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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Turning Businesspeople into Environmentalists: The Sierra Business Council


Since 1995, the James Irvine Foundation has invested more than $11 million to support the growth and development of Collaborative Regional Initiatives (CRIs) throughout the state -- nonprofit organizations that engage key players from business, environmental, and a variety of other advocacy groups with players from local governments and public agencies to create improvements in their regions. CRIs work on issues ranging across transportation, land use, housing, and economic development. They work in a variety of ways from developing legislation to media campaigns to practical work on particular projects. All are directed at building civic capacity and filling in gaps where government does not or cannot act. Some CRIs have been in place for years; others are more recently formed. They represent experiments in regional governance. Recently, the Irvine Foundation tapped a team of Berkeley faculty to perform an assessment of the CRIs so the foundation can target its resources in order to make them effective and sustainable over time and assist them in producing valuable outcomes for their regions. City planning professor Judith Innes, who led the complex evaluation, teamed with city planning professors AnnaLee Saxenian, Karen Christensen, Karen Chapple and political science professor Judith Gruber to focus on the projects and programs that a sample of CRIs engage in, asking which are most successful and why. In particular, the researchers examined how variables like leadership, resources, diversity of participation, processes of dialogue and collaboration, and the ways problems have been framed contribute to the degree of success in each program. The work is designed to assist the CRIs with strategies to select and build the successes of their programs and to help them overcome obstacles and identify opportunities for effective work.

Together the researchers published case studies of four major CRIs -- the Bay Area Alliance for Sustainable Communities, Joint Venture: Silicon Valley, the San Diego Dialogue and the Sierra Business Council -- as well as an analysis of regional workforce development collaboratives in California.

Since 1970, the Sierra Nevada has undergone significant economic and social change as the population of this vast 18-county region has more than doubled, traditional industries in timber and natural extraction have declined and a major tourist industry has evolved. These changes have led to political conflict between long-time residents concerned about property rights and economic development and the new arrivals who tend to be more concerned about the environment.

Enter the Sierra Business Council, a Collaborative Regional Initiative (CRI) established in 1994 to address these conflicts and help assure the sustainability of the Sierra. The council developed the novel strategy of helping the business community understand how environmental quality is an essential component to the potential success of the economy. "Their fundamental theory of change at the outset was basically to transform businesspeople into environmentalists so they would take different positions in the political debates over the Sierra’s future," says city planning professor Judith Innes in a new report on CRIs in California. "The Sierra Business Council overall has been a highly successful organization," she says, "gaining high marks from participants in most of their activities and being able to demonstrate outcomes from their many initiatives." Among the council’s notable achievements have been the development of the Sierra Nevada Wealth Index, which provides and explains indicators on each of the types of capital -- natural, social and financial -- in the Sierra. It has been so widely used that demand has grown for parallel indexes for smaller regions. The council was also instrumental in creating the Sierra Nevada Conservancy recently signed into law by the governor.

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