If you take solace in knowing that wild places like the Owyhee Canyonlands exist, then you’ve benefitted from Corie Harlan’s work at ONDA. You can get to know our Campaign Manager now through this Q&A and come hear her present March 9 in Bend and April 13 in Portland.
Take us on a stroll down the career path that led you to ONDA.
It’s been a long and winding road, to be sure. Growing up on the outskirts of the small, rural timber town of Philomath, Oregon during the peak of the spotted owl debate, I had friends who were ‘hippies’ and friends who were ‘loggers.’ I grew up with strong conservation values and also understanding from an early age that natural resources issues are not black and white. There are many shades of grey, perspectives and points of view – and, ultimately, most people really just want to be heard.
After high school, I honed in on a pivotal realization that I wanted to make a living and also make a difference. That helped guide my path at the University of Oregon, where I focused on environmental science, business, and communications. Upon graduating, I spent three years traveling around the world and throughout Oregon, working in the service industry (I can mix a mean Old Fashioned or margarita!) and conducting restoration work statewide and abroad.
Thanks to a connection made amidst planting trees, traveling and slinging drinks, I landed at Metro, the regional government in Portland, where I helped launch and run programs focused on improving wildlife habitat and water quality in urban areas.
Some years later, I crashed a wedding, fell in love with a boy who lived in Bend (and who would become my husband) and made the leap to the dry side of the state. I knew I wanted to switch sectors and work for a passionate, effective, dedicated, conservation-focused non-profit. I managed a few environmental and political campaigns in Bend before ONDA and I found each other. I’ve been part of the ONDA family for eight years now, with my role evolving over time. I am currently focused on the Owyhee Canyonlands and I’m more inspired, motivated and determined than ever to protect and restore our high desert public lands, waters and wildlife.
For most of your time ONDA, you’ve been our Owyhee campaign manager and you know that rugged country well. What’s intriguing you most about this region right now?
The Owyhee is a humbling place. No matter how much time you’ve spent there, there is always more to experience in this vast country. The seasonal changes that unfold with the plant and animal life make each and every visit to the uplands, canyons or rivers a completely unique experience. I find that really intriguing. The truly wild places in our world can literally take a lifetime (and then some) to come to know. The Owyhee is one of those places, a land of unceasing wonders and hidden gems. This place forces you to be present, slow down and appreciate its magic. That is a rare, wonderful thing in our increasingly busy, crowded and connected world — and it’s something we need more of.
How does your work contribute to protecting Oregon’s high desert?
The way we protect our precious wild lands, waters and wildlife is actually through empowering and collaborating with people. It’s people who make good things happen for Oregon’s high desert. So I think it’s the relationships I build throughout Oregon that are the greatest contributions I make to protecting our high desert. People have more power than they know! It is immensely gratifying to empower others to speak up for places and issues they care about, and it’s equally important to listen to others who may not share your perspective, be solutions-oriented and seek to find common ground.
What achievement are you most proud of?
It is sort of intangible, but it comes down to sustaining and enduring and tipping points. The reality of this work — of finding ways to protect, defend and restore wild desert public lands forever — is that it’s a roller coaster and a sprint and a marathon all rolled into one.
Staying in the game, getting up when you fall, regrouping when changes outside your control blow up your efforts, finding hope, staying optimistic, continuing to show up. Those are all achievements I’m really proud of. Because big, complex, important things aren’t easy and they don’t happen overnight. Ever. They take dedication, perseverance and creativity, especially in the face of complexity and adversity.
One such tipping point happened in Malheur County in 2016, after the Owyhee Canyonlands weren’t declared a National Monument by the Obama Administration. Community leaders’ perspective shifted from “Hell no. No protection is needed for this place” to “the decades-long effort to better manage and protect this area isn’t going away. We need to figure this out.” And that shift has helped continue to move the Owyhee Canyonlands closer to being protected in my lifetime. Working with ONDA’s partners and supporters and people in communities throughout eastern Oregon and Malheur County makes those critical shifts and encouraging progress possible.
What public lands management trends are most concerning to you right now? Most encouraging?
Some nefarious and deeply troubling things are happening at the highest levels in this current administration, things like rolling back bedrock environmental laws and further diminishing the BLM’s ability to effectively manage public lands on America’s behalf. At the same time, natural resource issues like climate change, water scarcity, and the fire and invasive cycle are putting intense pressure on Oregon’s high desert public lands.
In the face of these challenges, I take heart in knowing that the political pendulum will swing, that nature is resilient and that I can channel my anxiety and anger and do tangible things that impart a healthier future for our public lands. It is also incredibly encouraging that ONDA’s base of supporters continues to grow, engage and support our work to protect, defend and restore Oregon’s high desert.
You have twin daughters. Please tell us which one is cuter.
Ha! Impossible! They are both smart, sassy, unique little beings. And yes, also really damn cute. Working parenthood is not for the faint of heart — but now I’m more motivated than ever to leave the world a better place for them and future generations.
Any advice for students considering a career in conservation?
Figure out your ‘north stars’ and stick to them. For me, it’s environmental stewardship, continual learning and creativity. As long as those three elements are in play, I know I’m on the right track. Also, be willing to get off of a linear career ladder and try lateral or unexpected moves that can put you on new, different paths that lead to unforeseen places and connections.
What Corie’s Reading Now
- The Alice Network by Kate Quinn (historical fiction)
- How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell (non-fiction)