Learn about the panelists and speakers at this year’s Regional Conservation Partnership Network Gathering, a free, one-day virtual conference designed to bring together Conservation practitioners to support their work in advancing collaborative landscape protection in the Northeast.

Keynote Panelists

A portrait of a man with short gray hair and a beard. 2022 RCP Network Gathering Speakers.

Chris Cato – Board President, Eagle Eye Institute

Chris has over 30 years of experience in community organizing, organizational development, youth development, and outdoor leadership, with a focus on environmental awareness and a connection with nature as his bedrock for personal and professional development. He was raised in Boston and spent half his summers in the foothills of the White Mountains attending a camp for Boston boys. Later on, Chris became the camp administrator and board member for both the lead agency and the camp alumni association. Chris has served as an outdoor leadership instructor, trainer, and advisory board member for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Youth Opportunities Program and is a member of the committee of the board for the Trustees of the Reservations. Chris is also the co-founder of YouthBuild USA’s global green initiatives. He is currently a Leadership Development Consultant and Board President of Eagle Eye Institute.

Chris’ involvement with Eagle Eye Institute (promoting nature for all youth) first as a partner, then as a visionary, is focused on illuminating the role that time in nature can play in the key intersections of our life, especially for people and communities that have limited awareness and or access to time in nature.

A portrait of a woman with shoulder-length wavy brown hair and eyeglasses. 2022 RCP Network Gathering Speakers.

Dr. Neenah Estrella-Luna, StarLuna Consulting

Dr. Neenah Estrella-Luna is an anti-racism and social equity-focused researcher, educator, and advocate. She has led or co-led a variety of studies addressing questions related to social justice, social resilience, environmental justice, community development, and democratic governance. Dr. Estrella-Luna works with community-based organizations and policymakers to develop and advocate for policies and practices to support equity, inclusion, and justice. She’s also an active member of the Massachusetts Advisory Committee for the US Commission on Civil Rights. After 15 years in academia, Dr. Estrella-Luna is now the principal of StarLuna Consulting.

Keynote Moderators

Katie Blake – As a trained Conservation Biologist, Katie has over 20 years of experience in landscape ecology, environmental outreach, conservation planning, and scientific research. In her role as Conservationist at Highstead, Katie supports RCPs across the Northeast in their efforts to increase the pace and scale of conservation by way of capacity building, network coordination, and leadership of various landscape-scale initiatives. Katie holds a Master’s degree in Conservation Biology from Antioch University New England and a B.A. in Environmental Studies from Mount Holyoke College. At home, Katie delights in tending to her homestead with her husband Jeremy and daughters Tziporah and Tahlia.

Bill Labich – Bill has led Highstead’s Regional Conservation Program since 2007, helping to develop the capacities of Regional Conservation Partnerships (RCPs) and regional partners to conserve more land collaboratively and in the service of more resilient communities and regions. Bill coordinates the RCP Network and the Northeast Forest Network and co-coordinates the Northern Appalachian Trail Landscape Partnership–all three of which he co-founded.

Bill came to Highstead with twenty years’ experience engaging forest landowners, municipal officials, RCPs, and the public in the elements of whole landscape conservation and stewardship, working for the Connecticut Audubon Society, New England Forestry Foundation, and the Franklin Regional Council of Governments.

Leopold Conservation Award Ceremony – The Leopold Conservation Award Program recognizes agricultural landowners actively committed to a land ethic. Sand County Foundation will present the prestigious honor, which consists of $10,000 and a crystal award.

Lance Irving took the helm of Sand County Foundation’s Leopold Conservation Award Program in 2016 after more than 15 years of experience in the outdoor sporting goods industry, and prior to that as a professional wilderness hunting and fishing guide. As chief sales and marketing officer at two outdoor manufacturing companies, Lance became a recognized leader in the industry for successfully identifying market needs and expanding the customer base by focusing on clearly defining a brand message and forming strategic partnerships. Since arriving at Sand County Foundation, Lance has grown the number of states participating in the Leopold Conservation Award program from 8 states in 2016 to 24 states in 2022.  

Morning Panel – Relationship Building for Conservation and Climate: How to form transformational relationships with new partners

Morning Panelists

Doreen Abubakar – Doreen is a lifelong New Haven resident and activist. She created the Community Placemaking and Engagement Network (CPEN) as a catalyst for community relationship­ building, leadership development, and public health in the low-income Newhallville neighborhood of New Haven. Focusing on family fitness and outdoor recreation to positively impact the social determinants of health, CPEN established the Learning Corridor along the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, a linear park and designated section of the East Coast Greenway. The Learning Corridor features a resident-maintained public green space and Audubon-certified pollinator garden, access to the linear park, a space for festivals and community gatherings, and a bicycle storage facility where community members can access bicycles (and helmets) for use on the trail and in the community.

Jennifer Albertine – Jenn works for the Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust where she is responsible for the integration of climate and land justice into every aspect of the organization, including identifying and changing policies and practices that have led to inequitable land tenure demographics. Before Mount Grace, she had a career in academia that focused on human-environment interactions associated with climate change, environmental pollution, and food systems- all from the perspective of human health and social justice. She has held positions at Mount Holyoke College, Harvard Forest, and she has a Ph.D. in Plant and Soil Sciences from UMass Amherst.

Geordie Elkins – Geordie graduated from Temple University where he studied horticulture and naturalistic design. Shortly after graduation, he joined Highstead Arboretum in 1996 as a Horticulturist. In 2012 he returned to Highstead to oversee operations, and to collaborate with stewardship, ecology, and conservation staff on projects around landscape restoration and education. Highstead was a founding partner of the Hudson to Housatonic RCP and Geordie has participated in various initiatives that have grown out of it including Pollinator Pathway and the Ecotype Project.

Andre Strongbearheart Gaines Jr. – Andre is a citizen of the Nipmuc people. He serves as a cultural steward for his Tribe, is a father, public speaker, traditional dancer, Indigenous Activist for Indigenous rights, carpenter by trade, and educator. With 15 years in recovery from drugs and alcohol, Andre is a recovery sponsor and integrated life coach for those in need. Andre’s work focuses on bringing traditional knowledge back to Indigenous Peoples. Some of this consists of how to flesh and brain tan hides to make items such as drums, buckskin, and blankets. He is also the resident artist for the Ohketeau Cultural Center based in Ashfield Massachusetts.

Morning Moderator

Amy Blaymore Paterson – Amy joined the Connecticut Land Conservation Council (CLCC) in 2010 as its first Executive Director.

She serves as the co-chair of the State of Connecticut Natural Heritage, Open Space, and Watershed Land Acquisition Review Board. She was a member of the Environment Committee for the Lamont/Bysiewicz Administration transition team, the Forests Sub-Group of the Governor’s Council on Climate Change, and the Policy on Resilient Forests for Connecticut’s Future (PRFCT Future) Working Group, and is currently a member of the Working Lands Alliance Steering Committee and the Board of Directors of the Keney Park Sustainability Project.

Afternoon Panel – Collaboration for Conservation and Climate: How organizations are collaborating to build Climate Justice and Resilience into their work and community

Afternoon Panelists

David Brant – David graduated from the University of Michigan with a BA in Political Science. He managed a llama ranch in Montana before starting a CSA Farm in VT in 1992. He worked with the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board to develop neighborhood parks, and in 1995 founded Youth Farm in Minneapolis to teach children about gardening and healthy eating. In 2004 he created a private sector summer jobs program for youth for the City of Minneapolis growing it into the second largest program of its kind in the country. He has served as Executive Director of Aspetuck Land Trust since 2008.

Melanie Gárate – Melanie is the Director of Climate Engagement at the Stone Living Lab (SLL) and Boston Harbor Now. She began her career as a marine ecologist examining how people impact climate change. Through her research, she was struck by the disproportionate environmental impacts on low-income communities, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, which sparked her passion for environmental justice work. Now, her work focuses on increasing the resilience of people impacted by climate change. With community equity and health as a priority, she focuses on enhancing climate solutions within the Harbor via nature-based solutions and social change.

Reginald Saint Fortcolin – Reggy is the Conservation Outreach Manager for Aspetuck Land Trust.

Erin Witham – Erin coordinates the Downeast Conservation Network and the 12 Rivers Conservation Initiative, two Maine RCPs. She has a non-profit background where she has done everything from bookkeeping to cartography to surveying road-stream crossings. Throughout her career, bringing people and organizations together has always been the favorite part of her work. In 2017, Erin returned to school to receive her Master’s Degree in Sustainability Science from UMass-Amherst. While at UMass, Erin attended her first RCP Network Gathering and she has been hooked ever since!

Afternoon Moderator

Katherine Burgess – Katharine is the Vice President of Land Use and Development at Smart Growth America (SGA), where she oversees SGA’s Land Use programs including LOCUS, the Form-Based Codes Institute, and the National Brownfields Coalition. Prior to Smart Growth America, she led the Urban Resilience Program at the Urban Land Institute where she built up the organization’s program of work addressing how buildings, cities, and communities can be more prepared for the impacts of climate change. Katharine holds an MSc in Regional and Urban Planning from the London School of Economics and a BA from Williams College.

Final Word – Uplifting Young Voices and Re-Framing a Conservationist’s Potential for Cultivating Community

Cassandra Bull – Cassandra is an artist, farmer, and activist originally from Saratoga Springs, New York. She is a recent graduate of Tufts University’s Master in Environmental Policy and Planning and has undergraduate degrees in Agricultural Technology and Fine Arts, a combination that allowed her to creatively explore our individual and collective power as stewards of the planet. Her professional experience has focused on local food systems, community engagement, and policy impact. She has served as an AmeriCorps VISTA, in leadership roles in multiple grassroots organizations, and was in the 2022 Academics for Land Protection in New England cohort.