Diana Portner (MS '13)
Affiliate of Meridian Institute
What did it mean to you to be named a Wyss Scholar? What were some of the activities and opportunities that held the greatest impact for you?
When I found the Wyss Scholars program, I immediately knew that it was a perfect fit for me. I always had a love for the mountains, and it was my desire to move to the intermountain west to work on public lands management. I believe that Wyss helped tremendously in making this possible for me. The internship opportunity was a game changer for me. The ability to reach out to organizations with an ability to do an unpaid internship allowed me to create my own experience based on both my needs and the hosting organization. I spent 10 weeks in the Bitterroot Mountains of western Montana researching/facilitating a conservation-based partnership. I went in at the beginning of the summer unsure of what I was doing and left feeling confident and empowered to pursue a career in collaborative problem-solving and group facilitation.
Can you tell us about your SEAS experience? How did it help you advance in the conservation field?
I really appreciated the opportunities to be really engaged in SEAS—I served as field of study leader and community co-chair for student government. This allowed me to connect with a lot more students than I might have otherwise. I was also blessed with the position of caretaker for the university arboretum, which shaped my experience of living in Ann Arbor. I also often reference my experience teaching an undergraduate course as a graduate student instructor. This was my first introduction into group facilitation—it was anxiety inducing at the time and helped me develop confidence in my public speaking and facilitation, which ultimately was a major part of my career. With the coursework itself, I gained my most valuable skills from hands-on courses such as the interest-based negotiation course (which was directly applicable to my career path in conflict resolution/collaborative problem-solving). My master’s project was another valuable hands-on experience—the deliverable was a watershed management plan, which became relevant to my work with forest management, as the plan development processes had direct overlap.
What kind of changes have you observed in land conservation in the U.S. over the course of your career?
Over the years working in public lands management, I have observed the dramatic shifts that come with changes in administration, as well as the potential for policy to overshadow opportunities for on-the-ground management wins. For example, I worked in Southeast Alaska for several years on forest management for the Tongass National Forest. We were able to create a space for collaboration and with consensus agreement, there were significant shifts in the relationship dynamics in the region (e.g., timber industry and environmental organizations). This spirit of collaboration lasted a couple years, which allowed progress on many fronts with on-the-ground conservation efforts. Then, the issue of the Roadless Rule came back in the public eye, leading to more divisiveness in the region. I convened a group to develop recommendations for how to address Roadless in Alaska. While they were not able to achieve consensus, they offered several options for consideration. As the agency considered these options, there was a change at the state and national levels, with a new incoming governor and president. While the prior administrations had agreed to a collaborative approach to decision-making, the new administration made an executive decision for how to proceed, which many people have argued did not take into consideration public input and tribal consultation. While this had the potential to overshadow on-the-ground progress, a set of stakeholders in the region prioritized this on-the-ground work and ensured progress despite the reemerging divisiveness. To me this represents an area to feel encouraged—progress can happen if/when you’re able to focus on agreed-upon needs at the local level instead of focusing on the areas of disagreement at the national policy level.
Note: Prior to 2017, the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) was known as the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE). References to “SNRE” have been updated to “SEAS” to reflect the name change.