Alumnus Robert Bonnie Returns to Duke to Explore Conservation in Rural America

September 5, 2017
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DURHAM, N.C. – Robert Bonnie, a Nicholas School of the Environment alumnus and former Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has returned to Duke University as a Rubenstein Fellow to address issues related to climate change and natural resource conservation in rural America.

Bonnie is the fifth expert to join Duke’s Rubenstein Fellows Academy, which brings leaders with deep expertise in issues of global importance to campus each year for in-depth engagement with students and faculty. His 12-month term began April 3.

As a Rubenstein Fellow, Bonnie is working with students, staff and faculty at the Nicholas School, the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Sanford School of Public Policy to develop strategies to tackle conservation challenges for rural America that rely on collaboration and incentives to address environmental issues while providing economic opportunity.

He also is sharing his experiences in environmental policymaking with students through seminars and career advising sessions.

Among his many projects, Bonnie is leading a new Bass Connections research team on “Formulating Policy for the United States’ Decarbonization Plan.”

Students and faculty on the team are working to develop environmentally sound and politically feasible policy proposals for carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas emissions reductions in forests, agricultural lands and wetlands, as a means of addressing the goals outlined in the U.S. Mid-Century Strategy for Deep Decarbonization that was released in November 2016 by the federal government.

“Robert’s work has helped pave the way for innovative new public-private partnerships and programs that are revolutionizing how we conserve and sustainably manage natural resources that are vital to both human livelihoods and ecological health,” says Jeff Vincent, Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School.  “We are fortunate to have him back on campus, sharing this expertise and inspiring the next generation of environmental leaders.”

Bonnie graduated from the Nicholas School with master’s degrees in forestry and environmental management in 1994.

From August 2013 to January 2017, he served as Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In this role, he oversaw the U.S. Forest Service and the Natural Resources Conservation Service and was responsible for issues such as the management of the 193-million acre National Forest and Grassland System; implementation of Farm Bill conservation programs on America’s farms, ranches and forests; and climate change.

He also developed collaborative, landscape-scale conservation approaches to address ecosystem restoration, climate change, endangered species conservation and watershed protection. In working with farmers, ranchers and forest landowners, Bonnie found that many of these rural constituencies perceive traditional environmental policies as top-down, costly and unnecessarily prescriptive.

With this in mind, he worked to develop collaborative approaches to environmental policy that would benefit both rural constituencies and environmental protection by, for example, working with western ranchers to conserve millions of acres of sage grouse habitat on private working lands through incentive-based approaches, thereby helping to avoid a listing of that bird under the Endangered Species Act.

Bonnie also led efforts to increase the pace and scale of forest restoration on the National Forests in order to improve the ecological health of forests while also increasing wood supply to timber mills.

“I am delighted to be returning to Duke to work with the Nicholas Institute, the Nicholas School and the Sanford School to develop environmental policies that work for both our natural resources and rural communities,” says Bonnie. “And, given that Duke has played such an important role in my career, I am pleased to have the opportunity to interact with students as they launch their careers.”

“Robert has put his finger on the societal and political schism between the cities and the country that frustrates our ability to solve environmental challenges. We could have no one better come to Duke and help us tackle the issue of conservation in rural America,” says Tim Profeta, Director of the Nicholas Institute.

Bonnie joins current Rubenstein Fellows General Martin Dempsey and Ambassador Jack Matlock in the program, which launched at Duke in 2014.