On Top of the World – Truckee native new head of Sierra Nevada Alliance
After years of working for environmental groups throughout the state and personal travels across the country, Joan Clayburgh is back in her home mountains, with a deeper appreciation of the Sierra and a new sense of purpose.
“This is my dream job,” said Clayburgh, the new executive director of the South Lake Tahoe-based Sierra Nevada Alliance.
Clayburgh graduated from Tahoe-Truckee High School in 1981, and has worked for most of the past 15 years in environmental politics.
She took over as the director on Dec. 3.
The nonprofit Sierra Nevada Alliance serves as an umbrella for more than 80 member groups, from Mt. Lassen to Kern County, who are trying to preserve and rehabilitate portions of the Sierra while also helping communities maintain or reclaim their economic viability.
“We provide funding, we have small grants that we give out, tips on how to secure additional funding, how to write a news release, and coalition building, how to bring diverse players to the same table,” Clayburgh said of the Sierra Nevada Alliance.
The job also provides an outlet for the same energy and spirit that used to emanate out of a Wolverine costume.
“I was the mascot in high school. And I’m bringing some of that sprit to this job,”said Clayburgh, with a laugh.
As director, Clayburgh, 38, can combine two of her greatest passions: environmental politics and the Sierra.
According to Clayburgh, the Sierra Nevada Alliance was formed because member groups throughout the Sierra were looking for ways to enhance communication and share information on environmental issues.
“In a small community, sometimes you feel like you are the only one out there doing this type of organizing. It is really important for groups to come together and share notes, because so often there are similarities [on these issues],” she said.
As veterans of Natural Heritage 2020 (a long-range planning program proposed by Nevada County) can attest, bringing diverse groups together to work on planning and land-use issues can sometimes result in little more than bitter divisions.
But Clayburgh sees the rural environment, especially watersheds, as an opportunity for different parties to realize what they share.
“One of the niches we have here at the Sierra Nevada Alliance that is pretty unique is a focus on watersheds. There are 24 [major] watersheds in the Sierra, and we have helped form groups centered around 12 of them,” she explained. “We are helping to bring agencies, ranchers, timber interests, local residents and environmentalists to the table to look at the importance of the watershed …The fun thing about it is that everyone seems to understand the importance of their local river, as a water supply or a source of recreation.”
Clayburgh said the large turnouts at recent Truckee River Days are the perfect example.
“It’s illustrative of how many people do have a connection to the rivers that run through our towns and areas we live in …We all have the same goals. We all want clean air, clean water and a viable economy.”
Clayburgh brings an impressive resume to the Sierra Nevada Alliance, complied from years of work with nonprofit environmental groups.
After graduation, Clayburgh attended the University of California, San Diego, where she received a BA in Communication.
“When I was in high school, I wrote for the Sierra Sun,” she said. “And I did editorials for [the Wolverine]. I was inspired by journalism and was thinking that is what I’m going to do.”
But her vocational course was altered one day at UCSD by a chance encounter on campus.
“There was a day on the quad when someone asked me if I cared about the environment,” she said. “And I thought ‘What do you mean,’ of course I [care].”
Until then, Clayburgh said she had taken a healthy environment for granted.
“Growing up in Truckee, I didn’t consider myself an environmentalist. We just took clean water and clean air for granted,” she said. “I didn’t really think it was something you had to work to protect.”
Clayburgh set her newfound convictions in motion by educating herself about clean air and water campaigns and volunteering in the campus-recycling program run by the California Public Interest Research Group (CalPIRG).
“I kind of opened up, and started volunteering in environmental movements and left my journalism aspirations behind me and moved into environmental politics.”
After graduating, Clayburgh stayed in Southern California as a staff person at CalPIRG.
“That is where I learned there are politics surrounding the issues related to the areas that I love to play in,” she said. “I grew up playing outside all the time and just assuming that everyone had all these wonderful places to hike and walk in and enjoy.”
After five years with CalPIRG, Clayburgh would assume the helm at Pesticide Watch, and later, became the director of the Bay Area-based Californians for Pesticide Reform.
In between, Clayburgh and her husband took a year to travel around the country, hiking camping climbing and skiing.
“When we got back, I ended up being the campaign director for Californians for Pesticide Reform. It’s a coalition of groups that were getting together to work on statewide efforts,” she said. “One of the things we did was work on the healthy schools campaign. We actually got legislation passed that allows parents and teachers to know what pesticides are being used on the school grounds. It’s kind of a right-to-know law.”
Clayburgh’s journalistic background would serve her well on her next job, the national press secretary for the Sierra Club.
But while personal and professional travels have taken them all over the state and the nation, Clayburgh said she and her husband were always hoping to find their way back to the Sierra.
“This whole time, we were thinking we really wanted to move back up to the Sierra. And it was just a matter of figuring out how I can do the work I love to do and be in the place I love to be.”
Local groups that are part of the Sierra Nevada Alliance include the Truckee River Habitat Restoration Group, the Truckee Donner Land Trust and Friends of Donner Summit.
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