Ellie Cohen, long-time Point Blue CEO, moves on

10/25/2018

The consensus from speakers at last Saturday’s farewell celebration for Ellie Cohen, under whose two decades of leadership the small, Bolinas-based research group known as the Point Reyes Bird Observatory transformed into the 180-employee conservation organization with a global reach now called Point Blue, was that she is a real-life superhero. “When climate change was just a muted discussion, Ellie was the one who made it the center of what we were thinking about,” Nadine Peterson, a Point Blue board member and former deputy executive director of the California Coastal Conservancy, said to a room of nearly 200 people at the Peace Barn in Bolinas. “Now we can’t continue to give grants without thinking about climate change, but back in 2008, there was a lot of negativity around it. Ellie inspired me to go ahead and incorporate it into our guidance to get funding—that wouldn’t have happened without her.” Colleagues from other collaborating organizations and agencies—including from the Greater Farallones Marine Sanctuary, the U.S.D.A.’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, the U.S. Forest Service and Congressman Jared Huffman—sung similar praises. “She has all the characteristics of a superhero: she has courage, courage to face those daunting odds of climate change. She has selflessness and will partner with people without any expectations of financial gain. She has humility, as you’ve heard; she doesn’t brag about her accomplishments, but acknowledges her staff and what they have done. She has incredible patience,” said Maria Brown, the superintendent of the Greater Farallones. “Her number-one superpower, however, is that smile…How can anyone say no?” Ms. Cohen, who has a background in botany and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard University, joined the organization in 1999. The bird observatory, founded in the 1960s, began studying bird migration along the Pacific Flyway; to date, it has the longest-running population study of land birds in North America west of the Mississippi. From a budget of around $3 million and a staff of 30 in 1999 to a budget of $14 million today, Point Blue now focuses on conservation science specifically tailored to addressing climate change, including drought, rising and more acidic seas, extreme weather events and accelerated habitat degradation and loss. The organization includes an extensive internship program and field work throughout California with special programs in South America and Antarctica. In 2012, Bay Nature Magazine gave Ms. Cohen the “environmental hero” award for her climate-change leadership. On Saturday, Ms. Cohen took the podium after multiple rounds of praise and said, “Well, this has been overwhelming!” She emphasized that the success of the organization were not hers alone, but rather a product of teamwork. She also took the opportunity to name the challenges she sees the world facing today. “Every one of us has a role to play, we are in the emergency room—it is code blue for the whole planet,” she said. “What is so cool is that being part of Point Blue is that we are trained technicians making a difference, and everything we do here is helping to save the life of the planet that sustains us all, really truly… Not only is this work about the whole planet, but it is also about caring for one another.” The organization has formed a transition committee to work in collaboration with an executive recruitment firm to conduct a national search for Point Blue’s new CEO.