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A Voice for the Wild: Finding Inspiration to Preserve Nature

Former Wildlands Network Executive Director—now Conservation Director—Greg Costello reflects on what he’s accomplished during his tenure at the organization, as well as what’s in store in his new role moving forward.

  1. Why did you decide to come to Wildlands Network?
Photo: Nicky Elliott

I was introduced to Wildlands Network (then called Wildlands Project) around 2006 by a colleague at the Western Environmental Law Center, where I was Executive Director. I still recall sitting at my desk and reviewing the Wildlands Project’s website and learning of its science-based focus on large landscape connectivity and protecting large carnivores across North America.  I thought to myself, “that’s an organization I would love to lead.”

Fast forward to 2013; I was looking to expand my personal involvement in advocacy beyond litigation, and I received calls from three members of Wildlands Network’s Executive Director search committee on the same day urging me to apply for the open Executive Director position.  I couldn’t resist the temptation to return to my science roots (my undergraduate degree is in biology) and combine it with my law practice but with a focus on policy, and an expanded geography that included many landscapes of my youth in the Eastern Wildway.  When the call came offering me the job it was an easy decision to say yes.

  1. How has the organization changed since you joined?

When I arrived at Wildlands Network I found a small group of the most passionate and committed conservationists I had ever encountered.  But the organization was struggling. For more than twenty years it had been the driver of the concept of large landscape connectivity and had succeeded spectacularly: governments across the globe and conservation organizations large and small had embraced the need to protect wildlife corridors and restore ecological integrity.  Wildlands Network had pivoted to a role of creating networks of groups working on connectivity at the local and regional scale, serving as both a convener and a communications voice highlighting those efforts.  But this strategy was hamstrung by the 2008 recession and the slow economic recovery that followed. With a small staff and steadily shrinking budget, Wildlands Network needed to change course.

Greg, new Wildlands Network board member Fred Koontz, Woodland Park Zoo staff and actor Jon Huertas and at Huertas ambassador launch event in 2016.

As a conservation lawyer and an executive director, I understood the value to an organization of producing tangible conservation outcomes that would prove that we were making a difference.  We recognized that we had a unique strength in our science capacity; that there was a need and hence opportunity to provide leadership on policies that would enhance landscape connectivity; and that we needed to increase our ability to focus on specific place based projects that would demonstrate how science and policy could come together to make a difference on the ground.

Today we have an incredible group of talented and committed conservationists, doing great and important work.  I am very excited for our future.

  1. What are you most proud of from your tenure as executive director?

During my tenure we have been able to reestablish Wildlands Network as one of the leaders of large landscape conservation efforts in North America.  We have always had an incredibly compelling mission and vision, and through the combination of that, hard work, some risk taking, some luck and the commitment of a few steadfast donors we have created an organization where really talented conservationists want to work.  Being able to attract and retain this amazing group of staff is what I am most proud of because, without them, all of the great conservation work that we are doing would not be possible.

  1. What do you hope to accomplish in your new role as conservation director? 

I am very excited about my new role as conservation director. For the first time since I joined the nonprofit community in 2002, I will be able to devote my knowledge, expertise and energy to the nitty gritty conservation work, particularly the policy component. We are at a critical moment in time; we are in the midst of a very hard lesson on the interconnectivity of our world on a global scale and the window to “dampen the curve” on the worst impacts of climate change is narrowing.  We need to be thinking out of the box on novel policy approaches to meeting our goal of healthy connected landscapes across North America, and I look forward to playing a leadership role in those efforts.  In addition to working directly on issues, I am excited about using my experience in a mentoring role for our staff, and provide support and leadership to our talented program leaders. And finally, I will be here to support our new executive director, Katie Davis, as she leads us in the next chapter of our conservation work.

John Davis, Costello and supporters in Wilson, Wyoming along Davis’s TrekWest route, a 5,000-mile, person-powered journey from Mexico to Canada to ground-truth the Western Wildway in 2013.
  1. What continues to inspire you to do this work?

My earliest, and my most vivid memories are of wild things and places, from watching chickadees and chasing ground hogs in farmers’ fields behind our house in Pennsylvania as a toddler, and continuing throughout my life, I have had a strong affinity to the natural world.  And again, from an early age, I have felt compelled to be a voice for the wild; it’s why I became a lawyer.

Costello and board member Karen Beazley on a bike ride on Bainbridge Island, Washington.

I have been privileged to travel through incredible landscapes throughout the world, and today live on an island in the Pacific Northwest in a landscape where old growth forests resonate with the call of pileated woodpeckers, osprey and bald eagles;  where evenings are punctuated with the barks of sea lions, coyote song and the croaks of Pacific tree frogs.  Every day I am witness to this incredible natural world and in that I find inspiration to work to preserve it.  And I’m a dad; my son’s future and his ability to continue to experience this incredible world is a powerful driver.

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