Frances Beinecke at the People’s Climate March. Beinecke's environmental advocacy began in upstate New York during the early 1970s.

Photo by Natalie Keyssar for NRDC

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In our ongoing series, meet environmental advocate Frances Beinecke, a member of the NationSwell Council, a community of leaders who share a passion for service and engaging around solutions to national challenges.

In the early 1970s, as part of an internship with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Frances Beinecke spent a summer developing land use policies in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. That experience jumpstarted a long career of environmental advocacy that culminated in Beinecke becoming NRDC’s executive director in 1998 and its president in 2006. During her tenure, she built the organization into a powerhouse of lawyers and scientists that vocally advocated for green policies and forged connections with global organizations in China and India. From her office in midtown Manhattan, Beinecke, now retired, reflected on her career and conservation with NationSwell.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given on leadership?
The most important thing that I have learned is that it’s not about you. It’s about the other people you’re working with and motivating them to reach the result. When I was at NRDC (and I was there for a very long time), being able to be on boards in other organizations and really watch other people operate, to see how other people provided leadership and how other organizations worked, was absolutely essential to doing the best job that I could do at NRDC.

What’s currently on your nightstand?
Right now I’m reading Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac,” because I happen to be going out to give a talk in Wisconsin. In the early 80s, I had an opportunity to visit the shack that Leopold wrote about in the book, and I wanted to relive that experience in preparation for this talk. It’s interesting because Leopold was one of the early people to work on restoration of ecosystems. He had his old farm that had been exhausted by homesteaders, and he replanted the trees and restored the soil. A lot of what people are focusing on now is how do you restore these depleted ecosystems? How do you store carbon? So, it’s inspiring to read that.

This other book I’m reading is called “Braiding Sweetgrass,” also by an ecologist: Robin Wall Kimmerer. I recently went to Montana and visited this very exciting project called the American Prairie Reserve, where they’re trying to restore 3 million acres of prairie in eastern Montana right where Lewis and Clark took their Corps of Discovery through the Missouri River. One of the interesting things is all these lands were, of course, Native American lands. What our relationship is with that heritage is one that I felt I wasn’t thinking about enough. This is a book by a Native American ecologist about that relationship with the land.

What innovations in your field are you particularly excited about?
I’ve been working on climate for almost 30 years. In the early days — for the first 20 years, anyway — we talked about solutions, but it was hard to see how to put them in place. One of the things that has happened in the last three to five years is this very rapid deployment of renewable energy, particularly wind and, more recently, solar. Policies have been put in place to deploy it, and there’s been a drop in price. I get excited when I go around and I see wind farms or solar panels. If you go around the United States, you can see the difference in state policies by going across a border. Recently, I was in New York and we crossed over to western Massachusetts. There were a dozen wind turbines and every barn had solar panels — because they put these policies in place to make it very appealing for people to make the investment.

What do you wish someone had told you at the beginning of your career?
If you start in this line of work, you start very idealistically. You have hopes and you want to put solutions in place. One of the things that is very hard to understand is why doesn’t everybody think this way? If you’re very mission based, it’s so obvious. To be effective, it’s important to try to understand why people think differently. You can only be effective in advancing a solution if you understand why someone has a different perspective: their priorities are different. I didn’t understand that.

The NRDC celebrates the 8th Annual Forces for Nature on April 6, 2006. Photo by Clint Spaulding for Patrick McMullan/PMc/NRDC

What inspires you?
[I]f you look back year-to-year, it’s hard to see progress. But if you look back 10 years, the progress is really significant. We used to say green jobs; now we can see green jobs. We used to hope we would have a strategy that would drive down emissions, but emissions are being driven down. We wondered if China would ever get on board to be a player on climate change, because they were going to be the largest emitter. Well, they are the largest emitter, but they’ve also agreed to capping coal at a certain point and they’re unleashing clean energy. One thing in the environmental sector that’s very different than the private sector is that the time frames are much more long-term.

How do you inspire others?
In the beginning, in the 90s, when we talked about climate change, we talked about it as a global problem, and then over time, we realized we had to break it down into a local problem. There was a lot of discussion about climate change in terms of how many parts per million or degrees in the atmosphere…Most people respond to things that are personal to them. That’s the way most people behave — if they’re concerned about their family’s health, their community’s well-being or what they are experiencing in their own lives. Being able to document that, tell the story and engage people in how things are happening in their community, rather than in abstract that the whole planet is heating up, provides a level of engagement that we never had before.

What’s your idea of a perfect day?
To spend some of it outside. I’m fortunate enough to have a dog who requires that on a daily basis, because, for me, being inspired by and connected to nature is essential to doing my work. And then, I like to feel during the course of the day that somehow I’ve been successful in either opening a dialogue or advancing a solution.

What’s something most people don’t know about you?
I have two adorable grandchildren. They’re nearly a year old, twins. The thing about that’s wonderful [about them], it gives you a time reference. My father is 102 years old. He was born in 1914. They were born in 2015. If they live long as he has, it’ll be 2117. Can you imagine? The thing about that is, that gives you a frame of reference for what you’re trying to accomplish. When we’re talking about climate change and 50 or 100 year increments, we know people who will be there then. It personalizes it in a much more significant way. It gives you even more motivation.

To learn more about the NationSwell Council, click here.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Chris Peak is a staff writer for NationSwell. He previously worked for Newsday, the San Francisco Public Press and the Point Reyes Light. Contact him at [email protected]