Part of the “commons” – spaces that bring communities together, as Brett Glymph describes. Here, people gather for the restoration of a historic Black American cemetery. (Photo: Enrichmond Foundation)

Today we’re checking in with one of the outstanding leaders of the Chesapeake conservation community, Brett Glymph, Executive Director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation — and also a member of the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership’s Steering Committee!

In this interview, Brett talks movingly about the influences on her work, how conservation programs can respond to issues of equity, and her hopes for land conservation as a vital force in democracy. Read on for some meaningful reflections.

Looking back, what influenced your role today?

I’ve always been curious and interested in how public policy can affect and improve people’s lives. Government should be working for the maximum public good.

It goes back to my childhood in southern California when I first had a clear notion of it. Mrs. Ronning was our school nurse, and a wonderful lady. I was friends with her daughter Rachel. One day I went to her for a band-aid or something and found her crying in her office. And I asked “Mrs. Ronning, why are you crying?”

A proposition for public school funding had failed with the voters. As a kid, I was taken aback by how Mrs. Ronning was moved to tears by something my young mind struggled to comprehend. Later, I understood she knew what was in our future without strong support for public schools.

In California’s golden age of the 50’s and 60’s, my parents got great educations in integrated public high schools in L.A. and Pasadena. But by the time I was in high school, the full effects of decreased funding were evident in the schools. The world class education offered my parents’ generation was not available to me in the 90’s.

Now I could understand the reason for Mrs. Ronning’s tears and see on a direct level how government policy impacted individuals and their life chances, mine included. 
I believe that understanding pushed me towards an interest in the law. As an undergraduate I focused on international law which is big alphabet soup of trade agreements and voluntary compacts that I found interesting, but at times inscrutable and highly unpredictable. So as a graduate student, I decided to go in the opposite direction and focus on what I thought to be one of the most stable, predictable areas of the law: real estate and land use.
What I came to learn about real estate and land use surprised me – it was dynamic and, most interestingly, it was a story of us as a country. I hadn’t realized how much this area of the law had embedded in it broad statements and value judgments about us a people. In short, real estate and land use told a story of the pursuit for civil rights and equality. From the common law on deeds, mortgages, bondholders, etc. relating to ownership and creditors rights in owning people, to racial covenants and redlining, this part of the law is central to understanding who is considered a citizen and who gets to share in the benefits provided by full citizenship.
In fact, there’s no section of our law or policy that is unaffected by our values. They reflect back to us who we are as a people. And there’s progress to be made in all those areas, including the document that transfers title of your house. As mundane as that sounds, it has a civil rights or equity component to it.
That’s what drives me — understanding how our public policy shapes our lives and figuring out ways to improve it.

Brett Glymph is Executive Director of the Virginia Outdoors Foundation. Previously, she worked as a real estate and land-use attorney in the private sector and for the Virginia Attorney General’s Office. She’s on the board of Virginia United Land Trusts, and advises the Virginia African-American Cultural Resources Task Force.

The Virginia Outdoors Foundation (VOF) was created by the legislature in 1966 and now protects over 850,000 acres in 111 counties and cities, making it one of the nation’s largest land conservation organizations.

How has that played out in your work?

I am generally an institutionalist; I believe in working within systems.

But sometimes, as so evident in recent months, systems need to be reconsidered. I’ve been inspired by having worked with really smart and brave people. I was reflecting on the chance I had to work with Governor McAuliffe, who, as everyone knows, is a big go-bold-or-go-home personality.

I had this idea in 2016, that Virginia should be regularly supporting historic African American cemeteries–which contained precious historical resources at risk of being lost forever. There was precedent for this in Virginia with the Civil War and Revolutionary War cemeteries grants program dating back to the 70’s. At the outset I had no idea how it would be received. In the end, it passed with unanimous support and was named as the number one bill to watch by the Richmond paper for the 2017 session. Now, just over four years later, the African American cemeteries grants program is arguably the largest in the state, covering landscapes from Arlington to Suffolk, statewide.

How quickly things have changed. Having proximity to that administration, which was really transformational for Virginia, and working with leaders who weren’t afraid to make some waves — that was inspiring to me. It has inspired me to go for it, take risks … and trust that if it’s a good idea, if it’s the right thing to do, there will be others who will support it and will lend a hand to put in the hard work to see it through.

How are you and VOF responding to this dramatic past year?

We’ve decided to focus on investment in community spaces where people can gather. That solves an immediate need for access to green space and parks. But I see it as really central to unifying our communities and by extension, our country, our democracy.

It’s especially important when we live in a time where things in the public square are diminishing–especially right now in the pandemic, but it’s not just related to the virus.

The places where you encounter your neighbor, your community, in person — those opportunities are fewer and farther between than in the past. And those are the places where people organize civically, where a community gets together. And so we think it’s important for us to be there with investments to support those places.

We recently provided a $78,000 grant to a small city to invest in upfitting their town square. They have a beautiful compact town center square and right in the middle is a green open space that has been underutilized, mostly with cars just parking cars around it. They’re going to transform that space and make it into a proper square for people to come together.

Many people may not think that’s traditional land conservation. And in some sense, I suppose it’s not. But in my view land conservation that’s achieved through conservation easements–protecting public values in private land–are actually contributions to the “commons.”

These types of projects are an extension of that, another contribution to the commons. Right now, in our country, in our democracy, and especially because of the virus, it’s important to invest in community spaces where we get to know our neighbors, where we get to know our fellow citizens. Not only is it good for our physical and mental health, it’s good for our democracy. It’s critical to a functioning society to know your neighbor, and that you esteem that person. And, that way you’re willing to invest in him or her and care about their futures.

So that’s where I see VOF can do the most good at this moment — making investments wherever we can, a lot of times partnering with local governments who have these plans, but don’t have the funding to implement them.

It does not mean we’re abandoning our traditional conservation easement program for which we have such good incentives in Virginia. We will continue to help landowners make these gifts to the Commonwealth. But there has not been that same type of funding for these projects I’m talking about; these more direct, smaller impact projects. So we’re trying to fill that gap.

Have you had to change policies and practices?

Yes, and it’s new; just this fiscal year.

Our long focus on the charitable gifts of easements presumes owners with a good amount of property. There are assumptions built into the structure of the program by definition of the work we’re doing.

So when we were creating the new Get Outdoors grant program, we intentionally decoupled awards from ownership. You don’t have to own land to apply, nor is VOF required to acquire an interest in the real estate.

That really democratized the pool of applicants, giving us a more representative group of Virginians. For example, we are working with a community group out of Richmond spearheaded by a lady who began her environmental work after her son was poisoned by exposure to lead based paint. She applied and was funded to create a meditation garden and walking trails at a Richmond Title I school. The group doesn’t own the land, but they understand what the community wants and needs. If we had imposed land ownership as a requirement we would have lost out on partnering with this group and making a difference for this community.

You speak of the Commons. How do we build that sensibility?

We need to be more equitable in our work, we need to have better representation in terms of who is at the table.

Luckily, in terms of Black political culture–to which I’m connected–we’re in a really fortunate position. The Black community understands the benefits of shared sacrifice on a very deep level.

They understand the power of the public library, public schools, and public infrastructure and they’re willing to continue to make investments for the public good. There’s a very strong community ethic. Our challenge is to be more engaged with those communities.

But we have to recognize the needs in each community are different. People of Color is a nice catch all term, but there are many distinct subsets. I can speak to the Black American community, but the challenges are different for a first generation Mexican-American community. We’re going to need to figure out how to engage each of these individually.

To get more Black people at the table, you have to understand the history of segregation in this country, which was so tied to dictating the movements of Black people. To get people more comfortable in certain spaces, you have to understand that many places in this country have been racially coded. We’re going to need to be explicit about decoding those spaces and explicit about the invitation to come and participate.

So, the engagement piece requires some preparation. And because it’s our shared history, it’s incumbent on all of us to know some of this; to have at least a working knowledge of it before the conversation.

For example, my great grandfather grew up in hill country Alabama on land acquired by his father shortly after Emancipation. Together, they grew cotton and timber as a whole family enterprise that supported generations of the Chapman family. Ultimately, my great grandfather left Alabama as a part of the Great Migration and went to Chicago’s South Side to work in the stockyards.

This history of farming and migration is common to the Black experience, but there’s this persistent notion that Black culture grew solely out of the destination cities of the North. Most Black people in America have some direct ties to the agricultural South. So the idea that Black people are disconnected from the land, a farming heritage, or a cultural heritage tied to agriculture, is an incomplete view of the Black American experience. Sure, Black culture has been shaped and enriched by the Great Migration and the lives built in the destination cities, but it all goes back to a rural agricultural heritage that lasted for centuries. That’s what I mean about doing some homework and understanding.

What’s the role of private land conservation a decade ahead?

We started Virginia’s land preservation tax credit in real terms in 2000. Yes, some of the benefits have been trimmed back. But I think it’s on pretty solid political footing. And for Virginia anyway, we’ve decided this is going to be a big part of our natural resource conservation approach–to use our public-private partnership program.

In Virginia, land conservation is locally driven, which is really good. But we’re understanding now that we need to do more of a coordinated response for the challenges presented by sea level rise, wildlife movements, habitat, and climate. We need to continue to use the tools we have, but also use the information provided by technology and science to help understand where we get the most return for our work. More acres is implied, and we need to continue at a good clip, while doing that in a strategic way.

As we continue this work, we need to do it with citizens and communities and localities and think about it more broadly. The contributions of land conservation are contributions to the commons. And we need to tie that to creating a political culture in which we are promoting a deep conservation ethic.

This is one of the most important priorities of our time with the challenges we’re facing around climate change and extinction events.

For our work to be durable, we have to make sure the benefits are broadly enjoyed. The soft power of influencing the culture through a widely shared conservation ethic is just something we should not lose sight of.

Fortunately, I think everyone recognizes the value of land conservation now. You don’t have to make the basic case anymore in Virginia. It’s clear that policymakers understand it, and it’s bipartisan. The challenge is the uphill climb of always getting more funding. But in terms of values, our policy makers believe in the benefits of land conservation.

What do you love about what you do?

I love the diversity of the work; it’s never dull. And I work with some really smart talented people. But, most importantly I love being able to work in proximity to places where public policy is shaped. I really value having an opportunity to influence that.

And I’m very proud of my adopted home state. The conversations we’re having about equity and racial reconciliation are inspiring, about how we’re thinking about public remembrance. Barbara Johns, a civil rights hero from Prince Edward County, now represents Virginia in statuary hall at the Capitol. I count that as progress and I think it’s going to bode well for the state. I’m really hopeful for the future.

So, what are you hopeful for?

Well, dedicated funding for natural resource spending; in Virginia, that’s everyone’s wish.

I’m hopeful land conservation can be a real solution to the increased need for green infrastructure, for combating sea level rise and climate change generally. I think we have a real opportunity with land conservation to unify people around solving some of the biggest challenges of our time.

By 2030, it would be great to strive for another million acres conserved in Virginia.

Read about VOF’s recently announced grants for increasing access to the outdoors.

Don’t forget to send us your 2020 land conservation success stories as they develop. They’ll land in the new and growing collection at, a tool we can all use to show collective impact. See the checklist below for easy-to-follow, simple guidelines.