Cyril Kormos ’87 
Executive Director at Wild Heritage  

Q: How has your career path unfolded since
you graduated?
A: I went to Cal and majored in English, and then really wavered on what to do next. Internships in Washington D.C. on natural resource related issues, growing up in California and enjoying the outdoors, and a summer volunteering for Costa Rica’s National Park Service, steered me towards nature conservation rather than a PhD in literature. I went to the London School of Economics and got a master’s in international relations, but decided law school would be a better fit for conservation policy work. While at George Washington University Law School, I started working with an NGO called Conservation International, a super exciting, dynamic, fast-growing organization. I worked on designating a 4-million-acre national park in Suriname and getting it recognized as a World Heritage site and also helped set up the trust fund and endowment to keep the park funded. It was a fantastic project. After eight years at Conservation International, I came back to California, where I worked with The Wild Foundation, a much smaller non-profit focused on wilderness conservation. I left about a year ago to start my own NGO called Wild Heritage. My organization is part of Earth Island Institute in Berkeley, which is an umbrella non-profit for small organizations. Wild Heritage is focused on protecting old growth forests and on creating World Heritage sites. I also got married. My wife Rebecca, a Canadian, is a primatologist, and also a conservationist. She is working on a documentary about chimpanzees in Guinea that are threatened by mining operations. We are based in Berkeley and have two girls.  

Q: What is it like creating a nonprofit from the
ground up? 
A: Fortunately, I don’t need a lot of staff, at least for now. I have 2-3 consultants I work with regularly, and I try to work through networks. I still have close relationships with Conservation International and the Wild Foundation. I also work with the International Union for Conservation of Nature in Switzerland and I’ve also formed a coalition of about 100 NGOs focused on old growth forest conservation. It’s kind of a jiu-jitsu approach to conservation and policy work: if you get the big organizations to shift even a little bit in the right direction, you save a lot of time and effort and don’t need to build up a big organization yourself.

Q: Tell us about World Heritage Sites. 
A: World Heritage sites are the best places on the Earth: natural or cultural sites that are so unique and exceptional that they are instantly recognizable as places that are important to everyone, no matter where a person might be from. Places like Yosemite, the Serengeti, the Great Barrier Reef, or the Galapagos. Sites that meet the World Heritage Convention’s standard of “Outstanding Universal Value” are inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  

Q: What’s a current project that particularly
interests you?
A: I’m working on getting the World Heritage Convention to be more systematic about designating Earth’s last great wilderness areas as World Heritage sites. World Heritage status is important because governments like the prestige of having parks on the World Heritage List. World Heritage status also attracts funding and tourism. And, the World Heritage Convention requires that World Heritage sites be well-managed, which creates additional oversight. Wild Heritage is co-organizing a workshop in May in Kathmandu to look across the Hindu Kush Himalaya region to determine where new World Heritage sites should be created and to set up a strategy for getting those places nominated. A good comparison is the Rocky Mountains in North America: in the U.S., Yellowstone is a World Heritage site as is Glacier, and Waterton, Banff, Jasper, and Nahanni national parks in Canada are all World Heritage sites. Together they protect the key, core areas in a trans-continental Rocky Mountain conservation corridor. But this wasn’t intentional. These North American World Heritage nominations were ad hoc and came about after the parks were created. We’re trying to do this differently: how do we work strategically and systematically with governments across the huge Hindu Kush Himalaya landscape and identify and protect the best areas within it as World Heritage sites? We’re working on this approach in Africa too. It’s very exciting.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges facing wilderness areas? 
A: We urgently need to get governments and UN conventions to prioritize old growth forest protection. The statistics are terrifying, we’ve already lost a third of the planet’s forests, only a third of what’s left is old growth and its going fast. But old growth forests are critical because they protect over two thirds of Earth’s terrestrial species. If we want to solve the biodiversity crisis, we have to protect old growth forests. Forests also store vast amounts of carbon, even more than is currently in the atmosphere. In fact, there’s so much carbon in forests that if we release even a fraction, it won’t matter whether we eliminate fossil fuels—we’ll be locked in to dangerous climate change regardless. And, old growth forests store much more carbon than logged forests or plantations. So we can’t take the approach that all forests are basically interchangeable; old growth forests are unique and irreplaceable. The hope 30 or 40 years ago was that we were going to figure out how to log old growth forests sustainably, but that hasn’t worked anywhere. My basic message is, if it’s old growth, keep industrial activity out; it’s too important. There’s 40 years of policy built around the idea that all forests are basically the same. Reversing that is a huge challenge. Sometimes it feels like I’m beating my head against a brick wall…
 
Q: Taking you back to your College Prep days, what would you say you took away from that experience that you still use today? 
A: CPS is an example of a functional values-driven community, a microcosm where people work closely together towards certain goals. It’s really hard to create those conditions, and I feel like the School did that really well. I’ve tried to live by Margaret Mead’s statement, Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. CPS helped me realize that it’s not a pipe dream to try to come up with a way of functioning that’s a little bit different, that’s based on a clear set of values, and that it’s possible to set up an institution that continues to live its mission.

Q: Wondering what ‘high school you’ would think of ‘current you’? 
A: If I knew that I’d been able to survive in a conservation, non-profit setting, doing work that I really believed in and that I had a beautiful family, I would hope that my high school self would be pretty happy about the path followed!

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