or farm or—was in this—in this bioreserve.
Suddenly this fear that somehow it was going to be turned into a giant national park and they were going to lose it at—their opportunity to protect and manage their land as they intended, kind of derailed the term bioreserve as a—as a strategy for landscape scale conservation. However, I think that the Nature Conservancy did make significant progress in looking at larger scale conservation initiatives and—and—and partnering with all kinds of landowners within a landscape to engage them in a partnership of conservation.
And that certainly has been a big part of how the conservancy has operated over the last couple of decades.

DT: I th—I think that the time that you were there in 1990 to 1993, if I’m right, at the Nature Conservancy—was this—this period when the Take Back Texas was very active and—and there was a lot of suspicion and—and anger about land conservation. And I—I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about—I think you touched on it just a moment ago—about how you—you managed to rebuild some trust and—and dialogue with some of the private property rights interests in Texas?

MS: You know, I think that’s been a decade’s long process. Y—it certainly didn’t turn on a dime. There was—there was deep seated mistrust, as you say, around—around what the intentions were of the environmental community. And, you know, I think about the Davis Mountains in particular where Big Bend National Park had emerged as a—a significant landholder and landowner. Then there was the Big Bend Ranch—the state turning over Big Bend Ranch, which was another enormous piece of landscape that was then publicly owned.
And I think that it has, like fundraising, it’s one relationship at a time. And I think it’s one of the things that the Nature Conservancy was and is very good at is—is that one-on-one relationship and building trust as you would with any friend or partner, but it takes time.

DT: So, Molly, when we left off last, I think you were talking about how the land conservation community was sort of rebuilding trust with the private property interests, the ranchers and farmers of the state. And—and I—I was curious if you could talk a little bit about I guess a major tool that land conservation uses now and that’s conservation easements and how that might have been a—a way to both save the cost of protecting land but also to try to reconnect with family ranches and farms?

MS: You know, I was saying that I think that it is similar to fundraising in that it’s one relationship at a time. And I think that one of the things that—that landowners feared when some of this landscape scale conservation came into focus was that people were assuming that they were not good stewards at—of their own property. And I think that one of the motivations of the conservation easement for the landowner is that it—it—it offers them the opportunity to demonstrate that commitment to conservation of their own property by—by putting part of it or all of it into a conservation easement.
And then they have the—the added impetus of, in some cases, being able to lower their taxes and have, at least in the short term, a more robust financial arrangement. So it—the—the use of—of conservation easements have been I think an important part of building trust with landowners because it leaves the responsibility and the—and the opportunity to manage and care for the land in the hands of—in the hands of the landowner.

DT: And—and these easements—as I understand it, they—they need to be held by a trust or—or I guess a state agency, federal agency. And I—I was hoping that you might be able to talk a little bit about a group that I think was starting about that time that you were at the Nature Conservancy, called the Land Trust Council and—and its effort to try and beef up not just large and established statewide groups like the Nature Conservancy, but also a lot of the local trusts.

MS: Well I think land trusts have emerged as being one of the key players in conservation, certainly in the Texas Hill Country. The Hill Country Land Trust is a major partner in creating conservation easements and in building relationships with landowners. The Land Trust I think has a much more local feel to it than something like the Nature Conservancy. And so they have—and they’ve been able to hold the conservation easements. And so they’ve become a major player in—in conservation throughout Texas.
I’m not all that familiar with the Texas Land Trust except that—to say the—the whole design and architecture of the Land Trust is aligned with—with private landowners and—and working with private landowners to create conservation easements and—and protect—protect those lands.

DT: I was hoping that you could also help flesh out kind of the—the larger land conservation field in Texas when you were at the Nature Conservancy, both the—the state actors—I mean, what Parks & Wildlife was doing at the time and what that—what niche was left over for private land conservation, but also I think you had some, you know, I don’t know if I should call them rivals or—or neighbors in the—the land conservation field like at the time the Natural Areas Preservation Association, the Conservation Fund, the Trust for Public Land—how—you know, what was the niche that the Nature Conservancy was planning at the time?

MS: So let’s see. There were several major areas where the Nature Conservancy partnered with some of those organizations. I mean, the Nature Conservancy had the nimble ability to be able to buy something when it came up for sale and hold it until one of these other organizations could take it on long term. So whether it was Coastal Conservation Association or Texas Parks & Wildlife or a—a National Wildlife Refuge kind of property, TNC had the ability to buy and hold things temporarily.
There was also a major effort you may recall—the Nature Conservancy would look for conservation buyers of property. Buy property, put a conservation easement on it, and then look for a conservation buyer to come in and be part of that. But the Trust for Public Land and Texas Parks & Wildlife have always been at the table around designing conservation strategies for the state of Texas. I’ve been out of the loop for a long time in—in that particular work. I think that there is some—some competition for resources to be able to do conservation work.
And—but I think that the—those organizations approach all of it very differently. The Nature Conservancy is able to acquire and protect land either temporarily or long term, whereas the Trust for Public Land is more interested in helping to develop and design policy that’s going to ensure that there’s a gr—greater opportunity for conservation. I’ve worked with the Conservation Fund. I think they’re a wonderful organization.
They funded us at Westcave to be able to acquire the—what we call the Rim Around the Canyon—when that came available and we were able to pay them back over a fairly long period of time, which was helpful. So, you know, all of those players are able to fill a certain niche that helps to kind of knit together a strong nonprofit community around conservation.

DT: Well I think you’ve—you’ve told us a little bit about the many things that the Nature Conservancy could do. And I was wondering if there were—you could also sort of try to describe the things that the Nature Conservancy felt like they couldn’t do? And I think that pretty careful to stay out of politics, at least in a—in a visible way. And can you explain some of the thinking behind that?

MS: Well I think that land conservation is a—a strategy, if you will, that crosses over the Democrat/Republican line—works on both sides of the aisle as you—as they say. And the board was comprised of people who came from both sides of the aisle. And so, you know, there—there was a significant effort I think on the part of the Conservancy to—to be all about ca—conservation of land, to serve in the role of protecting as much land as possible for wildlife. And I think that that probably has served the Nature Conservancy pretty well.
There’s a lot of government funding that flows to the Conservancy to—to—to do work along the coast, in particular. And sort of staying out of the fray of—of advocacy has—has I think probably served the organization fairly—fairly well.

DT: Well so—I think you’ve given us a—a—a nice story about your work at the Nature Conservancy from 1990 to 1993. And I thought this might be a good chance to talk about the break and, you know, when you decided to move onto another job and—and just the—how you’ve taken advantage of some of these breaks in the past and the hiatus that you took when you were at the—the United Way and down in—in New Orleans and what that allowed you to do and how that maybe gave you an opportunity to explore your options?

MS: Yeah, and I—so I have had the opportunity to do some very interesting things while—whi—while working. And I wonder if the nonprofit environment supports that better than maybe the corporate environment would. But in 80—in 1985, I was able to take almost a year to travel. Took a year’s leave of absence and—and—and traveled, and then again in 1989, my husband and I took another nine months and did a—did a similar kind of a trip. The first one I was reading this book called The Woman’s Place is on Top, which is about the first all-women’s team to get a permit to climb in the Himalayas of Nepal.
And I—I can remember finishing that book while I was actually in Cancun, Mexico with some friends and I closed the book and I thought, “That’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to go to Nepal and I’m going to—I’m going to hi—hike in the Himalayas. I didn’t have any aspiration to rope myself up and climb through ice and such, but I did want to go and—and see Nepal. And so that would have been probably like ’78, ’79. Soon thereafter, I found myself in New Orleans working for United Way and earning significantly more than I had been in Flint and—and living similarly to how I did in Flint.
And so I thought well I’m just going to start socking away money until I have enough to be able to send myself to Nepal. And—and then when I got to that point, I thought well if I’m going to go to Nepal, I ought to go to India. Gee, if I’m going to go to India, maybe I should go to Burma and maybe Thailand. And, before I knew it, I had sort of knitted together a whole yearlong adventure, which I set off on in March of 2000—of—of 1985.
And—and the—and—and the centerpiece of that trip really was m—my experience in Nepal. And I—that was sort of halfway through my trip that I ended up there, but it was a profound experience to be in the Himalayas and with—with people—with the ne—Nepali people who are—who live very, very, very simply with great joy.
And—and the who—the whole trip was an awareness of kind of the relationship between people and their environment and how they—how they live in their environment, ranging from being in a place like Calcutta, to being in a place like the Himalayas, but it had a, again, a very profound impact on me and on what it is that we humans really require in order to live well and to—and to be happy. But that trip—couple of key things.
One was that my father who had been stationed in the outback of Australia during World War II, before he went to Papua, New Guinea, had been corresponding with some friends in Australia for forty years at this point. And he met me in Australia. And so we had this extraordinary time together. Then I would say sort of m—th—the experience of being in India and Nepal, was another key component. And then I ended up in Europe where there’s almost no nature. I mean, that’s—that’s an—gross exaggeration—but I started out in Greece.
And in Greece, the—the livestock has grazed almost every blade of grass or—or plant. It—it’s sort of been denuded by—by domestic animals. Much of Europe has been—it’s small, it’s been built up, it’s—it has an ancient history to it and—and lots of breaking concrete and buildings and—and it was—I—I just had this sense of almost claustrophobia when I was traveling through Europe. There certainly are rural parts of Europe that are lovely and open and beautiful and it—I enjoyed those too.
But—but the—but you could see wh—without some sort of planning and design around land conservation as the population grows, you can lose the natural history of an area very quickly. And I ha—I think that, for me, that awareness certainly fed into my desire to be engaged in the—in the field of—of conservation—land conservation—land and water conservation.

DT: That’s really interesting. It sounds like it was kind of a twofold thing, at least, that you were seeing the relationship of people to their environment and the—the Nepalese and maybe the Indians to their rural and urban context, but also I guess the evolution of land as it—as some places get preserved and some peo—places get developed and—when you were traveling through Europe. Is that fair?

MS: Yeah, I mean, I—I don’t know the—again, there are parts of Europe where there is some beautiful natural resources, but, you know, we—we have this history in this country of almost five percent of our—of our land mass has been conserved in—in National Parks and National Forests and resources set aside for both their—their natural resource value and recreation value. That certainly isn’t true in Europe. Europe has—has been completely consumed by the—by human development and human use of—of land for all kinds of purposes, very little of it for the—the conservation value or recreation value of land.
You really see it and feel it. What open land there is, is—is—is grazed or is used for agriculture. There’s very little wild land.

DT: Tha—that must have been influential for you and—and maybe that was one of the things that was in your mind when you, you know, continued working in the conservation field, but you shifted from the Nature Conservancy Texas to the Texas Chapter of the Environmental Defense Fund. And I—I was hoping that you could tell about that—that new experience.

MS: Yeah. Wow, that was a big shift. You know, to—to go from, you know, purely land conservation for wildlife and—and water quality and—and preserving landscapes and—and plants to really a very policy-oriented kind of nonprofit. EDF was very much about—is very much about changing—changing policy so that there’s an opportunity to—to really influence climate change, first and foremost. That has become sort of the dominant interest of EDF over the years, but also wildlife and certainly water—oceans conservation.
And to do s—and to us—and to leverage sort of existing—what’s the word I’m trying to think of—I was trying to think of it earlier, you know, when the—offering incentives—thank you. That—there it is. Very incentive based policy, where they’re working to leverage existing incentives and what drives business and what drives government to leverage those incentives on behalf of conservation, oceans protection, climate change. And so it—for—it was a—it—for me, it was a significant shift and, as a fundraiser, a much more complex story to try and tell to foundations and individuals to engage them in supporting that—that work.

DT: Well, so if I understand where you’re going with this, it—it sounds like when you were at the Nature Conservancy, you could point to something. That’s—that’s a mountain, that’s a valley, that’s a river, you know, these dollars will go to these tangible things. But then you go to the Environmental Defense Fund and you’re trying to argue for something that is a more abstract and maybe more partisan too.

MS: Definitely more partisan and more abstract and very, you know, we—we had a, you know, some wins that we could point to. We could point to the FedEx trucks being converted to natural gas or we could point to—I’m trying to think of some of the other examples where we had, you know, sort of these nonprofit, corporate partnerships, but being able to, you know, those were helpful. Those kinds of partnerships were helpful in demonstrating this is how we work and why we are important.
But here in—in Texas, we—we were working on climate change, which is ju—just, by its very nature, a complex story to tell for all kinds of reasons. We were working on the Maquiladoras. We had a lot of presence along the border trying to influence how manufacturing was done across—across the border and sort of leveraging—leveraging NAFTA to try to influence the way that manufacturing was taking place across the border. Those were much more complex kinds of stories to tell effectively to funders than setting aside a beautiful piece of land for the plants and wildlife that lived there.

DT: How—I—I found it interesting too that—that the Nature Conservancy, you know, again, had a very kind of clear and definite thing that they were—they were doing and that they could explain to people, while Environmental Defense has had I think difficulty explaining their approach, both to those who are not environmentally minded who might, you know, oppose climate change work because they’re invested in energy business, for instance. But then also on the other side, the Environmental Defense Fund has had to build trust with folks who I think were distrustful of the market based approach that EDF was taking rather than this sort of traditional command and control, you know, way that—that a lot of their brethren in the environmental community might have first gone. Is that fair to say?

MS: Yeah, well I think it goes back to that trust thing again, right? I mean, particularly in—in the work of EDF where it is more partisan, having—I can—I can remember board members for the Advisory Board in—in Texas who—who left the Advisory Board when EDF supported NAFTA because it was perceived as sort of sleeping—lying down with fleas. And so there was a—there were folks that left the board. You know, it’s—wh—deciding who it is—who is—who is friend and foe, who—who is coming to the table to be partners because it’s the right thing to do, and who are coming to the table to be partners because it’s good for business.
You know, I think there was a perception—is a perception on the part of EDF that either one is a good thing so long as they come to the table and be a partner. Whether the motivation is purely benevolent or business oriented, they’re at the table. And I think that there are some who felt that they didn’t want to partner with everybody in that way.

DT: Wa—was there a fear that EDF might be coopted?

MS: Well, again, I think people come in through all kinds of doors and then partner with EDF for all kinds of reasons, but certainly, yeah, there are people who not only thought it could become coopted but who thought it had become coopted and that they were—that they were working hard to please partners who—who were out of sync with the values of the organization.

DT: So you were at EDF from 1993 to 2005, which I think was an extraordinary period of growth for EDF. And I was curious if you could talk a little bit about how a nonprofit evolves as it becomes a larger and larger organization and may not know everybody in the gr—group personally and—and it—it becomes, you know, just a—a bigger institution and it becomes less of the sort of small, lean and mean, nimble nonprofit that it began as?

MS: Yeah, you know, I—I go over to the EDF Office now and it’s like wow. It’s—there must be fifty people working in that office now. When I came to EDF, we were four, maybe five, people there. And yeah, nimble’s one way to—one—one way to—to look at it. It was—it was—we were a very small operation and still kind of trying to get our sea legs underneath us as to what was going to be our focus here in Central Texas. It had just opened when I came to work for EDF. Jim Marston had raised several multi-year gifts—three years of giving from individuals to open the office.
And when I started, that funding had just sort of be—finished—finished up. And so we were kind of at ground—at ground zero in some ways. But, you know, it—it was a very exciting time to be at EDF because there was a lot of entrepreneurship and invention going on of—of well here are—here are some problems that we’re dealing with in our state, what might our role be? What—how—how do we leverage market based systems to influence a better outcome as it relates to the Maquiladoras or energy policy or conservation of wildlife, which were sort of the early areas of focus for the organization?
And it—it’s interesting. Funders kind of drive that to some degree. You know, you—you sit down with a foundation and they say, “Well, you know, we’re—we’re very interested in water policy these days. And we’ve got a bucket of money fo—that we could spend on water policy. And so then the fundraiser goes back to the office and says, “Hey, what—what do we want to do about water policy? Where—where do we—where could we, where should we play as it relates to that topic? And so it was a very creative and entrepreneurial time I think for—for the organization.
And—and so—and so we—we might think well we better—we better hire a couple of people who know something about water policy. And so that’s, you know, that’s how you build. You—you—you design a program that includes the personnel to be able to carry out the work and you take that back to the funder and get some commitments. And—and—and that’s how the organization builds and—and grows until you’ve got a team there of—of professionals who, you know, have—who have wide ranging experience and relationships and partnerships and—and, you know, then all of those tethers begin to connect the organization to the rest of the community and the state and the—and the nation.
It was a very interesting time to be—to be involved with—with EDF.

DT: And I—you mentioned that—that, as an example I guess, that—that Environmental Defense was—was interested in—in a variety of things, but that there was, you know, curiosity maybe, you know, some sort of hesitant signs of support from the—from donors that might have interested you in—in water, for example. And I was wondering if you could talk about the Texas Living Waters Project and what that all entailed?

MS: Yeah. So, you know, part of the emergence of that project was that National Wildlife Federation and EDF shared a building. We were in the same building. And so, you know, the mind hive of sharing space and running into each other in the halls and being able to run upstairs and have a conversation with somebody—I—I have this fantasy of—of actually creating sort of a—literally a—a—a environmental hive of some sort I think. There’s so much to be said for that kind of interaction.
But on—one of the things that came out of that I think is that there was a team of people, both at NWF and at EDF, who had an interest in water policy. And—and then Ken Kramer, of course, at Sierra Club was also very interested in water policy and beginning to sort of think about what we might do together. But one of the things that happened there was that one of our funders convened a meeting around water policy, the idea being that this is a huge and expansive topic that really can’t be managed by one particular organization, but if we were to raise enough money and—and leverage the resources of multiple talents and organizations, might we be able to really move the needle on water policy.
So it was both a combination I think of already existing collaboration between organizations and then overlay of, in this case, it was the Houston Endowment that sort of convened this first meeting—you may have even been there—to—to bring some foundations together to talk about what could we do together. And so it’s a wonderful example of collaboration. And the—the grant writing that went into that forced those three organizations to really think about what’s our role, what do we do best.
Where, you know, how—how do we contribute to this project in a way that has the greatest impact? And it’s still—it’s still a going concern today. My understanding is that EDF is no longer part of—part of the project. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I think—I think Sierra Club and NWF continue to be very involved in—in the Texas Water Matters.

DT: Well one last question. You know, as a fundraiser and development officer for both the Nature Conservancy and—and EDF, I imagine you—you saw the growth of—of the Texas economy over the years and—and the availability of more money to fund some of the programs that were really important at both organizations, but that, at the same time, the growth in the economy was—was coupled with a growth in a lot of the impacts—just more people, more development coming to—to the state. And I was wondering, you know, what your attitude was about that sort of—the two sides of that coin?

MS: Well, I think a lot of people have come to Texas from California, in particular, both because it’s a more affordable place to live and because we have pretty spectacular natural resources. And so, especially here in Austin, we really feel that sort of attraction from people who want to live here because we have a lot of lovely natural resources. And—and the—and the growth in population hasn’t necessarily brought more philanthropy to the environmental world.
A lot of the fight—the wealth that has come into the state of Texas is entrepreneurial wealth, people who are still relatively young and early in their careers who aren’t yet ready to be philanthropists. And so while it appears that there’s been a very significant jump in investment and wealth in Texas, it has—it hasn’t necessarily turned into any significant increase in—in philanthropy for our work or I think anybody else’s work. I mean, there are certainly exceptions, but that I think is generally a true statement.
As I look at the region around Westcave, the change that’s happened on 71 and on Hamilton Pool Road over the last decade is just extraordinary, in terms of development. And that’s been a reflection of significant population growth of the region.

DT: You mentioned Westcave. And maybe this would be a good time to talk about your I guess most recent major chapter—you moved in 2005 from Environmental Defense being Development Officer and—and I think you were also the—the Regional Manager for EDF when you left?

MS: Yeah, Jim Marston and I shared the role of Regional Managing Director, yeah.

DT: So you came to the Westcave Outdoor Discovery Center in ’05. And I was hoping you could tell about that—that segue. How—why and how that—that came to pass?

MS: So I had little kids. In 2005, I would have had a seven and a nine year old at home. And EDF required a fair bit of travel. I was in New York almost monthly and—and elsewhere for quarterly board meetings and such. And so part of it was that I—I wanted to be more at—I wanted to be home more. And I often think about, you know, United Way being this huge national organization and then the Nature Conservancy being a smaller organization certainly when I came there—I think there were fewer than five hundred employees in the country—to EDF.
When I came to EDF, I think there were fewer than two hundred employees in the country, down to Westcave where there were I think three or four employees when I came to—to Westcave. But—and—and, for me, the—the opportunity to work with—to—to work on a—at a place on—and—and with a smaller team of people and great clarity around what the vision and mission of the organization was has been a very inspiring opportunity because you—you—you push against something and it moves, whereas doing oceans conservation or climate change, you know, I—you can work on that and—and—and have worked on that, along with other colleagues, for a decade.
And, at the end of the decade, it’s—it’s hard to say, you know, here’s been the—here’s been the impact of—because they’re such amorphous issues. At—working at—at West—at Westcave, you know, we—we talk about sort of our three strands of work—core strands of work being conservation of our place, environmental education both on and off campus, and then the emergence of this advocacy piece, which is the Children in Nature Collaborative of Austin. You know, I’ve certainly seen the needle move in all of those areas in a big way over the last decade because it is a very specific place and body—body of work.
So it’s—I—I sometimes refer to it as my PhD program. It—it has called on everything that I know and have learned over the years to be an effective leader there.

DT: Well, could you tell us a little bit about the—Westcave, the physical place?

MS: So yes, it—it is—it is currently 76 acres. When I came there, it was 30 acres. And it is located out in the Hill Country, and it is something called the “collapsed grotto,” the geologic formation where the soft rock has been washed away over time with flooding and erosion that’s happened over many, many centuries to create a canyon and a—and a—and a wonderful grotto and a cave and waterfall. So it is—it is—it—it’s an extraordinarily beautiful place and it’s been carefully protected and preserved for 45 years.
It’s one of the oldest environmental nonprofits in Central Texas. We have, over the last two decades, created an Environmental Learning Center there. It’s a very state-of-the-art facility that was built—finished in 2003. And the architect, Robert Jackson, designed it to be on an absolute north/south axis so that the interior of the building has a number of features that are related to the way the earth turns in relation to the sun and the stars. We have something called an analemma in the center of the facility that marks time, the time of day and the day of the year.
This is sometimes called a solar calendar, but that’s one of the features of our building, which was named one of the top ten environmental buildings in the—in the country in 2006—couple years after it was completed. We have about 15,000 visitors a year out there, a third of those come out as school kids on field trips, on school Monday through Friday and then we’re open for public visitation on weekends.

DT: Molly, when we left off, you were talking about the Warren Skaaren Environmental Learning Center, which is this extraordinary, green built site, as well as an Environmental Education Center. And I was hoping that you could flush out some—some of the features of that building and maybe you can explain some.

MS: Yeah, so the—so the building was designed with a number of green features. It’s geothermal heating and cooling. It’s passive solar, the way that it’s constructed on this north/south axis. We catch all of the water from the roof and that goes into two huge scuppers at both ends of the building to—and that water wa—was intended originally to provide all of the potable water for the preserve, but the county requires all kinds of treatment of the water once we’ve—once we’ve put it through all of the filters.
So we use it really just for watering resources on the—on the preserve. And it is—all of the building materials have been harvested within a 50 mile radius of—of the building and there are a number of fossils all over the building that have been brought—brought via the limestone. And I feel like I’m really struggling. I’m going to start over on that last part. [laughing] Shall I talk about all of the building materials again?

DT: Sure.

MS: So, there are a number of green features that are designed into the building, ranging from geothermal heating and cooling. We’ve—we capture all of our water from the roof and that goes into scuppers that are at both the north and the south ends of the building, and used for all of our watering on site. We have passive solar energy. The building materials all were harvested around 50 miles from the site, including lots of limestone with beautiful fossils built into—built into the limestone. So it’s quite an extraordinary—quite an extraordinary building.
And—and we use it to teach about all those things. When kids come out and—and visitors come, they’re able to learn about all of those various features and design and building.

DT: You told us a little bit about the—the natural makeup of the site, the—the—the canyon and the collapsed grotto and then—and then the built features at this wonderful environmental learning center. Can you talk a little bit about the history of Westcave, how it came to be this conservation site, and education center?

MS: Yeah. So we just published a book, by the way all about Westcave—Discovering Westcave—which has our history and natural history, human history. But so in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, Westcave was a fa—a farm. And the farmhouse is still—is still there on the site. And, prior to that, it had been used in the 1800s as a Native American site. There’s lots of—lots of evidence of Native American use of—of the site. And so in the 1800s up to when the sort of German migration came into the region, late 1800s, it was used primarily by Native Americans.
The German infiltration of the—of the region used the site for farming. It would have been pretty poor farming. It’s—it’s a lot of—a lot of bedrock. And—but there’s—there’s some old meadow remnants on—on part of the—part of the preserve. And then in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the late ‘50s and ‘60s early ‘70s, it was sort of a summer retreat space, owned by a medical doctor who—who lived nearby. And the family that kind of came and went there sort of used it as a weekend and—and summer vacation area, again, using the old farmhouse as their primary residence there.
And Westcave got its name because, in relationship really to Hamilton Pool, which was known as a cave site. It was the—it was a big visitor area, all through the 20th century. And people would come to Hamilton Pool. Then there was a rumor that across the Pedernales River on the east side of the pers—Pedernales—west side of the Pedernales River was another cave. And so it became known as the West Cave, as opposed to the Hamilton Pool, which some folks might—might have referred to as East Cave.
And in the ‘60s, John Covert Watson’s family would go out to Hamilton Pool as a—a Sunday picnic site. They would spend all day getting there and back and spend some—some time there. And he began hearing about this alleged West Cave on the other side of the Pedernales River. And he, like many before and after him, trespassed up the creek, up Hines Branch Creek into the—into the cave. His first trip he recalls going up into the creek and having a group of visitors running out of the area and warning them don’t go in there, it’s full of snakes.
But he went anyway and he did find it to be full of snakes and it’s still full of snakes. That’s part of the charm of our—of our cave, but it—in the ‘60s, in particular, it was kind of like Hippie Hollow West. It was really heavily trespassed by hippies who would go there. There are all of these pools built into the limestone and the rock around the cave that are filled with cool water, spring water. And folks would go back in there and—and put their beer in the cold water to keep cool and—and swim and dive off of the rocks into the pool there.
And—and it was very damaged. They broke off the stalactites and the stalagmites and took those with them, left some of them there. They left their trash there. And in the mid ‘70s, John Watson was driving by and he saw a for sale sign out in front of Westcave and he couldn’t believe it. And he had recently inherited a little bit of money from an aunt who lived in Colorado and was a big outdoors person. He thought what better use of my—my aunt’s gift to me than to buy this property. And he bought Westcave and had—he was an architect—John is an architect—he’s still living—he’ll be 90 next spring.
And his idea was that he was going to design some very organic kinds of structures there at Westcave for a little compound of friends and family to use as a summer and weekend retreat. He had studied with Frank Lloyd Wright and so he had a very strong interest in sort of design around the natural environment that was there. But there were so many trespassers that he very quickly decided it was more of a problem than he had imagined and that it really belonged in the public domain. And so he went about helping to form a nonprofit group of volunteers, Westcave Preserve Corporation.
They raised the money to buy it. Eventually they sold it to LCRA, the land belongs to LCRA and LCRA leased it back to Westcave Preserve Corporation for a dollar year for a hundred years. So the land is actually owned by LCRA, but all of the improvements have been funded by Westcave. And so there’s this partnership between LCRA and Westcave over the ownership of the property.

DT: And I gather the—that the—one of the first priorities for the group had been to clean up, restore, and protect the—the natural site there, but that environmental education has been an important aspect of the group from very early on. And—and I was hoping you could talk about what those efforts have been and why environmental education, particularly for children, is—is—is important in your view.

MS: Yeah, yeah. Well so in 1974, John Watson went to the Nature Conservancy and asked if they would have an interest in acquiring it. And—and they didn’t want to acquire it, but they were willing to help fund a steward, a land steward. And so that’s when John Ahrns was hired to come down and he and his family—he and his wife and two children moved down from the Fort Worth area to—to Westcave, moved into a—a small mobile home on site and began the process of restoring and protecting Westcave.
John—the lore is John himself hauled more than 100 large black trash bags full of garbage out of the canyon to begin his—to begin his work there. And really the first decade of—of stewardship at Westcave was all about re—restoring the canyon and protecting—protecting the canyon—cleaning it out, getting rid of invasive plants, bringing in some of the plants that should be there, and just leaving it alone. Westcave is kind of a story of how a place heals when you just leave it alone.
It was very little manipulation to the canyon, other than pulling out the ne—the invasive plants, the non-native plants and bringing in some of the plant material that should—should be in there. And then about ten years into the project, I think John got bored and he went around to some of the nearby schools in—in Round Mountain and Je—Johnson City and Dripping Springs, and encouraged teachers to bring their kids out to see the place. And there was no sort of formal curriculum. It was just kind of come and see what nature looks like when it’s wild and cared for and—and how it heals itself.
And so that was really the nature of the programming there for the next fifteen years was just coming out and going for a walk with John Ahrns down the canyon into the grotto. But when we built the Environmental Learning Center and probably years leading up to that, a group of teachers and educators got more involved in developing a formal curriculum that helped tell the story of geology and hydrology. That’s the story of the Hill Country and it’s certainly the story of—of Westcave. It’s about the hydrology of the region.
And—and so our program has evolved to be one that is aligned with the TEKS and the—the curriculum in our public school system so that if you bring out second graders, we’re focusing on things that are relevant to second graders’ curriculum versus a fifth grader’s curriculum who’s about to take the first science exam of their—of their career in school. But the environmental education story is part of formal curriculum and a—and—and te—teaching certain concepts that are important for kids to understand, but it’s really mostly the sensuousness of being in a place like Westcave.
What does it smell like? What does it look like? What does it sound like? What do you not hear? We—we really focus on what does the—what does the bark of this tree feel like? What, you know, sort of the—re—awakening all of the senses. One of my favorite parts of the school program is twice during their—their tour, they stop and they’re just quiet. We ask them not to shuffle their feet, not to—not to speak, just pay some attention to what do they hear.
And oftentimes, we hear back from kids that that was their favorite part of the day was that time to just be really quiet, close their eyes, and listen to the birds, listen to the way the wind sounds and the leaves. So while we do have a curriculum and a formal part of the program, it’s also just the experience of being in nature and taking it in through their senses. I often talk about the importance of environmental education having two really vital—the—the impact is—start over again.

MS: I often talk about the impact of environmental education having two very important strands. One is that we know that kids who spend time regularly in nature are healthier, happier, and they do better in school, and there’s a growing body of evidence that shows that the consequences of a disconnect from nature have been profound and that children really don’t understand a lot of the natural systems that most of us understood just viscerally because we grew up outside. But kids today aren’t growing up outside.
The average child today spends less than seven minutes a day outside in any kind of an unstructured environment. So it’s—there’s been a very significant shift in how we, as human beings, take in our—our world and particularly children. So healthier, happier, and they do better in school. And, again, th—the—there’s been a lot of research done over the last decade that supports the fact that those are some of the really core benefits of being outdoors. The other is that, from a policy point of view, we have, over the last century, set—set aside significant land and resources for its natural—natural resource…

MS: Over the last century, we have set aside land all over the country for its natural resource value and its outdoor recreation value. And if we’re going to protect the hard won victories—environmental victories—of that last century, we need to raise a generation of adults who—and voters—who are going to continue to value nature and the—and the benefits of natural resources in our country. We already have raised a generation of adults who don’t know what to do with their children outside. We’ve done research that shows that adults who are in their sort of 25 to 40 year old range already grew up indoors—predominately indoors.
And so, as they’re asked to change their practices of how they use their leisure time and do more outside with children, they’re finding it difficult to do because they didn’t do it themselves. We can’t afford to raise another generation of policymakers and voters who don’t value the out of doors and nature.

DT: Why do you think it is that I guess in Richard Louv’s, you know, frame of reference, children are not growing up in the woods. Why is it that they are so dissociated from nature?

MS: Well, you know, we want to quickly jump to technology, the—the lure of technology, the lure of videogames, the lure of—of Facebook and—and social media and online kinds of things have definitely had an impact on how children and families are spending their time. But it’s also an opportunity to leverage technology to support outdoor exploration. And so that’s something that we’ve been playing with over the last several years as well is understanding what kinds of opportunities are there to marry up technology and outdoor exploration.
But certainly that’s part of it. Childhood has moved indoors. When you and I were growing up, it was the old hop on your bicycle at 9:00 in the morning and be told to be home before the street lights come on. For all kinds of reasons, we’re not doing that anymore. Part of it is that there’s a perception that it’s not safe and that it’s less safe now than it was when we were growing up. Turns out that’s not true but that’s the story that’s out there is that—is that children are not safe when they’re out on their own in the out of doors.

A—another is that parents of young children now didn’t themselves grow up that way. And so there’s not this sort of natural sense of—of getting outside. Childhood has moved from the country to the city. The urbanization of our country has had an impact on how much time kids spend outside or even their awareness of when the sun does come up and go down during—during the day. But I think that a big factor is there’s a lack of—of safe and nature rich environments as cities—as cities have infill and—and—and are building more densely.
Land that was there is no longer there. We’re no longer connected to agriculture in the way that we were as—as—forty or fifty years ago. And then there’s a—this sort of latchkey community of—of kids who parents say go home, go inside, close the door, and give me a call, let me know you’re safe, and then that’s where they remain for the afternoon because both parents are—both parents are working. So those are all factors in why childhood has moved indoors.

DT: I think earlier you—you said that—that…

MS: I’m feeling extremely inarticulate, by the way. I’m sorry to be sort of wandering around there.

DT: No, no. This is—it’s fascinating. Well two things caught, you know, my attention. One was that you said that environmental education for children is good because, you know, they—they grow up healthier, happier, and more inclined to do well in school. Then secondly that—that they are learning about issues that they’ll have to vote on when they become adults. I think also you’ve—you’ve said in the past that there’s an equity aspect to this, that not all kids are growing up in the same kind of world and—and that you’re trying to maybe bring some justice for that.

MS: Yep. So in 2016, the National League of Cities and the Children and Nature Network put out an RFP to municipalities around the country to design plans for—to desi—I’m sorry.


MS: In 2015, the National League of Cities and the Children and Nature Network came together to put out an RFP for municipalities to develop plans for—for…

MS: Increasingly, the work of our Children in Nature Collaborative, CiNCA, is about equity because we’re realizing that there are certain populations in our region that have less access to nature and where there are a lot of children.

MS: With a grant from the National League of Cities and the Children and Nature Network, we together with the City of Austin used GPS to look at all kinds of factors in Austin around nature and children. We were li—looking to build a municipal plan for connecting children to nature. And so we looked at where is the—where are the watersheds. Where is there a significant tree canopy? Where is there open space and parks? Where do the children live? What is the average income of the children and the families that live in different parts of the city?
And using about 16 or 17 different layers of data, we identified three areas where we wanted to focus our work, where there were lots of children and not much nature. And so we started with a focus in the Rundberg area, up in Northeast Austin, and we’re—and the focus of this work is sort of threefold. One is we’re building what we’re calling “green school parks” and I’ll come back to that in a minute. We’re also reaching out with some strategic communications to—to make the case to teachers and to families and parents that time spent outside in nature is important and has benefit.
And then the third piece is that we’re working on policy around what the city can be doing, what AISD and other school systems can be doing to ensure that kid—that kids have more time outside in nature. What we’re doing up in Rundberg right now is a couple of green school parks. We’re starting with that. We’re looking at campuses that have largely been scraped clean of any kind of plant material or trees when the schools were built. And—and, in many cases, there was something called a “Shared Use Agreement” between the City of Austin and AISD so that the campuses are not just the AISD land, but there’s also, in many cases, 27 campuses.
There is city parkland also connected to those campuses. So where there is the Shared Use Agreement between the city and AISD, we’re hoping to create green school parks as a starting point—those 27 campuses. So that means that we are looking at adding natural resources. We’re looking at adding trails. At Barrington Elementary, we’ve even added a storybook along the trail so that as kids go along the trail, they can blend literacy with time on the trail and those—and those books will change as time goes on.
But we’re—we’re creating nature rich campuses and then working with the teachers to help them redesign their curriculum and how they use their time so that they’re spending more time outside in these natural areas with their students during the day, whether it’s teaching math or art or literacy. So the goal really, long term, is that every AISD campus will be a nature rich campus and the faculty will use those spaces for all kinds of education opportunities so that every kid spends some substantial time outside every day.

DT: It seems like a lot of this is—is focused on children, but I understand that you were also the founding board chair of Families in Nature. And I was curious if, you know, part of your effort is not just to reach the kids, but also their parents and the extended family?

MS: At the end of the day, the people who have con—control over how kids spend their time are parents and teachers because that’s where the kids are, right. They’re either at school or they’re at home. And so those are the folks who are making decisions about how children spend their time. And we’re making good progress with AISD and other school systems to make the case to teachers and principals and educators that this is an important part of a kid’s childhood. And so working with parents is a—is a—a larger and more complicated project.

For one thing, marketing and communications to an entire community is a lot more complex than marketing communications to a school or school system. So we’re starting by helping to engage parents and children in outdoor activities. And Families in Nature, which was formed as a formal 501(c)3 about four years ago focuses on taking groups of families out to do cool things together, whether it’s paddling on Ladybird Lake to go and see the bats, or whether it’s a camp-out at Inks Lake, they are organizing regular opportunities for families to come together and do fun things that are nature based with one another.

DT: So you’ve—you’ve spent over a dozen years now working at—at Westcave and—and involved in environmental education. And I was curious, as you look back on—on this—this latest chapter, how you think it compares with the earlier work you did at the Nature Conservancy and EDF and what you might have learned from all three of these episodes in your life?

MS: That’s interesting. Well certainly life builds on itself—things that we learn, the experiences that we have. You know, I think that my time at the Nature Conservancy was very much about land conservation and—and what we—what we need to do to conserve natural resources—water, land for wildlife and the benefit of—of the natural systems. That’s been very applicable to my work at Westcave because we have 76 acres of—of beautiful land and we have a couple of endangered species that are residents there.
So we’re—we’re managing that resource to make sure that we’re taking care of our—our wildlife. And then I think the—the work at the EDF was very much about policy and how to have a broader impact by—by influencing practices and policies of institutions like AISD or the City of Austin to—to—to benefit getting kids into the out of doors. I think also all of that work has been about ju—at the end of the day, I believe everything’s personal. And developing the in—the necessary relationships along the way to—to empower and engage and leverage those relationships for the good of what it is that you’re doing.
The human spirit wants, first and foremost, to do things well and to do things that benefit—benefit people, benefit—benefit nature. I think that—that building those individual relationships and creating a space and opportunity where folks can come together and partner wi—with one another to do the work of conservation certainly has—has been a big part of what we’ve done at Westcave and with the Children and Nature Collaborative.

DT: Well I think we’re—we’re starting to draw to a close here. And there are a couple questions I—I’d like to ask you and I—I hope you maybe add to those questions. But the first one is—is maybe kind of closely tied to what you’ve been doing over the last dozen years, or your entire career, trying to explain why conservation is important to people who may not be familiar with it or young people who just haven’t the chance to get acquainted with it. And I was hoping that you could give us that sort of mess—message in a bottle that—that might resonate with what your experience has been.

MS: Message in a bottle. You know, a couple of words that come to mind for me are—that I referenced earlier—are reverence and healing. You know, I—I think that nature is one of—one of those—being in nature awakens the senses. I think that our—our ability to understand the world that we live in is enhanced by—by how things smell and look and feel and sound. And there’s a reverence and—and an appreciation and a respect for our world that comes from exposure to and awareness of the natural world that—that is around us.
And I think that, you know, the mission of Westcave is inspiring people to develop a lifelong practice to protect and enjoy nature. And I just think that that’s one of the greatest gifts that we can give and take as human beings is the ability to see ourselves as part of nature and to see ourselves as caretakers of nature. One of my favorite stories from Westcave was when we had a group of third graders down in the canyon and we have a moment there where we ask everybody to be quiet and just sort of listen for a minute.
And, of course, we’d been talking about nature and the benefits of nature. And the kids were all standing there and then one little girl opened her eyes and she said, “Am I nature?” And I—it—it—yes, you get it, you know. You are nature. We are—we are interrelated and our wellness as human beings depends on the wellness of—of nature. And so if we don’t conserve nature, we don’t have the opportunity to have those experiences and to understand that we are nature.

DT: Well one last thing from me. We often ask people if there is a special place in nature. You’ve spoken of many from Beaver Lake to Nepal to Westcave. Is there—is there one that sort of stands out for you that—that means a great deal to you?

MS: Well Richard Louv talks in his book about how we all have an ecoregion where we’re—in our skin—where we’re—we’re most comfortable. And even when I get off the plane in Detroit, I sort of feel it. I—the—the Great Lakes region, in general I would say, is my favorite place. It’s where I smell and see and sense and touch, taste home, is that sort of Great Lakes region. And certainly Beaver Lake is—is kind of my—my little mecca where—where I feel most in my skin.
But I think that my favorite place really in—in the world is Quetico, this—this lake country north of Minnesota, where I’ve spent time both as a camper and as a staff person and I spent my 50th birthday up there paddling those—those vast lakes. You can go a full day and never see another person up there. It’s—it is—and it’s wild and it’s natural and it has moose and bears and, you know, it—you—you—you realize that you are nature. It is you’re one of the critters that’s up there. And it tu—it’s taught me so much about myself. It’s taught me how to be competent in the wild.
It’s taught me how to not be fearful, how to trust myself, how to be—how to be confident. And in, you know, going back to this word of reverence, it’s kind of the closest I get to worshipping is that—that pristine and—and wild and sometimes violent natural environment.

DT: Thanks for sharing that. Is there anything you’d like to add?

MS: I—I’m very grateful for the opportunity to do this. It’s—it’s, you know, it’s—I’m honored to be part of it. So thank you for reaching out. I can’t think of a thing. I feel like we’ve talked about every little thing.

DT: We’ve covered good ground.

MS: Right.

DT: Well good. Well thank you so much for your time.

[End of Interview with Molly Stevens – November 19, 2018]