A view of Burma Rim, Oregon, which is being preserved  (hoto by Brent Fenty. All images courtesy of Conserve.org.

Painter Haley Mellin and her brother, Joe Mellin, began thinking about environmental conservation at a young age. Their approach is rooted in their Bay Area upbringing: Their father, Bob, encouraged them to spend time outdoors and volunteer weekly to environmental causes, fostering a love of nature that has led the Mellins, in recent years, to develop a new way for everyday people to get involved with land conservation — typically the mein of large, highly moneyed individuals or organizations. The siblings developed Conserve.org as a platform for crowd-sourced land conservation; people can conserve land acre by acre, with their full donation going to purchase acreage, accessible at under $50 an acre.

The Mellins have an efficient divide-and-conquer strategy in dealing with this philanthropic enterprise. Joe, who works as a Program Manager for Microsoft and has built quite a few tech companies, lends his technical expertise, while Haley, who has extensive experience with fine-art fundraising and networking, spearheads the conservation side, both logistically and through fundraising via an art-to-acres program.

The platform’s test case was in the High Oregon Desert with the Oregon Desert Land Trust, and the pair is currently launching a campaign for a cloud forest in Guatemala with Global Wildlife Conservation. Hyperallergic interviewed the Mellins by email, where they explained more about their vision and the means by which the they have conveyed art to acreage through Conserve.org.

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Sarah Rose Sharp: What does Conserve.org do? 

Haley Mellin: We are mainly a visual medium for people who would like to conserve an acre, or give that acre as a gift. We connect them with impactful land conservation projects, and help them maintain a connection to the location, by providing information on what the acre looks like, what species exist on it, and what the conservation approach is.

Partnering non-profits identify areas of high biodiversity or unique wilderness around the world that are ideal for conservation purchase. They develop a plan for a cost-effective purchase and long-term conservation management before making the acreage available for purchase on Conserve.org. Through these global and local NGOs, we enable people to support on-the-ground conservation.

SRS: As siblings making a website together, do you think about things in similar or different ways? 

Joe Mellin: At first, we definitely saw most things differently, but over time we are coming to see things pretty much in tune. As a highly trained artist, Haley gave real attention to the way people perceive digital visuals and words. With my professional background in startups and my educational background in product design, I am very focused on delivering end-user value and de-risking a new venture. While Haley would be very focused on how things looked and felt, I was more focused on how they worked and whether our long-term strategy would work.

Pronghorn antelope family, in Burma Rim, Oregon. Photo by G. Burke.

SRS: Are you making conservation an easier endeavor for people? 

HM: We want to support conservation being a commonplace activity. Conservationists are invited to visit the acreage conserved and they receive a panorama image of their acre and the latitude and longitude coordinates. Partnering organizations donate the supporting costs for the conservation efforts on the ground.

SRS: What attracts you to land conservation?

JM: It is a tangible impact. It is also not very flashy. If you look at the donations driven by recent social media crazes, they are very sensational or they play on your heartstrings. But at the end of the day, what really is done? I like conserving land because it is very real and the impact is permanent, or as close to that as possible.

SRS: What does it mean, exactly, to “conserve” land? What protections are put in place? Who owns it? What prohibits them from changing their mind and selling it off, or for other interests to threaten conservation efforts? 

HM: The process is to buy the property, in this case from a private owner interested in selling to a non-profit conservation organization, and then remove any fences. The property titles are held by non-profit conservation organizations. In the case of the currently listed location in Oregon, the conserved acreage title is held by the Oregon Desert Land Trust (ODLT) whose mandate is “to acquire lands or rights to lands to protect, defend and restore Oregon’s high desert for current and future generations.” ODLT’s bylaws outline responsibilities for protecting the lands they acquire including the development of a management plan for each property that is focused on maintaining or restoring wildlife connectivity and natural conditions. A noteworthy point is that if a non-profit organization closes in the US for any reason, the entity is required to send its assets (land, in this case) to a similar organization who can fulfill the conservation requirements.

Greater sage-grouse. The Greater sage-grouse is the largest grouse in North America and is located in Burma Rim, Oregon. Photo by USFWS.

SRS: How do you decide where to work?

HM: One of my personal advisors is Dr. Don Church, President of Global Wildlife Conservation. He does exceptional work at locating projects in positions of leverage and importance. We review sites for a number of standards that are non-negotiable, such as scale, species risk, habitat integrity, and permanence. A part of the work on our end is also locating matching funds for the donors, so they don’t have to do all of the heavy lifting.

SRS: Do you see this as a something that might influence your art-making in years to come?  

HM: It does influence my painting time, and likely in many ways that I will see over time.

SRS: I am interested in your take on how art and conservation overlap.

HM: Land conservation has influenced my subject matter, as can be expected. It also influences the scale of my paintings. I have been painting on canvases that are sized to fit in a checked bag, and can be in a plane or a backpack, and I am painting landscapes. I have been doing observation-based painting like landscapes, or painting the portrait of the person that I am with, since I am “on site’’ all the time. I paint for fewer hours, since I began conserving land with the intensity of focus that I currently hold; there are really great conservation possibilities that won’t be nearly as plentiful five years from now. I want to use my time wisely. That said, sometimes painting is the best thing to do while I wait for conservation news!

Burma Rim, Oregon. Photo by Renee Patrick.

SRS: Haley, I noticed an image of you and Agnes Gund at a Carnegie Medal for Philanthropy event. It makes me think you have also made an effort to involve people with more access to funding than average. Can you talk about that balance?

HM: I think everyone should be enabled to conserve wilderness, if they find that to be of importance for themselves. Whether you have great means or a couple dollars in your pocket, I frankly see these as equally important because it is an exchange of value to the person, and because it is an educational moment for them, and their families. I made an initiative called art-to-acres, as a longer term and lower profile project, and so at times I work with individuals I am fond of in the art world. I met Agnes through the art community and she donated [an Ed] Ruscha [artwork] to the art-to-acres work that I do. She is a beacon of grace.

SRS: Do you think art and environmentalism are (necessarily) separate channels? 

HM: I see painting and conservation as very similar in terms of values and purpose. Art and national parks are some of the few things that outlive us, ideally, and that we preserve. Both are about legacy. We initiate both art and conservation, in part, for when we are no longer here and we create them to be experienced and witnessed by future generations. They are different in terms of their relationship to time, however. While an artwork is a visual of a moment in time, a wild place is the visual of all time compounded.

You can learn more about the donation process, projects underway for conservation, and parameters for land maintenance at Conserve.org.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...