March 11, 2022

Allegheny Front: A Longtime Environmental Leader Reflects on Her Career, and Why She's Still Hopeful

A Longtime Environmental Leader Reflects on Her Career, and Why She's Still Hopeful

In February, Jacquelyn Bonomo, President and CEO of the statewide environmental nonprofit PennFuture, announced she was retiring in July. Bonomo’s held the position since 2017 and has worked in environmental advocacy for 37 years.

According to PennFuture, under Bonomo’s leadership, the organization increased its funding ad budget, grew its staff, and expanded its work into more towns and communities in the state. In 2020, Bonomo also started a paid legal internship program for future environmental lawyers.

The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently spoke with Bonomo about her career, the issues that have been important to her, and why she remains hopeful. Click here to listen to the interview.

Kara Holsopple: How did you get started in environmental advocacy? 

Jacquelyn Bonomo: A long time ago, after living out West for a while, I came back to my hometown. By that time, I was quite a nature enthusiast and spent a lot of time at a place called Nescopeck Creek in southern Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. I found out after creating a real attachment to this place that it was actually going to be flooded out.

The state was going to build a dam and flood out the valley to create a state park with flat water recreation. I had gained such an appreciation for the biodiversity in that place, and I felt pretty strongly that it shouldn’t be put under water.  I got involved as a Sierra Club volunteer and basically started the fight against creating a dam flooding Nescopeck Creek. 

Kara Holsopple: How did that turn out? 

Bonomo: It turned out well. We were able to prevail and we were able to save some really beautiful bottomland forest and free-flowing, high-quality stream, which was really important because so much of our water in the anthracite region has been degraded by coal mining.

Every bit of clean, fresh water that we have really needed to be protected, as well as the stream-side and in-stream habitat that went along with that. 

Holsopple: What are some of the other environmental successes that you’ve seen over your career? 

Bonomo: I mean, there’s have been a lot. I would maybe talk a little bit about some of the work done here in Pennsylvania. It is really gratifying to have been part of the creation of the state’s Growing Greener program, which over the course of many years now and hundreds of millions of dollars, has gone really far to protect a lot of important land, ecologically scenic and recreationally important land, for enjoyment for the people of Pennsylvania forever. That money also has been able to do a lot of water quality restoration work all over the state.

The organization that I was involved with at the time, the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, also was able to do a lot of really tangible work on land protection. The 17,000 acres that we were able to protect out in western Pennsylvania during my time there feels like a really tangible outcome, particularly as it relates to conservation here in Pennsylvania. 

Holsopple: Could you mention some of the national successes that you’ve seen over the course of the last almost four decades?

Bonomo: Yeah, the national work has always been a bright spot in my career. I like to think of myself as having had a seat at the table around some really important policy wins. For example, early on we were able to reauthorize the federal Clean Air Act. It was really the first time that sulfur and other climate polluting emissions were regulated, and it was really the first time that the act started to talk about alternative energy sources.

I was around when the Chesapeake Bay sort of got coined as being a “twilight estuary.” We thought that we were seeing the death of the bay, and [I] was around when the nation kind of rallied around the bay, and since has rallied around so many other important estuaries.

The other piece of work that was really profound for me was when I was with the National Wildlife Federation. I went out to the Pacific Northwest and became the senior staff person during the height of what was the spotted owl controversy – the fight over our ancient forests.

We really did the work, the litigation and the planning that ultimately ended up in President Clinton’s forest plan protecting what was remaining, what is remaining, of the old-growth forests in the United States and the myriad of species, some of them endangered, that go along with them. Having lived through that and seeing a good outcome felt pretty historic.

Holsopple: You got your start in the 1980s. What have been the major changes in the environmental movement since the early days of your career?

Bonomo: In the mid-’80s through around 1998, I was was working at the national level, and while environmental regulation was, you know, always a little unpopular, particularly among regulated entities, there was a lot more common ground among the general public – among environmentalists, conservationists, hunters, anglers – that really created a movement that was able to do a lot of really important things in the air and water space. Unfortunately, that really broad-based coalition is not as robust today as it has been. 

Of course, a lot of that has been fueled by the partisan divide in the country. It’s really slowed down a lot of forward momentum. Consequently, here in Pennsylvania in particular, we spend a lot of time and energy appropriately defending those environmental victories that were so hard-fought and won back in the late ’70s and ’80s – victories in terms of addressing impacts from mining, for example, on our lands and water.

It’s been a fight to keep both those programs that protect those resources, and frankly, the agencies that are charged with protecting those resources, funded and able to do their job. That’s because there’s anti-environmental sentiment in certain corners of the legislature and quarters of the legislature that control the pocketbooks. So we spend a lot of time on defense. 

Holsopple: How do you see that evolving or changing, or do you? 

Bonomo: I think first and foremost that if there is any chance for the planet, particularly from a climate perspective and frankly, a better chance for building the economy of Pennsylvania, we’ve just got to grapple with our dependance on fossil fuels.

There has been a lot of important work done recently in terms of accelerating that transition, but we really need to start seeing commensurate investments in renewables along the lines of the taxpayer help that, for example, the fossil fuel industry gets.

It’s my sincere hope that a state like Pennsylvania with land resources and water resources that are so beloved, not only by people that visit our state as tourists coming here for outdoor recreation, but by the many, many Pennsylvanians who still love to paddle and love to angle and love to hunt and paddleboard and kayak, [they] will come to the defense of the environment and build those bridges. 

And of course, we’ve got to spend a little bit of time acknowledging how important it’s going to continue to be to elevate the voices of communities that for so long have been overburdened by pollution impacts, largely our marginalized communities of color in proximity to so many industrial facilities that have exacted really negative tolls on both the well-being of those communities from not only a fabric of a community perspective but from a public health perspective.

Holsopple: Working in the environmental space for 37 years. I imagine it can feel sometimes like things aren’t improving quickly enough. How do you deal with what can be discouraging work? 

Bonomo: Well, I feel so fortunate to have been able to find work in something that was largely a passion and avocation. That privilege has fueled my tenacity. And then the time that I have been able to spend in nature, you know, you understand how important nature is to our well-being and that it’s worth defending. That fuels my energy and my commitment.

I guess it’s probably fair to say that even though after 37 years of doing this work, I’m stepping down from my professional involvement, but kind of like once an advocate, always an advocate. You don’t leave that behind. So I’m going to continue to do my part, whatever that might look like once I’m off the payroll, let’s put it that way.

Jacquelyn Bonomo is the president and CEO of PennFuture. She plans on retiring in July.