Whitney Clark

photo of Whitney Clark “Politically, the narrative is nice: people are looking for a refreshing story.”


Whitney Clark has served for twenty years as the Executive Director of Friends of the Mississippi River (FMR), a non-profit which “engages people to protect, restore and enhance the Mississippi River and its watershed in the Twin Cities region.” Under his leadership, FMR has grown from a single employee “start-up” into a significant advocacy group with nineteen employees. Prior to his tenure with FMR, Clark worked as a staffer at the environmental advocacy groups Citizens for a Better Environment and Clean Water Action. The University of Minnesota awarded him a bachelor’s degree in Multidisciplinary Studies degree.

First, Talk with Everyone. Second, Plan for Success.

Clark stresses that the importance of engaging with as many community and government partners as possible prior to beginning a major project. Without this discussion, institutional knowledge could be unintentionally ignored, time-consuming efforts could be accidentally duplicated, and important opportunities overlooked.

“You shouldn’t immediately jump things guided only by your own ideas. Start by researching what’s going on first. For instance, the FMR board told me to meet with people who know a lot about the Mississippi river, including state agencies and natural resource people, before deciding on what role our organization would play.

“In the process of doing that research, I was told about these riverfront parcels between the Twin Cities, which were privately owned and unprotected. If they’re privately owned, it means they’re vulnerable to development. In addition, I got in touch with many other organizations—counties, nonprofits, and state agencies—which were thinking through how they could protect land and connect large patches of open space through ‘greenway corridors.’ One of those places was Mississippi’s Department of Natural Resources, which was willing to pay stakeholders to participate in a two-year project it called the ‘Greenways and Natural Areas Collaborative.’

“I ended up on the Collaborative’s steering committee, which was working with various partners to map vulnerable natural areas. This led me into a second phase of research and conversation. The Collaborative had monthly meetings for two years to discuss how to restore and manage places for ecological health, and to generate realistic plans for doing so. We assigned tasks to sub-committees for mapping, funding, and restoration strategies; we brought in speakers from around the country to talk about their work; we looked at different funding strategies, including the transfer of development rights, and/or the purchase of development rights. As a result, we discovered that it would be more powerful if we had a regional plan, as opposed to continuing with what we had been doing—working individually to accomplish very similar things.

“Once we were done, we created a report entitled The Metro Greenprint, which we used to lobby the state legislature for funding. We wanted to provide local governments with the money they needed to protect and restore natural areas. We also wanted to give them planning grants, to support the creation of strategies to pursue future conservation work. Ultimately, we succeeded in getting a four million-dollar appropriation to fund a combination of protection, restoration and natural resource planning projects in the Twin Cities metro area. And the people who took part in the Collaborative built on the connections they made there and went on to lead the efforts in their cities.”

Mobilize the Community to Raise Funds

Clark notes that FMR built on the Collaborative’s success by further strengthening, connecting, and mobilizing its connections across many different communities with environmental concerns:

“Mississippi’s Department of Natural Resources requested proposals from all the local governments, parks agencies, soil and water conservation districts, etc. Interest was strong from the start and continued to build, thanks to several years of renewed funding. Counties were interested in how they could play a bigger role in protecting open spaces and farmland from the pressures of development. One of the places we helped the most was Dakota County, whose board we convinced to have a ballot initiative. Our goal was to win a twenty million-dollar bond referendum for the protection of farmland and the other natural areas we’d identified.

“FMR played a major role in winning that referendum. We printed lawn signs, networked with organizations, and talked to elected officials. The ballot measure passed overwhelmingly.”

Moreover, the success of FMR’s work in Dakota County had positive ripple effects in the region:

“Two years later, the adjacent county did the same thing. Since then, several other entities have set aside general fund or bond dollars for the protection and restoration of open spaces and other natural areas.

Sustain Funding by Highlighting Close to Home Gains

The success of environmental protection projects often depends on the degree of uninterrupted financial support they enjoy. Unfortunately, a government’s sustained financial commitment to environmental conservation frequently translates into higher—and thereby more unpopular—taxes. But Clark suggests that people are more willing to pay increased taxes if they understand how those monies are creating positive, visible, local change.

“In 2008, FMR proposed and won a ballot initiative called the ‘Legacy Amendment.’ This allocated a percentage of sales tax to fund the environment. The success of this campaign shows that people are willing to pay slightly more in taxes if the money will provide for environmental benefits they understand, with results which are close to home. People sensed that things they liked about the county could disappear if they didn’t do something about it. That meant the ballot measure hit close to home. It was really tangible, so it wasn’t hard to understand.”

“People don’t love paying taxes, so I can easily imagine a different outcome for that campaign. I think it worked because we had a campaign manager, advertisements, surveys, lawn signs, and events all over the county. We also had many conversations with city council members, mayors, and the media, and we wrote lots of op-eds for local papers.”

Think Historically and Systematically about Power

Unfortunately, not all of FMR’s advocacy work has been successful. In retrospect, Clark attributes some of its most significant failures to the fact that FMR didn’t think historically and systematically about the socio-economic power system which created the problems it was seeking to solve.

“FMR has long worked to improve water quality. The Mississippi River does not meet state standards for water quality as a result of all the bacteria, nutrients, and sediments which have accumulated in it.

“The good news is that many sources of pollution have been regulated, and they aren’t much of an issue anymore.

“The bad news is that the Clean Water Act only regulates point sources. Non-point sources, like farm fields, are explicitly exempt from the regulatory framework. And the Mississippi River’s main source of pollution is agriculture. If we could take a magic wand and completely shut off all pollutants from point sources into the Mississippi River, it would still be massively polluted because of agriculture.

“Thus, for nearly a decade, FMR’s advocacy strategy was to highlight the disproportionate amount of pollutants which agriculture was dumping in the river. We thought that educating the public about this would build the popular political support necessary for the government to regulate the agricultural industry. And although we invested a lot of time in doing that, unfortunately, it didn’t work. If anything, the problem got worse.

“What is now apparent to me is that the roots of this issue go way back: ever since the Dust Bowl, there’s been a tradition of using a voluntary approach to address agricultural water pollution. Even now, the political environment is such that regulatory measures are unpopular with the political class. Agriculture is a major industry—much more powerful than environmental advocacy is at the moment.”

Creatively Overcome Hurdles, Rethink Approaches

With that insight, Clark began brainstorming new methods of reducing agricultural runoff into the Mississippi River. He explains that,

“The definition of insanity is to continue doing the same thing while expecting that it will give you different results. Our failure made it clear that FMR had to adapt: it would be great if we had the political clout to regulate agriculture, but that isn’t happening right now—not even close! Republicans are in charge of the Senate and the House. And honestly, even if Democrats held a legislative majority, there wouldn’t be much political support for agricultural regulation, because of the power dynamics in play. Consequently, FMR has had to switch gears. Instead of focusing on education, it’s investigating how we might accomplish our goal of reducing river pollution without regulation.

“One of our ideas is to change the crops which farmers grow to include more perennials, which are better for the environment. We are trying to stimulate and provide policy and markets for perennial crops which benefit farmers and help them diversify the crops they are growing. Happily, agricultural groups are not opposed to these new measures. They actually support them. And politically, the narrative is nice: people are looking for a refreshing story about environmentalists and farmers working together.”

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

Clark concluded with a reminder that past victories don’t guarantee future successes. Gains must always be protected with hard work and commitment.

“Organizing works: An influx of energy, interest, and public dollars over the last twenty years has allowed FMR to build plans, develop relationships with nonprofits, and improve its technical capacity to work on both the state and local level. We sustain a bunch of pro-environmental infrastructure, funding, and popular support for things which make a lasting impact on the livability of the community.

“Make no mistake: it is easier for us to do our work now that we have this setup. But we always have to defend it. The forces of darkness are never far off.”