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Collaboratives Behind-the-Scenes: Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership

Welcome to the Western Collaborative Conservation Network’s profile series “Collaboratives Behind-the-Scenes.” This series features Q&As with different conservation organizations to provide a view into what it takes to run a collaborative organization from challenges faced in building partnerships to tips for budding organizations. Whether you’re already running a collaborative and are looking to increase your efficiency or are thinking of starting a collaborative but want to know more about what you’re getting into, we hope you find this series insightful.

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) works under the mission “to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.” TRCP works across the United States with multiple partners to advance land and water conservation policy. 

While still national in scope, Alex Funk’s work on freshwater policy has a large focus on the West. Alex, the TRCP’s Director of Water Resources, talked with us about the TRCP’s expanding partnerships with outdoor recreation organizations, the keys to building trust with people from different backgrounds, and some current projects within TRCP from working toward just-transitions for rural communities to utilizing funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How did the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership get started? 

The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership started as an outgrowth of the Western Water Project at Trout Unlimited (TU). Our founder, Whit Fosburgh, worked with TU, and primarily noted that when it comes to water resource and natural resource issues, the hunting and fishing community weren’t always communicating in a coordinated way. A lot of different groups were focusing on one species or one region. 

The idea around the initial framework of TRCP was to create this partnership-focused organization that could bring together hunting and fishing—we call it “hook and bullet”—groups to more strategically build the voice of sportsmen and women on federal and state policy issues. It brought that constituency together more consistently and ensured that the conservation of waters and lands critical to sustaining cold water fisheries and big game (like elk and mule deer) were in more lock-step with each other. That’s sort of the onus behind the beginning of our organization.

Over time, there have been two unfolding pieces of the organization. One is focused on the climate change aspect and how that issue affects wildlife management in the United States. TRCP is strongly committed to working with its partners and decision makers to identify legislative solutions to climate change and worked to develop a joint climate statement outlining priority areas of focus including active forest management for story carbon. And more recently, outdoor recreation (like boaters, camping, hiking) has been a more intentional focus of our newer partnerships including with the Hispanic Access Foundation and the Outdoor Industry Association. Through these partnerships, we’re also prioritizing engaging diverse outdoor recreation, hunting, and fishing voices. For example, TRCP is working with Latino hunters and anglers and state agencies to promote strategies to recruit, retain, and reactivate new voices in hunting and conservation. 

Could you talk more about your role at TRCP and the water resources program?

I’m our Director of Water Resources. The position is national in scope, so we focus a lot on federal policy particularly around water quality and protecting our bedrock environmental laws, like the Clean Water Act, ensuring that there are strong federal protections for wetlands, riparian areas, and other crucial aquatic ecosystems. 

Other issues we engage on include promoting enhanced fish passage and connectivity, which focuses on issues like the removal of outdated dams or restructuring dams to benefit species and outdoor recreation, while maintaining critical functions such as storing water for agriculture. Natural infrastructure is a big focus of our work, highlighting the benefits of healthy wetland systems in terms of drought resilience and mitigating wildfire impacts and flood mitigation, and ensuring those types of benefits are properly accounted for. 

And then at the state level, as I’m based in Colorado, a lot of our programming is western focused. Our two focus basins are the Colorado River Basin and the Rio Grande. We do a lot of state work in Colorado, New Mexico, and other western states largely around supporting tools for environmental and recreational flow enhancement because a lot of western water issues are dictated by state water policy. 

Photo provided by TRCP.

Can you talk more about TRCP’s partnerships with other organizations?

TRCP has 61 different partnership groups focusing on hunting, fishing, and that emerging outdoor rec space. Those 61 groups are our “committed” partners. There’s a process by which we have each partner apply, and they become a formal partner that’s approved by our Policy Council, which is sort of like our programmatic board. 

Each of those partners are then broken into what we call “centers.” We have a center of public lands, a center on private land, a center on water resources (which I manage), one on climate, coastal issues, things like that. We try to convene the partners that are active on each of those issues through those centers and meet on a periodic basis to refine our different strategies and then filter those back up into our organizational policy directives. 

It’s decentralized to a large degree by issue. Of those 61 partners, for example, I do not work with all of them. I work a lot with Trout Unlimited, the Wild Salmon Center, The Nature Conservancy—groups that are more active in the water space. Whereas our partners with mule deer or turkeys or bigger game are more focused on public lands. That said, a part of my job is to bring that water thread through all the centers, given that water is one of those cross-cutting issues across focus areas like climate and public lands, especially out West. 

Sticking on the theme of partnerships, can you speak to a partnership that was difficult to develop? Why was it difficult, and how did you overcome that challenge?

My background has largely been in working with the agriculture community on water issues. I was the agricultural water policy liaison when I worked with American Rivers and then the state of Colorado prior to this position. Most of my time was working with the agricultural community collaboratively on different water resource policy issues. 

There’s a lot of trust building that goes into working with the farming and ranching community. That was certainly true with my experience. So here I am, fresh out of law school, not coming from a farming background, working for an environmental organization in American Rivers, trying to work with farmers and ranchers out in Colorado. You can face a little uphill challenge in terms of building that relationship. 

I would say, probably the most successful thing in helping develop that trust was working together with farmers and ranchers on projects on the ground—working with farmers to identify infrastructure improvements or things in their operations that they were struggling with where there could be multiple benefits for both the farmer and the environment.

One prominent example that I worked on was up in Kremmling, Colorado where there was a group of ranchers that were directly downstream of the Windy Gap Project, which is one of our transmountain diversions in Colorado. They were grappling with reduced flows because we’re pulling water from the Colorado River over to the Front Range. There’d be summers where they didn’t have enough water in the river to pump water to irrigate crops. We worked with them on a project that created some fish habitat but also backed up the water enough that it could reach their irrigation pumps. It was a multi-benefit, fish-ag project that we worked together on for over a year to get funding for. Through that work, I developed strong relationships with the ranching community there. And some of those ranchers have taken on leadership roles within the state advocating for continued partnership. 

My big takeaway from that was to have a longer vision in mind for how you see change, but start with smaller, collaborative, trust-building projects that can create the framework to have those conversations. It does take time to build some trust to have an honest conversation about how to do policy work in the water space. 

“Having gone out there, I demonstrated my interest in agriculture and the community and their operation. That takes time and effort, but it goes a long way in showing that it’s not just about getting a project done.”

You mentioned working together on on-the-ground projects. Do you have other tips to offer for going about the trust building process?

I would say go to them. Visit the operation, get to know what they do, and spend time with that farmer/rancher and their family. Take a tour of the ranch. I spent one night helping with calving. I was out at four in the morning helping deliver a calf—something that I’d never done before. 

A lot of our projects are designed to be multi-benefit, to enhance the ag productivity or viability of that operation while providing some environmental benefit. Having gone out there, I demonstrated my interest in agriculture and the community and their operation. That takes time and effort, but it goes a long way in showing that it’s not just about getting a project done.

That, and actually helping deliver the funds. Being that person that will roll up their sleeves and do a lot of the work in helping apply for grants goes a long way in terms of relationship building. 

Could you speak about a past partnership experience you’re proud of? What was the partnership and why are you proud of it?

I can share one I’m working on now. We’re working on some legislation in Colorado that would create this new tool to lease water for recreational flows.

I’m from a rural area in Appalachia—a region with not a lot of job growth or opportunities—so the issues of rural development have always been of interest to me. 

One thing that’s happening in Colorado right now, especially with our coal-based communities, is that they are trying to invest in outdoor recreation. It’s this opportunity for them to diversify their economy. We’ve been collaborating with the city of Craig, Colorado—a coal-based community—to assess new tools and approaches to support the community’s interest in outdoor recreation opportunities. We’re working with several other communities, including Mancos, Colorado—a small-agricultural community—seeking to support an outdoor recreation economy and businesses through a revitalized river corridor through town.

We are starting to see some benefit from just-transition opportunities for rural towns around outdoor recreation. Through that, we’ve been forming partnerships. We’re still in that trust-building phase, but I think these partnerships with Craig and Mancos have the potential to really begin a discussion in terms of how water availability affects economic transition in Colorado. It could create an interesting partnership with outdoor recreation, industry partners, these rural communities, and the environmental community around how we can create new tools and funding resources to help communities invest in outdoor recreation and restoration opportunities as a tool to diversify their economies and enhance their overall resilience to economic change.

This partnership could be an interesting collaborative model for groups or communities that haven’t traditionally been bastions of environmentalism. The fact that we’ve been able to settle on outdoor recreation as this co-benefit is interesting and one that I think might be a positive model moving forward.

Photo provided by TRCP.

Do you have tips to offer to other conservation groups for forming partnerships with cities or government groups? 

The first lesson for me was that these things take time. If you have a policy goal in mind, the gears at certain places move a bit slowly, and it takes time for some of these ideas to gain some traction and trust. You need to be strategic with that process. 

I’ll use another water example: Typically, every water bill that we’ve ever worked on in the state of Colorado takes two to three years from concept to passage. For newer groups, or younger people coming to the conservation space, that can be a long time. I certainly wish that was faster sometimes, but ultimately you end up with something stronger than just trying to force it through without getting community feedback. 

You need to know when to move something along so it doesn’t get stuck. But at the same time, building in time to get that feedback and outreach is super crucial to long-term conservation policy success. 

And I hate saying it, but it helps to come in knowing what you’re talking about, especially on water. That’s my experience. Take some time to get the basics of how things work in the state or the terminology that we use on certain issues. Colorado has some lingo that other states don’t use. Our water systems are different. 

You don’t need to know 100 percent and you don’t need to be a water lawyer to be an effective water advocate. But at the same time, if you haven’t done a bit of the background on the mechanics and the partners, you can get shut out quickly. Be prepared to have an in-depth conversation.  

In turning to organizational maintenance, what activities does TRCP dedicate most of its time to? And how does that align with how you would ideally allocate your time and energy?

We’re a policy organization. We focus on legislative work at the federal and state level. But we don’t do projects. 

For everyone in conservation work, I feel like burnout is always a concern, and having a little of that project-based work involved is helpful because it shows that things are happening. Whereas if you’re just doing policy all the time, you can get isolated in terms of whether the policy you’re working on is translating to on-the-ground results. 

We’re trying to enter into more partnerships with groups that are doing projects where we can continue to provide that policy service, but also have a direct line of communication to know if what we’re doing is having an effect, and vice versa. 

That balance is something we’re starting to get again with the federal infrastructure bill because we’re trying to develop pipelines for new projects while understanding the policy levers of how to make those projects happen at a higher scale.

I’ll also share that one thing we’re hearing a lot with this infrastructure bill is the capacity of smaller watershed groups to access these dollars. It’s a topic that we’re readily wanting to work with smaller watershed groups on because we understand that these federal funds are not the easiest buckets to go after. There’s a lot more hoops and rules you have to follow. We are trying to think creatively about how to address some of those barriers, while demonstrating interest in these funds. 

There’s such an unprecedented opportunity right now. We want to make sure that we’re taking advantage of it with good projects.

Thank you to Alex Funk for sharing his experiences and reflections! Find out more about the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership on its website.

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