Growing Concern

The new director of the Arizona League of Conservation Voters works to expand the organization.

In Arizona, it's not easy being green. A coalition of environmental groups across the state recently released a 43-page indictment of environmental problems, from smoggy air to haphazard homebuilding. Conservationists constantly find themselves playing defense at the state Capitol, where the majority of lawmakers frequently turn a deaf ear to their issues.

But the uphill battles haven't discouraged Stephanie Sklar, who is just wrapping up her first year as director of the Arizona League of Conservation Voters, an organization dedicated to informing the public about the voting record of state and federal lawmakers on environmental issues.

Sklar took over the job from Bob Beatson, an activist who founded the Arizona chapter of the national organization in 1992. Beatson says the long hours required to create the organization from the ground up led to "absolute phenomenal burnout."

"We needed to take it to the next level, and I definitely wasn't the person," said Beatson, who is now working on habitat conservation issues while living on the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge west of Tucson. "As somebody pointed out to me, individuals who found organizations are very different from those who grow them past a certain point."

Since taking the helm last year, Sklar has steadily built on Beatson's work. She says membership has climbed to about 9,000 members statewide, the annual budget has quadrupled from $75,000 to $300,000 and a legislative lobbyist now staffs a newly-opened Phoenix office. She's currently developing a database of environmentally -conscious voters in hopes of increasing turnout in local elections by 25 percent.

Sklar hopes to see the group's membership begin to influence policy on issues ranging from conservation of state land to air quality and environmental justice.

Luthor Propst, the executive director of the Sonoran Institute, says he's impressed with what he's seen so far. "I think Stephanie has the right people skills, expertise in organizing people, and energy to make the League of Conservation Voters a real force in the state," said Propst, who chairs the organization's newly-created educational board.

Sklar brings plenty of political experience to the job. A Vassar grad who earned a degree in English in 1973, she worked as a teacher before shifting gears with a move to Washington, D.C., to do public-relations work. Before long, she was working at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has helped her "understand the business perspective," Sklar said. "I have a sense of how environmental progress and economic progress go hand in hand."

She left the chamber in 1983, when she landed a job as the first female vice president of communications for The Nature Conservancy.

"I became very passionate about protecting the environment as I became more involved in that role," saidds Sklar, who moved on to work as vice president of public affairs for the National Wildlife Federation in 1988.

In 1994, she and her husband--a onetime Nader Raider--decided they'd had enough of life inside the Beltway. They relocated with their son and daughter to Tucson, where Sklar became active in a number of local groups, including a committee that recommends judicial appointments to the governor and the Arizona Women's Political Caucus. When she heard the League of Conservation Voters was looking for a new executive director, she leapt at the chance to lead the organization.

Unlike her experience in Washington, the new job gives her a close look at what she's fighting to protect as she tours the state, "which isn't exactly hardship duty."

"Even though it can be frustrating, you can get a better feel for the progress that you're making," Sklar said. "Arizona is such a magically diverse state."