Featured Interview: Tina Andolina, CNPS Legislative Staff Person of the Year
By Liv O’Keeffe
In 1964, the Wilderness Act was signed into law, creating the National Wilderness Preservation System. The original goal of the landmark legislation was to save 100 million acres, but 66 versions later 9.1 million acres received protection. It was undoubtedly a tough compromise for conservationists.
Fast forward more than a half century, however, and that landmark legislation has surpassed its original goal and is considered one of the nation’s greatest conservation achievements. According to the National Park Service, Congress has now designated 106 million acres of federal public lands as “wilderness.”
“They gave up so much at the time,” says Tina Andolina, legislative director for Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), “but if you look at every bill since then, we would have lost everything had the people at the table been purists. We protected an amazing amount of public lands because of the compromise they were willing to make.”
The give and take toward steady progress is a lesson Andolina has lived throughout her career, a body of conservation work distinguished by its multifaceted reach. Having worked for non-profits such as the California Wilderness Coalition and the Friends of the Trinity River, as an environmental lobbyist, and in government, Andolina understands conservation from all angles. Today, she is a key architect of California’s environmental defense, balancing big goals with pragmatism.
In February, CNPS honored Andolina as Legislative Staff Person of the Year for her work with Senator Allen to pass Senate Bill 249. The bill, which CNPS helped introduce, secured important natural resource protection and greater accountability for the state’s Off-Highway Vehicle Recreation Program. It passed unanimously with the Governor’s Office applauding its win-win outcome. Yet like so much in politics, the SB 249 victory came with concessions of its own.
“Every day we make those compromises and move that needle a little bit. Sometimes we’re furious we couldn’t move it more, but it allows us to do more next time, preventing us from having to start from scratch.”
Recently, we sat down with Andolina to talk about the path to progress, the changing conservation movement, and the importance of women in politics today. As Senator Allen said of his petite but formidable legislative director at the CNPS Conservation Conference in February, “We need more small, powerful, mighty women.”
Tina, how did you first get involved in the environmental movement?
Growing up, I loved politics. I also had a passion for the environment, but I didn’t realize that I could connect the two until I joined the environmental club at my community college. At that time, our adviser, Joe Medeiros, invited us to join him in fighting the Auburn Dam Project, which was supported heavily by then-Rep. John Doolittle. Joe opened our eyes to how you can use organizing, petition driving, phone calls, and political pressure to do something good for the environment. We raised money at bake sales and bought business clothes at thrift stores, so we could afford to join him in D.C. The dam project was defeated, and that experience showed me that we could really make a difference. I knew then that I wanted to do this for my career.
You started your environmental career in the ‘90s. What was that time like and how has it changed today?
The most notable difference is that we had some Republican allies. We didn’t have doors slammed in our face. We did a lot of good and got wilderness bills passed with Republican authors.
There are still Republicans who love our natural world and care about the environment, but they are fewer than in the past. So what happened? What changed?
In the last 20+ years, the Republican Party has been very strategic about focusing on free market absolutes. Rather than working on legislation, the party strategists worked at the roots of academia and at the local level to construct a black and white cultural mindset that all conservation is bad for business. They were very focused and unified. The environmentalists, meanwhile, were fragmented and split into silos. While the Republicans had maybe five core issues of focus, we had 500! By 2006, we saw a complete die-off of environmental bills. As an environmental community in Sacramento, we realized we had to get organized. That was the start of an ad-hoc Green California coalition of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and policy makers.
You and longtime CNPS lobbyist Vern Goehring were a part of that coalition from the beginning. What have we learned about working together?
We need to set priorities and support each other. Different environmental groups are competing for funding and members, which creates inherent competition and can make it difficult to collaborate. We think in terms of air, water, plants, and sometimes worry that we’ll reduce our effectiveness if we support a broader effort. But it’s not watering down your mission to help your allies. Funders care about coalitions and want to see us working together.
You watch outside the gate of either house, the opposition will go up to each other and ask for help on the spot. They don’t battle over details; they just trust each other. We can learn from that.
What would ideal collaboration look like for the environmental community?
Engage partners and legislators earlier. It’s hard for legislators when our partners come to us in January. Let’s build proactive rather than reactive campaigns where we figure out the structure and the goal ahead of time and communicate that with the legislative offices. We also have an opportunity this year to leverage the state’s Environmental Caucus. Right now, it’s underutilized, but it would be a great forum through which we could hold a summit to establish priorities and avoid unnecessary redundancy and competition. That way we don’t have scenarios in which you have seven different plastic bills being introduced and then none pass because resources are spread so thin.
California is the nation’s leader in environmental conservation. Can you talk a bit about how we’re building California’s “Green Wall” to fortify the state’s environment protections?
After the 2016 election, I had a good 36 hours where I was really depressed. But I have a friend, an amazing organizer, who was sending messages all night, encouraging us not to mope but to do something. That kind of mentality was incredibly empowering. I realized, ‘OK, we’re California, so bring it!’
So we started to take a fresh look at how we mobilize our core to be super effective in fighting everything that comes our way. Part of it is logistics, so we can have legislation ready to go when things arise, making our lists, and getting ready. It’s also been fun to get creative and look at where the state of California has control: certain licenses, our California Endangered Species Act, our wild and scenic rivers. Even our opposition here can be moved to the center more than at the national level. I think they recognize that these are California values.
We can do amazing things in California, and what we do in Sacramento can actually set the tone for the rest of the world.
Tina, you’re a woman in politics at the height of the #MeToo movement. How are you processing this right now?
One of the more interesting pieces of the discussion is the question of this spectrum of acceptable vs unacceptable behavior. Can members give hugs? At what point do you just need to resign? Where do we say it’s OK and not?
As women, our age and experience seem to determine what we see as OK on that spectrum. Our grandparents may have dealt with a similar dynamic over racism decades ago. A senior member who I’ve never met hugging me may feel OK because I’m 42 and have been told for 20 years that’s OK, but that hug is a power play and a tool of manipulation. We need to come to terms with what we’ve always accepted and know that we’ve accepted it because we’ve been trained to do so.
What’s your advice for other women, especially those working in the public eye?
First, we can’t let this movement get minimized or vilified as simply ‘political correctness.’ Even some of our allies warn us not to push too hard … that we might alienate people. How many times have we been told that as women?
I’m heartened by the number of women running for office. All these other women are standing up, and I personally feel duty bound to show up. It’s not easy. Many of us are mothers, too, so the world is already expected of us. We can’t give in to guilt, and we need to recognize that we’re all making a contribution. You don’t have to be in politics or an activist. Even if you work for a bank, you’re giving back in a different way. Imagine if there were no women working in banks and our places of business?
Last, we’ve got to have each other’s backs, and the same holds true for those of us working to protect the environment. We need to prioritize lifting each other up. Let’s support each other in a very conscious way.