Land trusts know that cultivating relationships with members and donors is an essential part of every conservation transaction. Why, then, are so many afraid to do the same with their legislators to support conservation funding? Meme Sweets Runyon, executive director of River Fields in Louisville, Kentucky, reassures those who are willing to try: “The important thing about lobbying is that it’s really just about basic relationships.”
Meme has been at River Field’s helm since 1986, but she began her career in 1977 as campaign coordinator, then press secretary, for then County Executive and now U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY). He taught her the political ropes and a great deal about advocacy. That’s where she learned the qualities of a good lobbyist include courtesy, knowledge of the issues, flexibility and sensitivity — skills, in fact, that are second nature for most land trust people.
The lessons of those early years endure. Don’t be shy, she counsels, and she points out that even those not known as supporters need attention. “You have to talk to elected officials and their staffs, even those who are not on board with your conservation initiatives,” she says. “You must get your courage up and go to those people who don’t agree with you. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you why so you can have a good interchange of ideas.” You don’t always have to agree, she explains. In fact, you may not agree in the end, but you should be able to develop mutual respect and open lines of communication.
Meme was one of a group of representatives from 43 land trusts at the Land Trust Alliance’s inaugural Land Trust Advocacy Day held in April 2012 to help build the political influence of the land trust community with key legislators. The participants received hands-on advocacy training and were prepped on two focus issues before they headed to Capitol Hill: the enhanced tax incentive for conservation easements and the provisions of the Farm Bill that provide conservation funding. Both policies had helped significantly increase the pace of conservation in the past, and both were up for renewal.
More than 100 meetings with lawmakers took place that day, nurturing relationships for the benefit of land conservation.
But despite those efforts and the notable bipartisan support of 300 co-sponsors, the tax initiative — though it was eventually renewed for 2012 and 2013 — wasn’t made permanent. The Farm Bill received an extension to September 30, 2013, rather than comprehensive five-year funding.
Disappointment goes with the territory, but so does determination. “It takes moral courage to do this work,” says Meme. “You are participating in a critical part of the democratic process. It’s part of our job as conservation leaders to get out there and connect with elected officials. And do it civilly and knowledgeably.”