Taking on environmental conservation in the nonprofit world

Columbia River

A look at how one Oregon Law alum connects environmental conservation, public policy, and the nonprofit world.  

Kyle Smith is the Oregon Field Coordinator for Trout Unlimited, the nation's largest coldwater conservation nonprofit organization. Currently, in his role as Field Coordinator, he has been able to connect his passion for environmental conservation, public policy, and nonprofit work. 

His primary duties include working on public lands protection campaigns at both the state and federal levels. Washington, DC, is the headquarters for the nonprofit, with remote offices across the nation. Smith is based in Corvallis, Oregon. 

“I interact with Oregon's congressional delegation and staff frequently and spend time in Salem during the state legislative session,” said Smith, who graduated from the law school in 2012. “I also work closely with state agency staff on issues that affect water quality, fisheries management, and access to public lands.” 

In addition to his law degree, Smith received a BS in environmental science from Washington State University, and master’s in public administration from Columbia University. He says that all three uniquely equip him for the work that he does. 

Specifically, he chose Oregon Law because of the strength of the environmental law program and the resources and network associated with the UO. Additionally, the location in Eugene near McKenzie and Willamette Rivers, fishing, hiking, and skiing were all a bonus.  

A key part of his legal foundation was participating in the law school’s, Nonprofit Clinic. Smith says that he gained real-world, hands-on experience with the challenges that many nonprofit organizations and boards of directors' face in delivering high-quality programming to their stakeholders.  

“I also gained an appreciation for the dedication and passion found in the nonprofit sector, which ultimately put me on my current path in the nonprofit conservation world,” said Smith. 

After graduation, he had professional experience consulting with nonprofit organizations across the Willamette Valley. And that, he says, was pivotal during interviews for his first job out of school and landed him a job with a local restoration nonprofit organization. 

 “The insights I gained into board structure and governance, and the struggles that nonprofit organizations face, made me stand out amongst other candidates who lacked the broad perspective I gained through the clinic.” 

Kyle Smith

Smith also notes that he uses his Oregon Law education every day. He points to his Administrative Law class with Professor Bonine as instrumental to the work he does. 

“Knowing how government functions has really helped me in getting up to speed on issues involving Environmental Impact Statements, Resource Management Plans, and other rule-making processes that can be extremely complex and somewhat opaque from a public involvement perspective,” said Smith. 

John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act 

Though he is not a practicing attorney, Smith says he is still able to make an impact in environmental law.  He notes that the most impactful experience in his career was working on the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act that passed into law in late 2019.  

“My involvement with the Dingell Act came towards the tail end of a decade-long campaign to protect the areas included in Senator Wyden’s Oregon Wildlands Act,” Smith said. “It ultimately passed as part of the omnibus public lands package that was named after Congressman Dingell.” 

That act protected more than 250 miles of rivers in Oregon through designation as Wild and Scenic Rivers and created 30,000-plus new acres of wilderness in the Devil's Staircase area south of Eugene.  

Specifically, Smith’s work on Oregon Wildlands included organizing seeking supporters of the legislation through blog posts, social media, letters to the editor in local newspapers. It also included communications with Oregon Senators Wyden, JD ‘74, and Merkley, their staff, and other members of the Oregon delegation including Representative DeFazio, Representative Schrader, and Representative Walden.   

He says that he attended a lot of town halls, went on field tours with elected officials and their staffs, and worked closely with several partner conservation organizations to organize around passage of the act. 

“Throughout the process, I learned that public policy is a rollercoaster ride,” said Smith.  “Countless people worked on Oregon Wildlands and its predecessor bills for over a decade. When the time was ripe, the bill moved very quickly and in a matter of months, we had a huge public lands bill on the President Trump’s desk.”  

Another lesson that he learned is that public policy is a big lift that takes many organizations and individuals working tirelessly towards uncertain outcomes.  

“While it can be frustrating at times, on the whole I love working in public policy and the passionate people I get to work with every day,” said Smith. “Seeing my daily effort translate into real-world public lands protections on the ground was a powerful demonstration of why I'm in the career field I'm in.” 

By Rayna Jackson, School of Law Communications