Denny Caneff and Raj Shukla reflect on the 30th anniversary of River Alliance
We recently spoke with our two most recent past executive directors and asked them to reflect on the highlights of River Alliance of Wisconsin’s 30 years of clean water advocacy. Denny Caneff served as executive director from 2003 to 2016 before handing the reins over to Raj Shukla from 2016 to 2020.
Looking back, what do you think is the accomplishment you’re most proud of during your time at River Alliance?
First, the project on the Menominee River to move sturgeon around the two hydroelectric dams at Marinette. I’m satisfied by it because it’s the rare thing I can point to in my 13 years at the River Alliance that I can actually go see and know that it actually worked. The partnership with three government agencies and a private company worked surprisingly well. I’m especially proud of the close connection River Alliance developed with Eagle Creek Renewable Energy. It surprised us both; we were supposed antagonists and that simply was not the case.
The other thing is developing the capability of young conservation professionals. Most of the people I hired and managed have gone on to successful and meaningful careers in some kind of conservation endeavor. There were three executive directors who came out of our shop during my tenure. Those many “jam sessions” in my office, from navigating government bureaucracy to managing prickly partners, are memorable and satisfying to me now when I see how far so many colleagues have flown.
I’m proud of the work we did to support the Menominee Tribe and local organizations to beat back the Back 40 mine. That effort combined a lot of the magic of River Alliance. River Alliance had been tracking developments with the mining proposal. Though he had recently stepped down as the executive director, Denny Caneff alerted us about a public hearing and wanted to speak on behalf of River Alliance. We increased our support for the local coalition and particularly the Menominee Tribe who had been leading on the issue, but not often heard by the statewide environmental community. We put resources into the campaign, interviewed leaders, pushed earned and paid media, and did polling on sulfide mining, all to elevate the issue statewide.
Working together, we successfully slowed down the mine proposal, and while there was plenty of luck involved, the effort was special because we recognized that we weren’t alone. One of the best outcomes was when former Menominee Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw joined our board and became one of the architects of the Wisconsin Water Agenda.
The second example was establishing the Clear Water Farms program. We started this effort at the end of Matt Kruger’s tenure at River Alliance. It represented our approach to agriculture issues that was a departure from what we’d done in the past. It aimed to use market forces to get farms to act more responsibly in terms of water stewardship across the state, starting in Marathon County.
We formed new partnerships, worked with the Alliance for Water Stewardship in Milwaukee, and built upon our network in Marathon County to find a great partner to adopt a stewardship standard and influence others to do the same. Miltrim Farms took that leadership role and was instrumental in helping to pass legislation in the state Assembly to broaden the program. That effort was cut short by the COVID crisis, but we made progress and new partnerships in the private sector, universities, and among some legislators.
What is the one thing you think River Alliance does well that is unique among environmental or social justice organizations?
River Alliance’s work getting clean water referendums on county ballots jumps out right away. No one else is doing that and it is a good niche for the River Alliance, given your history and capacity. A county referendum on the ballot and passed would seem to open a door for “organizing” in those counties where a committed group of citizens has emerged to take on some local – and I emphasize local – battle. Influencing the legislature on the environment is a fool’s errand. But county government has a lot of responsibility for conservation and county government is so much more accessible and less intimidating to citizens.
Maybe not entirely unique, but what we do well is capacity building for grassroots groups. We aren’t just trying to push people to vote. We build leaders who will be there beyond an election cycle and we help to build lasting leadership.
Executive Director Allison Werner is a great example of this. She built relationships in year one at River Alliance that are still paying dividends because of her absolute commitment to nurturing leaders and maintaining strong relationships. That helps us operate nimbly and go where the help is needed. You never know when you need to bring leaders together, but River Alliance can do it because of how committed we are to building leadership to operate statewide in the long term.
– Stacy Harbaugh, Communications Director
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