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Emerging Leaders: Jessica Archibald

As a part of the Western Collaborative Conservation Network’s Capacity Building Working Group, the Emerging Leaders Initiative works to support individuals by connecting them with mentors, one another, and resources that create career and professional development opportunities and empower change.

“Emerging leaders” are individuals new to the conservation field with an innovative vision for the future of conservation work and the motivation, passion, and collaborative mindset to work toward that vision. In this profile series, we’re featuring some of these emerging leaders to hear about their passions, the challenges they’ve faced entering the field of collaborative conservation, and their ideas for the future.

To find out more about the Emerging Leaders Initiative, contact Audrey Clavijo at

Jessica Archibald is a doctorate student at Northern Arizona University studying collaborative conservation while working part-time as a facilitator with Southwest Decision Resources. A few years ago, Jessica worked in partnership with the CCC and WCCN which connected her with the WCCN Emerging Leaders Working Group. Today, Jessica remains an integral member of the WCCN Emerging Leaders Working Group! In our interview, we asked Jessica about what led her to pursue a PhD in collaborative conservation, what collaborative conservation means to her, and the challenges emerging leaders face in the field.

Jessica on a backpacking trip in Arizona.

Jessica grew up in the open spaces of Idaho. She says that as a child, she kind of took it for granted: the surrounding nature, the effortless access to the outdoors, and the open landscapes. It was the realization of the threats towards nature and peoples’ access to it, with the understanding that it could all be taken away, that inspired Jessica to devote her life to conservation.  

In high school, Jessica began working with a local organization advocating for the protection of two nearby mountain ranges, the Boulder-White Clouds, from industrial development and mineral extraction pressures. The advocacy group’s efforts helped protect 275,000 acres of threatened public space as a federally-recognized Wilderness Area. Jessica remembers how inspired she felt from that experience, seeing “different people from different realms across the political spectrum, across ages, from different parts of Idaho and beyond, coming together for the protection of a place that they loved.”

High school-aged Jessica with the student club she rallied together to support protection for the Boulder-White Cloud Mountains.

She was hooked. Her experience with the Boulder-White Clouds advocacy group inspired her passion for collaborative conservation, even though, at the time, she didn’t know that exact term or that it was a field in which you could specialize. In 2015, Jessica moved from Idaho to Flagstaff, Arizona and began her undergraduate degree in Environmental Sciences at Northern Arizona University. In the fall of 2020, she stayed at NAU to pursue a graduate degree. 

Jessica poses with penguins during a year abroad studying environmental science in Argentina and Chile.

As a recipient of the Wyss Foundation Fellowship, Jessica was given the opportunity to partner with a conservation organization of her choosing. A friend recommended that she look into the Center for Collaborative Conservation (CCC). Jessica tells me that this is when the door to collaborative conservation really opened for her. “Getting involved in CCC helped me understand what collaborative conservation is, what it can look like, what types of things you can do with it, and the best practices… It really drove me into the field.” 

With guidance from John Sanderson (CCC Executive Director) and Heather Knight (former WCCN Assistant Director of Practice), Jessica was given the autonomy to dive deeper into the field of collaborative conservation. She helped conduct research on the best practices in conservation philanthropy (published in Conservation Science & Practice in March 2022), performed outreach for the WCCN Collaborative Governance Working Group’s white paper on institutionalizing collaborative conservation with federal agencies, and assisted in the creation of the CCC “How To” Series. Jessica expresses her gratitude for the opportunities, connections, and breadth of experiences she was given during her partnership with the CCC and WCCN.

Despite being a PhD student and working as part-time facilitator with Southwest Decision Resources, Jessica still makes time to remain involved in the CCC and WCCN. “I wanted to stay engaged,” she says, “which led me to the WCCN Emerging Leadership Working Group.” Jessica has been a consistent member of the Emerging Leadership group for about a year and says that what she appreciates most about the group is the support and connection that members provide to one another. “Collaborative conservation is a hard field. There are challenges getting into the field, let alone, being in it. You have to navigate all kinds of complexities. So, having that support network through the Emerging Leadership Working Group is super valuable to me. I feel like I learn a lot from the other folks in that group” she says. 

Jessica adds that she wants to “myth-bust” the term Emerging Leader. “Anyone can be an emerging leader,” affirms Jessica, “not only young people or a certain kind of person with a certain set of characteristics, or someone in a traditional leadership role… An emerging leader is anyone coming into the field of collaborative conservation who wants to learn more.” 

Some of the leadership qualities that Jessica admires and works to embody as an emerging leader include a dedication to continual learning and the willingness to risk failure. “People are complicated, natural resource systems are complicated, and the relationships between individuals and between people and natural resources are really complicated. Inevitably, there are going to be times when operating in this complexity leads to failure. Being willing to move past those failures and still engage with the complexities is crucial.”

In addition to the inherent complexity of collaborative conservation, I ask Jessica about other challenges she thinks emerging leaders must face. Her first response is the inaccessibility of the majority of professional development opportunities (i.e. trainings, workshops, and conferences), which are typically expensive even before adding the costs of travel and lodging. The second is the inequitable access to conservation as a field in general. “Unpaid internships are not accessible for a lot of folks,” Jessica asserts. “It is something that the conservation field must reckon with. Including the whole non-profit industry in general. How do you balance making sure that employees are being paid fairly while also ensuring that donations are being maximized for positive conservation outcomes? It is crucial to make sure we are doing conservation in a way that is equitable and accessible to a diversity of people.” And lastly, Jessica believes conservationists must address the juxtaposition between the rigidness of federal natural resource institutions and the evolving nature of collaborative conservation. She says that recently her mind has been ruminating on these agency-NGO partnerships and the institutional paradigm shifts that may be necessary in order to fully facilitate the potential positive outcomes of collaborative conservation. 

Jessica hopes that networks and groups like the CCC and the WCCN Emerging Leaders Working Group will continue to elevate the voices of emerging leaders and increase opportunities for networking, mentorship, and peer-learning for professionals new to the field to work towards solutions to these critical questions and issues. In the meantime, Jessica will continue to work towards completing her doctorate degree, and studying pathways towards collaborative governance for mangrove conservation in the Mesoamerican Reef ecoregion (a marine area which spans from the Yucatán Peninsula to the northern Caribbean coast of Honduras). Jessica continues to be inspired by multiscalar collaborative conservation she witnesses every day– whether its between local conservation groups in Arizona or international groups like the Global Mangrove Alliance which is working to convene numerous nonprofits big and small to leverage resources, share knowledge, standardize best practices of mangrove restoration and management, and maximize positive impact. 

Jessica kayaking through a mangrove forest last summer in Florida.

Now that Jessica is a PhD student in the field, I asked her to give us her definition of collaborative conservation. After a little thought and some laughs about turning such a complicated topic into a concise definition, she told me that she defines collaborative conservation as “a process for shared learning and shared problem-solving for natural resource challenges.” It’s a nice reminder that at its foundation, the practice of collaborative conservation is simply sharing knowledge and working as a team to protect the places and things that we love.