Chapter 4: How Far We've Come

Missed our last post? Check out Chapter 3: Tackling the Problem

It was summer 2018, and HCF Founder Brett Howell was reading about conservation efforts happening at his favorite place in the world: Squam Lake, NH. As it happened, he came across a new pilot program that had just launched in the area that was dedicated to saving one of his favorite birds, the loon. The Loon Preservation Committee (LPC) had received initial funding from a long-time donor who wished to remain anonymous. With that money, LPC had been able to roll out a Lead Tackle Buy-Back (LTB) pilot program with two participating retailers. This allowed the program to begin, but the LPC knew that the program would require ongoing support and acceptance by the broader community with “external” market validation of the concept if it was going to succeed. “A pilot is always kind of shaky,” explained LPC’s Executive Director Harry Vogel. "Those first two shops provided a great proof of concept, but we had to show that this program was worthy of continuation and growth.” 

By introducing a lead tackle buy-back program, the LPC created a monetary value around ecological conservation when previously there was none. This is a prime example of a market-based conservation solution. Photo courtesy of the Loon Preservation Committee.

As a burgeoning venture philanthropist and a lover of loons since childhood, supporting this program was a no-brainer. Brett had spent years balancing nature-based non-profit work with his corporate experience, and he had become a believer in what he calls market-based solutions. “A market-based solution is something that can become financially self-sustaining while placing value on the environment,” Brett explained. As he puts it, today’s economy does not intrinsically value nature because nature has no price tag. “If nature is free and people don’t value what’s free,” Brett asks, “how do we come up with concepts that can eventually become self-sustaining?”

Harry Vogel and Sheridan Brown, LPC’s Legislative Director, brought Brett up-to-speed on regional loon threats and the history of lead tackle legislation. In the process, Brett quickly came to recognize LPC’s work as a viable market-based solution. Once this ‘due diligence’ period had come to completion, Brett experienced one of his most cherished moments: the moment when he became one of the first “external funders” of the pilot LTB program, helping prove market viability of the concept and expanding it to Squam Lake.

Brett also knew that a program becomes more viable with the more support that you have; so, he reached out to a long-time connection of his, the Walker Foundation. “The Walker Foundation had funded my work at Georgia Aquarium starting in 2011,” Howell explained of one of his past projects. “The idea of a lead tackle buy-back program fell fully in the ‘market based’ solution category that Walker Foundation supports. It was a logical step to bring it up to the Walkers.”

The Walkers also recognized the potential of this burgeoning program, and by early August 2018, they had committed to funding the LTB program, as well. For Brett, this marked a major milestone. “When I got the call from the Walkers saying that they were going to fund,” said Howell, “it was a key moment where I realized I had come full circle from being a grantee of the Walker Foundation, to becoming a venture philanthropist in my own right, collaborating on ‘cross funding’ a program with them.”

To recognize all they had accomplished in this short time, Harry, Sheridan, and Brett celebrated the funding success at their first “in-person” meeting at a local haunt, the Squam Lake watering hole known as Walter’s Basin. Despite all the time and work they had done together, this was the first time where they had met in-person. “One of the things I appreciate the most about Harry,” Brett mused as he reminisced over those early days, “is his endless optimism when it comes to loons. When the right team comes together at the right time in the ‘development’ of a concept, it is amazing to see how quickly progress can move forward.”

With the additional investment in place, Harry, Sheridan, and Brett quickly got to work planning a get together for the broader stakeholder group to talk through the Year 1 “pilot program” and plan for Year 2. “Sheridan has serious skills in communications, drawn from long experience.  He convinced me that even one to two years of effort is not going to get the message out and have it stick in peoples’ minds,” explained Harry. “You have to keep driving this home for people.” A couple months later, as the pilot reached completion, LPC and HCF sat down with the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department and got down to brass tacks, discussing how the program could progress beyond its initial kick-off and become a viable, long-running program with lasting effects.

With financial investments from both HCF and the Walker Foundation, LPC was able to demonstrate to their original, anonymous donor that her investment helped them to further secure funding. This convinced her to continue her support, as well. “Funds from Howell Conservation Fund, the Walker Foundation, and our anonymous donor have allowed for rapid progress,” Sheridan explained, “LTB is successful because it is built upon decades of educational and legislative efforts of multiple partners who have donated generous amounts of time and money.”

Since 2018, the Lead Tackle Buyback Program has removed more than 25,000 pieces of lead tackle from circulation, saving countless loons from painful deaths. Photo provided by the Loon Preservation Committee.

With the relationships that the LPC built and the seed funding that it earned, the LTB program saw progress from the very beginning. “The pilot was successful by any measure,” said Harry, “One hundred twenty-four (124) of 200 available vouchers were claimed, and 3 returns were made in which the participant did not request a voucher.” Overall, these transactions led to the collection of 4,786 pieces of lead tackle, weighing 29.0 pounds in total. Most of this tackle was within the size range found in loons killed by ingesting lead tackle. In other words, without this pilot program, any of these thousands of pieces of tackle could have killed loons or other wildlife.

Equally important was the shift that LPC saw in its participants, like shop owner AJ Nute. Before the program, AJ had been among the most vocal skeptics of the lead tackle ban. However, once Sheridan and Mark Beauchesne, NHF&G’s Advertising and Promotions Coordinator, recruited AJ to be a program participant, AJ’s experience during the pilot phase completely shifted his perspective on the issue. “AJ saw that we were genuine in our wish to help and make this legislation workable for him,” explained Harry. “He came full circle, and now he even manufactures non-lead tackle. I give all credit to Sheridan Brown, now LPC’s Lead Tackle Buyback Campaign Coordinator, for turning opponents of the legislation into partners.”

The lead tackle buy-back program helped retailers to establish goodwill with their customers in addition to taking the toxic materials out of circulation. A true win-win. Photo courtesy of the Loon Preservation Committee.

With the continued support of LPC’s funders and stakeholders, and the relentless dedication of its staff and volunteers, the LTB continued beyond the pilot and has seen increasing success with each program year. During the program’s second year, expanded reach and visibility of the program allowed for the collection of 10,155 pieces of lead tackle, or 90 lb total. And year three resulted in 10,690 pieces of lead tackle collected, weighing 86.7 lb. In all, the program has taken 25,631 pieces of lead tackle out of circulation, or 205.7 lb total.

Removing this toxic tackle has been a core achievement of the program; however, the program’s impacts reach far beyond this accomplishment. The LTB program has had a positive impact on the community, helping to build goodwill between anglers and retailers in the area. The LPC also has developed an educational component, which has encouraged anglers to turn in uncounted amounts of tackle to proper disposal facilities without the need for a financial incentive. Understanding of this issue has also spread beyond long-time local anglers. In the last few years, awareness has reached out-of-state anglers, as well as newer fishing enthusiasts who took up the sport during the COVID-19 pandemic. These comprise an entirely new demographic that is now aware of the hazards related to lead tackle poisoning.

Perhaps the most telling indicator of the program’s success has been the launch of similar programs in the region, supported by restoration funds from the B-120 Buzzards Bay Oil Spill. During the 2019-20 program year, the LPC successfully convinced the Fish and Wildlife Service to provide their program with funding from this oil spill restitution fund. With three years of proven success under their belts, the LPC were able to show the impact that their market-based approach had on local communities: that by creating a financial value around conservation efforts, anglers and the local industry, alike, were encouraged to protect their surrounding natural ecosystems. This funding has not only allowed for the continuation of the LPC’s program, but it helped to launch programs in other areas, including Maine, Vermont, and upstate New York. “This is an example of where this innovative program that began in New Hampshire is having a regional impact,” Harry said, “That’s what we all want, because loons don’t stop at New Hampshire’s borders.”

As the LPC wraps up Year 3 and looks to the future, it intends to work with its donors, stakeholders, and partners to maintain and grow the program. “More than 25,000 pieces of lead removed is great,” Harry said, “but it’s still a drop in the bucket. We’re still getting lead poisoned loons and people fishing with lead.” The organization has a goal to sign on nine retailers this coming year, and it is adding new incentives, both for the person who hands in the largest amount of lead tackle state-wide, and for those handing in the largest amounts of tackle at each participating shop. They aim to further expand their educational reach, and to work with online retailers such as Amazon to close remaining loopholes and ensure that lead tackle is not being brought in under the radar.

The program is always looking for new investors, partners, and ways to expand the reach beyond its existing audience. “It’s been a great partnership between LPC and its funders such as HCF and the Walker Foundation, the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department, and the tackle shop owners,” Harry reflected, “We’ve built a great coalition of diverse characters that have come together to help save loons.”

If you are interested in learning more about the Loon Preservation Committee, the Lead Tackle Buy-Back Program, or Howell Conservation Fund’s Work, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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