For Jessica Ottney Mahar, the path to becoming one of New York’s most influential environmental advocates began with a t-shirt. Or not a t-shirt exactly, but a teenage realization that there was something she could do about the decimating impact sprawl was having on farmland near her family’s home outside Rochester, New York. “One of the earliest moments I can remember thinking about the environment was at a local festival called Penfield Country Fair Days. The Nature Conservancy had a table or tent there,” Ottney Mahar recalls. “I used money I had saved to ‘adopt an acre’ of the nearby Thousand Acre Swamp preserve, and they gave me a t-shirt. I was, like, ‘Whoa, I’m saving the environment and I’m banking clothing.’ It made a big impression on me.”
Since that time, her youthful enthusiasm has blossomed into a mastery of the field of policy and strategy that has helped make TNC a leader in Albany and Ottney Mahar a much-lauded catalyst for change. Julie Tighe, president of the advocacy group the New York League of Conservation Voters, calls Ottney Mahar “my closest partner in working on environmental policy,” and says, “Jess has a grounded approach that’s easy for lawmakers to understand and policymakers to respect. She’s someone I appreciate being in the trenches with every day as we advance environmental progress in New York.”
Ottney Mahar’s career as an environmental advocate began right after college, at SUNY Buffalo, where she majored in political science and English. This focus on language comes into play every day. With legislators and other policymakers, she notes, “being able to tell a compelling story is where the magic happens.” She got her start with the Long Island-based Citizens Campaign for the Environment and later joined The Adirondack Council as a policy associate. In 2007, she came to work for the organization she first encountered as a 12-year-old at Penfield Country Fair Days, as director of New York government relations.
Advocating for New York’s Environmental Funding
In her work, Ottney Mahar brings the expertise of the Conservancy’s scientists and experts to bear on the most pressing conservation issues of our time, leading successful campaigns that, over a five-year period, have brought $1.5 billion in funding to the state’s Environmental Protection Fund. That fund helps restore habitat, conserve farmland, steward public lands and parks and upgrade sewage treatment plants. “Of course, raising billions of dollars for conservation sounds awesome as a metric,” Ottney Mahar says. “But when you see a new park or bike trail with people happy to be using it and there’s a sign there that says, ‘Environmental Protection Fund,’ that’s pretty amazing, too.”
Similarly, she’s helped shape New York’s clean water protection program, now totaling $3.5 billion, so that it safeguards water at its source and addresses nitrogen pollution from wastewater, which fuels harmful algal blooms and fishkills, decimates shellfish and seagrasses, and closes lakes, rivers, bays and harbors to recreation of all kinds.
Connect with Jessica Ottney Mahar
Ottney Mahar is available on topics such as:
- Environmental policy and regulation
- Climate change and clean energy
- Natural resource management
And with Ottney Mahar helping to conduct a diverse chorus of climate advocates, New York has become a leader in addressing climate change, with goals to achieve 100 percent zero-carbon electricity by 2040, economywide emissions reductions of at least 85 percent by 2050, and an emphasis on environmental justice to help ensure communities most impacted by pollution receive the support they need as New York transitions to a clean-energy economy.
Convening for Environmental Action
One of Ottney Mahar’s greatest skills is as a convenor of diverse coalitions, work she’s doing remotely these days from the solar-powered home she shares with her husband and nine-year-old daughter. The 175-plus member coalition Ottney Mahar helped assemble to protect environmental funding during the COVID-induced budget crisis—New Yorkers for Clean Water & Jobs—includes groups that range from the Long Island Contractors’ Association to WE ACT for Environmental Justice.
“The Nature Conservancy doesn’t take on this work alone,” she says. “I’m lucky to collaborate with partners from all over New York who are each doing critically important work. Convening these groups and bringing people together is essential to who we are as an organization and to accomplishing our goals.” And when she reflects on the benefits that collaboration has generated for New York’s lands and waters, she thinks the Rochester girl in The Nature Conservancy t-shirt would be proud.