Jonathan Wood and Hannah Downey were both passionate about nature from an early age. Now leading PERC’s new Conservation Law and Policy Center, they are building on a lifelong passion for the outdoors by bringing a refreshing new perspective to environmental policy reform.
Settle in around the campfire and get to know PERC Vice President of Law and Policy Jonathan Wood and Policy Director Hannah Downey:
What are some of your earliest memories of nature?
Jonathan: I grew up on a ranch in north Texas and spent a lot of time outside around livestock and wildlife. My grandfather was also an avid hunter and angler and I enjoyed many mornings fishing with him.
Hannah: I grew up in Wisconsin and Minnesota, but my earliest memories of nature were actually in Montana. My parents loved backpacking and explored the mountains of Montana every summer. I celebrated my first birthday in a tent in the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and we came back every year.
Jonathan, when did you first discover a passion for law?
Jonathan: My master’s thesis was on how free market environmentalism was saving rhinos in Namibia from extinction. Research is extremely valuable, but that project made me realize it’s not enough: legal and policy reform is essential to put ideas into action.
What’s your proudest professional achievement to date?
Jonathan: I’ve had the privilege of helping a lot of landowners navigate environmental challenges in my legal career, including winning a Supreme Court case on behalf of Louisiana landowners. But my proudest accomplishment was helping PERC advance Endangered Species Act reforms. The changes we made to how threatened species are regulated dramatically improved the incentives for landowners to recover species and made a lasting impact for wildlife.
Hannah: I’m proud of how far we’ve come on the policy front. I started with PERC as a Research Associate and eventually built out the policy arm from scratch. Five years later, we now regularly get called to give testimony and meet with legislators and policymakers. Recognition of our expertise is a big accomplishment.
What makes PERC unique compared to other conservation organizations?
Hannah: Everything we do is driven by solid research. We aren’t just throwing out ideas; we look at the reality on the ground and compare that to the regulatory landscape to find practical, sustainable solutions.
Jonathan: The culture is unique. Every single PERCie is aligned with the mission. It’s energizing to be surrounded by an incredible team looking to achieve positive conservation outcomes in a way that doesn’t vilify someone else.
Hannah, why has PERC become a sought-out and respected name in the policy world?
We bring a fresh perspective to environmental policy. Currently, it’s based in strict regulations. While there is certainly some need for that, there’s been a realization that we need to bring a fresh approach to address some big challenges. There’s also a benefit to PERC being on the ground in the West. We’re able to raise unique issues and understand stakeholders on the ground in a way that people in the DC beltway cannot.
What role can PERC’s Law and Policy Center play in shaping the conversation around environmental policy?
Jonathan: So much of the status quo is conflict based; it’s about two extremes butting heads forever. No one speaks for the actual on-the-ground stakeholders or the real needs of voluntary conservation. Because PERC’s approach is grounded in research, we can take a step back and analyze the broader policy implications in a way that litigious groups simply don’t.
Hannah: PERC is a unifier, not a divider. We want to make conservation something that unites people, rather than pits them against one another. That approach sets us apart.
PERC advocates for cooperative, voluntary conservation that avoids zero-sum conflicts like litigation. How does having a legal center of its own advance that cause?
Jonathan: Unfortunately, much of environmental policy is made in the courtroom. PERC’s voice and perspective is urgently needed there. That said, our approach is different from other groups. We don’t seek to impose on people, we empower them to advance conservation. When we weigh in on a case, it’s to address perverse incentives, remove barriers to voluntary conservation, and defend PERC’s policy wins.
Hannah: Jonathan’s legal expertise equips us to ground policy ideas within a stronger legal framework, helping us apply our research to realize even more real-world regulatory victories.
Jonathan, environmental law is very polarizing. Does it need to be?
No, it doesn’t need to be that way. A lot of our environmental laws are set up to encourage litigation, which is why so many groups approach environmental issues that way. But we’re seeing many of these conservation groups question the effectiveness of that approach, and that’s the opportunity PERC will seize.
You’re both passionate about conservation. What’s your favorite animal?
Jonathan: Seals bring up a lot of fond memories for me, from family vacations as a kid to my honeymoon traveling the Pacific Coast Highway. But my favorite memories are probably from taking my twin toddlers to see the seals at the National Zoo in DC. They could sit and watch them play for hours.
Hannah: I love mountain goats. For one, they’re adorable with their little beards. But they’re also incredible mountaineers. They can scale cliff faces with a nimbleness that sort of boggles the mind. I’d love to have their agility and sure-footedness when I’m climbing a mountain!