35 Innovators Under 35: Meet Brent Fenty

With international ambition and the talent to match, it seems fitting that Innovator Brent Fenty would ultimately end up protecting the local and regional wild lands that influenced and entertained him in his youth.

“I was always one of those people who really kind of took advantage of what Central Oregon had to offer. As most kids grow up, they can’t wait to get away, thinking that the grass is always greener on the other side. I was no different and had plans to go to college across the country,” Fenty says of his upbringing in the small town of Tumalo, just north of Bend. “At the last minute, however, I ended up going to Willamette University for International Studies and Environmental Science--and found it a really great fit for me.”

Still looking for a stay away from home, Fenty sought work abroad after graduation and soon found a job working for an environmental program within the United Nations.

“While a wonderful experience, I really came to realize how important local work is at effecting change--and how that same work can feel somewhat diluted on a global scale,” he says.

Nevertheless, Fenty still had a ‘wanderlust itch to scratch,’ venturing on to work for the National Park Service in Texas and a stint with the Peace Corps in West Africa before making his way back to Central Oregon. Hired on at the Oregon National Desert Association (ONDA), Fenty was tasked with helping to successfully implement the protections afforded to the Steens Mountains as wilderness.

“For the strong conservation ethic Oregon has, we actually lag behind in terms of the percentage of the state protected as wilderness. Oregon currently has 4% protected as wilderness, while Washington has protected 9% and California has 15% of its state as wilderness,” he says. “The only wilderness areas we have are those that have recently been protected because of the efforts of ONDA and other conservation groups.”

Those wilderness areas, all protected in the past ten years, include the region around Steens Mountain, the Badlands near Bend, and the Spring Basin near the John Day River.

After subsequently accompanying his wife to Alaska for a few years for work, a period in which Fenty earned a graduate degree focused on fresh water ecology and environmental science, the couple felt that Oregon was calling them back home. They were also interested in starting a family.

As luck would have it, ONDA’s Executive Director had just recently retired, and members of the organization approached Fenty about filling that role. Now that he’s served as the organization’s leader for almost four years, he still looks back at that decision with surprise and appreciation.

“In my experience, there are not a lot of places to live where someone of limited means has all of this land—public land—available to them. Necessary economic development needs to happen, but we are so fortunate to have the blessing of wild areas available, to reconnect with nature, and to gain a healthy dose of humility. Being presented with the opportunity to work on these issues at ONDA has offered a chance to really give back to this region,” he says.

As Executive Director, Fenty has worked closely with the organization’s board on an aggressive strategic plan aimed at protecting three new areas as wilderness: lands in the John Day Basin, the Central Oregon desert, and the Owyhee Canyonlands. Each effort takes time, engaged stakeholders, talented community organizing and political will.

 “If we were to look five years down the road and are having this same conversation, I hope that those three areas would have the protection that they truly deserve,” he said. “Lands define our conservation legacy for future generations, and it is our goal to ensure that these generations get the opportunity to appreciate both the wild lands and wildlife that Oregon has to offer.”

In an era of rapidly advancing technology, how can a generation perpetually attached to Facebook, iPads, and cellphones appreciate the quiet beauty and solitude of Oregon’s wild lands?

“Engaging the next generation of Oregonians is huge for us, though unfortunately, we have had meager success in many ways.  We really focus a lot of energy and attention on involvement and engaging our members in meaningful, on-the-ground work,” Fenty explains. “Our members assist with pulling barbed wire fencing, wildlife migration, planting trees, and restoring streams, and we are really looking to connect with youth in these activities.”

And beyond a simple physical connection to these special places, there is the risk of cultural gap forming between older environmental activists who have been fighting for decades of conservation efforts, and younger generations who may not have found a calling yet to appreciate these areas.

“We need to recognize that the next generation connects with wild places in different ways, more recreationally focused—you could say the ‘REI generation,’” Fenty says. “Embracing that, we need a way to make these lands more meaningful to them. Our belief is that once people experience them, understanding these places and the amazing characteristics that each has to offer, they will ultimately love them.”