Welcome to the Sierra Nevada Alliance – Liesbet Olaerts, Sierra Nevada 30×30 Organizer

We are pleased to introduce the Alliance’s new Sierra Nevada 30×30 Organizer, Liesbet Olaerts!

Full Name: Liesbet Olaerts, pronounced ‘Lease-bet O-larts’

Preferred Name: Lis, pronounced as ‘Lease’

Tell us a little bit about your background: 

As a life-long learner and a true believer in the power of collaboration, I thrive when solving complex problems, balancing diverse priorities, and creating systemic change. 

I was born and raised in Brazil with family roots in Belgium. From an early age, inequality, environmental degradation, and lack of access to fundamental human rights like water and sanitation horrified me. On the other hand, the interconnectedness of nature and the perseverance of communities against all odds fascinated me. I grew up wanting to help – how can our societies and development be more sustainable, inclusive, and fair?

That question led me to different parts of the world to pursue a bachelor’s in environmental engineering. I returned to graduate school to better understand how science, projects, and planning can be woven together to serve communities more effectively. 

Over the past eight years, I have worked on complex water projects in 4 different countries advocating for healthy ecosystems and serving the needs of communities for sustainable water supply. I specialize in bringing diverse stakeholders together to develop collaborative approaches while strengthening our understanding of the intrinsic connection between sustaining people’s livelihoods and protecting natural resources. I wholeheartedly believe that our planet’s most pressing problems are best combated locally and with the meaningful involvement of all stakeholders. 

In 2018, I was awarded a visa that allowed me to work at Self-Help Enterprises leading the technical review of groundwater sustainability plans and assisting communities participating in water management in California’s San Joaquin Valley. I’m excited to expand my work as the new Sierra Nevada 30×30 Organizer.

What is 30×30 California? 

30×30 (or 30-by-30) is a global campaign to protect 30% of the Earth’s surface by 2030. It provides a framework for conservation efforts and a roadmap with which global leaders can address the climate crisis.

California is the first U.S. state to take the lead on 30×30. By signing into law the Nature-Based Solutions Executive Order N-82-20 in October 2020, Governor Newsom elevated the role of natural and working lands in the fight against climate change and advanced biodiversity conservation as an administration priority. As part of this Executive Order, California committed to conserving 30 percent of our lands and coastal waters by 2030 – an ambitious yet extremely urgent goal. 

Understanding that it will be of little value to reach 30×30 if we don’t emphasize ‘quality,’ the newly released California Pathways to 30×30 Strategy document directs us to achieve 30×30 in a manner that: 

  • Protects California’s unique biodiversity;
  • Expands equitable access to nature and its benefits, and;
  • Combats climate change.

30×30 California is a bold approach that positions conserved areas at the forefront of biodiversity and climate policy deliberations. It recognizes the critical role that healthy ecosystems play in safeguarding water sources, protecting food supply, preventing catastrophic wildfires, achieving carbon neutrality, and mitigating drought impacts. In conjunction with conservation efforts, 30×30 initiatives must also further efforts to maintain California’s economic prosperity and food security. The initiative goes a step further and prioritizes conservation in a way that integrates traditional knowledge of indigenous communities and provides equal access for all.

This is a remarkable opportunity to galvanize leaders across our state to mobilize the resources necessary to implement much-needed projects. We have miles to go, but strong and favorable winds are at our backs!

What does your role with Sierra Nevada Alliance entail? 

Several organizations in the Sierra Nevada region launched the Sierra Nevada 30×30 working group. This partnership is taking form as an alliance of leaders advancing 30×30 in our area and is open to all interested in participating. The partnership will provide an organizational hub for dialogue, shared learning, coordination, and strategic planning to meet our 30×30 goals. 

As the Sierra Nevada 30×30 Organizer, I will coordinate our region’s 30×30 working group in conjunction with statewide and local leadership. We will identify opportunities and challenges to achieve 30×30 in our region and work on outreach and engagement strategies to build political and public support. We intend to raise the profile of 30×30 and advance regional campaigns that support collaborative approaches and local conservation efforts. 

Why is the Sierra at risk in the face of climate change?

The critical benefits that the Sierra’s forests and watersheds provide are at risk due to climate change. The Sierra’s unique landscapes are integral to protecting California’s biodiversity and achieving climate resilience. But unfortunately, the dire current state of many of our forests threatens the Sierra’s ability to sequester carbon, protect the state’s water supply, and provide wildlife habitat.

There is a growing understanding that many of our forests are not healthy and that overgrown forests are susceptible to disease and intense wildfire. Additional threats to the region further contribute to the degradation and fragmentation of the Sierra’s landscapes, making the region more prone to wildfires and other impacts. 

Climate change adds complexities to these challenges and exacerbates the impacts of these problems. There is broad consensus that science-based ecological restoration of the Sierra’s forests and watersheds must dramatically increase in order to stem the tide of catastrophic wildfires and uncertainties of a changing climate.  

The 30×30 initiative has the potential to raise public recognition of the critical ecological benefits provided by the Sierra Nevada. It also addresses key policy and investment issues that can help restore Sierra’s forests and watersheds to a healthy, resilient state. 

What is it about your work with 30×30 that really gets you excited? 

Leveraging this remarkable opportunity to fund projects that weave together biodiversity conservation, climate resilience, and improved equity for communities. And helping our region achieve more significant impact by coordinating initiatives and enhancing access to funds, expertise, and skill. 

To achieve the 30×30 bold goals, we will require an unprecedented level of collaboration and commitment across a broad spectrum of stakeholders. I’m excited to work in conjunction with statewide and local leadership to strengthen relationships, build new partnerships, and engage the diverse set of stakeholders in solving some of the systemic challenges of our region. I also look forward to prioritizing diversity, equity, and inclusion by engaging those disproportionately impacted by environmental challenges. 

What made you decide to work in advocacy?

Early in my engineering career, I learned that most planning processes didn’t engage those disproportionately impacted by environmental challenges. They also rarely included a thorough environmental assessment. Instead, they focused mainly on the technical side of problems. These experiences inspired me to work with environmental and social advocacy, emphasizing collaborative approaches – where a diverse array of stakeholders work together in problem-solving. 

I intend to build people’s capacity to participate in the decision-making process that impacts their lives and help create safe and inclusive spaces for collaboration. It’s not just a matter of social and environmental justice but also an urgent need for different perspectives in solving our planet’s most pressing challenges. We need leadership that reflects the diversity of our societies, and we need all voices at the table.

Where is your favorite place in the Sierra and why?

I love the views under a tree as much as I love having my breath taken away by the views on top of a mountain. Maybe I might be able to answer this question after exploring every corner of the Sierra in all the different seasons! 

My utter admiration for the Sierra Nevada began the moment I moved to California in 2018. At that time, I was living in Visalia, having the Sequoias, Kings Canyon, and Mineral Kings at the back of my door. In 2020, I moved to Tree Rivers and slowly found my way to the Eastern Sierra – first Mammoth Lakes and then Truckee, where I currently live.

Since moving to California, I have spent my free time exploring the Sierra Nevada. When I’m not working, I’m running trails, when I’m not running, I’m climbing rocks, and when I’m not climbing, I’m most likely under a tree reading a book.

Find Liesbet’s bio here.

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