Michelle Carr is the Illinois State Director of at The Nature Conservancy, and the newest member of ISEN's Executive Council. We sat down with her to find out more about her background, what inspired her to get interested in environmental issues, and how The Nature Conservancy is using programs in Illinois to inspire global conservation efforts.
Tell me a little about your background. Where are you from? How long have you been in Chicago?
I was born around Toledo, Ohio in a farm community. I grew up surrounded by cornfields. My interest in the outdoors came from my childhood. I was allowed a lot of time outside, and have a real sense of the freedom and peace and resilience that comes with nature experiences and really believe in it for my kids.
I went to undergrad at St. Louis University. I was the first person in my family to go to college. My dad owned an auto body repair shop. My mom was a homemaker.
And how long have you been in Chicago?
For almost 20 years.
Prior to joining The Nature Conservancy, you were at Goldman Sachs. How did you decide to make that transition from finance to the nonprofit world?
I have always been very civically engaged in my professional life. I’ve served on boards and was exploring getting more involved in the environmental community. I had served on President Obama’s national finance committee, and I did that in part because I was so passionate about getting the candidate that I saw who would best support action on climate, and support the science. I finished that, and it was in the course of exploring getting more involved with The Nature Conservancy that I was approached about a job.
It was a really wild and crazy thing for me to make the change because I’m the breadwinner for the family. We have three kids, my husband’s been a stay-at-home dad mostly, but he also works part-time as a writer. So we had to really pause and think about what we cared about, how much money do we need, what we want out of life. It took an hour-long conversation for me to go “I have to do this,” and there’s been no turning back.
So what skills or lessons from Goldman have been helpful in this new position?
There are so many similarities that it’s almost like I didn’t have to change anything with how I operate, believe it or not. The Nature Conservancy, like Goldman Sachs, is filled with people who work really hard, and who are really determined and passionate about what they do. In some ways, my workload has increased, in part because I’ve entered a new field so I have a lot of learning to do. But there’s also the bane of all not-for-profits, which is, the issues you’re trying to address are large, seemingly insurmountable in some cases. There are a myriad of approaches that one could take, and there’s a lot to do. This job requires a lot of focus on determining what are the most strategic levers we can invest in, in order to make change without doing a lot of small, but good things, that don’t amount to the change we need. So that is a change.
But the skills of negotiating, knowing what the other party is wanting, trying to really understand it, to understand the resources that you as an organization bring - those simple EQ skills that are so important in everything we do, are precisely what’s need here, just like they were at Goldman.
I thought our students might be interested in hearing about your transition. They’re very passionate about sustainability, energy, and environmental issues. But many end up going down other paths when they leave school, at least for a while.
It’s a fabulous gift in life to be able to change what you’re doing. And it doesn’t mean that you were fed up with what you were doing. But it almost, for me, feels like I’ve gone back to school because I have to know a pretty decent amount about technical matters, and where I come from is business. It’s really exciting. It makes the work exhilarating.
So you touched on this a little bit, but if there’s more to add, how did you develop an interest in environmental and conservation issues?
I remember distinctly in high school, in a social studies class, talking about Malthus. He was a demographer in the late 1700’s, early 1800’s. And basically, he said that at the rate of population growth that we have, we’re going to outstrip the food supply. It turned out he was wrong, but I was incredibly moved by that - our use of resources. We’ve got a problem here that we need to pay attention to. I think that is where the ethic of conservation was really born in me.
That led me to studying economics. I was very interested in development economics – educating women, birthrate, finding smart ways to make humans more sustainable. And that is exactly the mission of The Nature Conservancy – humans and nature and sustainability.
What are your priorities in Illinois for the next 3-5 years or so, and what’s driving that decision-making?
So, I want to digress and talk about the structure of The Nature Conservancy so you can have a good picture, and then I’ll go into priorities. The Nature Conservancy was founded over 60 years ago; we’re global, in over 34 countries, and in all 50 states. The way we’re organized is that we’re one conservancy, so our headquarters is in Washington, D.C. And we are comprised of operating units, which may be based on geography, or they might be based on a particular aspect of nature that we’re working on. So there are plans around global fresh water, oceans, climate change, cities, and land conservation. The assets Illinois brings toward meeting the big mission of protecting the land and water on which all life depends are what I’m tasked with maximizing.
There are several areas that we work. We do good old-fashioned protection - so we go out and buy land, restore it ecologically (for the Prairie State it’s mostly prairie; also a lot of wetlands). We also protect water quality, which takes us to a different place because it involves how people interact with land and how the rules are made. Part of our mission is transforming the way the rules work, so it’s government relations. And we’re also trying to inspire new people to care about nature, so that’s the next generation of conservation leaders.
With Chicago being the third largest city, we’re doing really important urban conservation work. The work that we do in cities is, so often a partnership, just like our partnership with ISEN and Argonne. We care about natural solutions to infrastructure problems. The thing we’re working on with Argonne and ISEN is monitoring our lands and stormwater catchment – natural infrastructure using green spaces. We also work to protect the tree canopy, again, with partners – Openlands and the Morton Arboretum, and each of us brings a different skill or expertise.
We’re also working on the Chicago area waterways. Aquatic invasive species are a big problem between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi. Chicago area waterways are the biggest threat as a transfer point. The Asian Carp gets a lot of attention, but there are some 39 species that are knocking on the door of either one basin or the other. We want to make sure that both of the basins are protected as best we can. The complexity is that it’s a major industrial corridor. The environmental community isn’t the decider, and so there is a lot of negotiating and collaborating in order to make that happen.
We also are focusing very intently on how farming intersects with our water. There is a terrible problem with farm runoff in our watersheds, and we all need to eat. We all also need to drink. The practices that happen in the watershed are pivotal to the water quality. So we’re doing the science of constructed wetlands and farm practices, and working closely with the city of Bloomington-Normal protecting their watershed. We’re also looking at the Mississippi River basin holistically, all 31 states, and working together in order to make projects that will affect the Gulf hypoxic zone. The three main things we’re doing are working with farmers, working to change the infrastructure to incorporate more natural infrastructure, and increasing habitat along the rivers.
So yes, the Illinois operating unit is tasked with the things that happen in our state, but we’re doing so much work in teams for the Great Lakes. I work with a scientist at Notre Dame, a water hydrologist in Michigan who is helping to advise our Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, and with the Mississippi river. It’s 100 people coordinating and working together.
I didn’t have to ask anyone to put the Argonne sensors in the prairie, but that is part of our city work, and a network of 13 cities that share information. So this project will get shared with that network. There’s a sharing and amplification that occurs.
The Nature Conservancy is global. So what efforts in Illinois are being amplified, as you described, and could really translate to global solutions?
Our work on the Illinois River grew into what is called the Great Rivers Partnership. It’s a global network of rivers, including the Yangtze, and the Magdalena in Columbia, and there’s a sharing of best practices. It’s not infrequent that we would have a delegation from China coming in to see our projects, to talk about development. Here we are in Illinois with 0.1% of prairie left, when north of 60% of our state was prairie, and we have development right up to stream banks. People in Columbia or China, despite lots of development, have massive areas that are not developed, and there’s this opportunity to share, if we had a do-over, what we would do differently. There would be more room for the river. The rules would be different; because part of the barrier for us to change is that our laws are built around allowing it [development].
The other big contribution we bring is that, in the face of highly altered hydrology, (which is what we have) what can one do to restore? So one example is our Emiquon Preserve. It’s a 20,000-acre bluff-to-bluff wetland restoration, about 40 minutes west of Peoria. Until the late 2000’s when we bought the portion that we own, which is about 6,000 acres, it was completely levied and in farmland for 100 years, and pumped so the farmer could keep it dry to have the cropland. We turned off the pumps, it immediately soaked up, and seeds that were in the seed bank for 100 years - which is amazing, such a wonderful resilience of nature story – popped back up. So we have a wetland, but it’s not connected to the river. We’re investing in a water control structure at the preserve, that will allow us to gravity drain the wetland when we want it to be drier, because sometimes wetlands are actually dry, and will allow us to let water in from the river in a controlled way.
So we’re recreating where we couldn’t before, and we’re showing the engineering that it takes to do it.
If you had to pick just one environmental issue, globally, that you think is the most pressing - the thing that keeps you awake at night - what would that be?
Climate change. The effects of climate change
When you’re not working on conservation and environmental issues, what’s your favorite thing to do in Chicago?
I love swimming, biking by the lake. We live by the lake, and I have 3 kids – 15, 13, and 10, and it just feels like you’re on vacation on the weekends. And we have such terrific ethnic food. I love hopping on the train or taking the water taxi to Chinatown for fun. I just enjoy our parks and our great melting pot of ethnic foods and neighborhoods and the outdoors.
My last question – would you say you’re an optimist or a pessimist about our environmental future?
I’m an optimist. The story about the 100-year-old seed bank – when you hear that, to me, you can’t not be an optimist. If I had a worry, it’s that we do things that are irreparable. And certainly when we lose places, we lose biodiversity. And when we put too much carbon in the environment, that’s irreparable too. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do our best, in order to show the value of getting it right.