Entrepreneurism and conservation don’t often share an office. However, if The WYldlife Fund (the Fund) and its initiative, Wildlife Tourism for Tomorrow (WTFT), are any example, they should.
Thanks to the wildlife-supporting duo of Chris McBarnes and Taylor Phillips, the marriage of business savvy and conservation has proven wildly successful.
Chris, who is president at the Fund, joined the organization in 2020, one year after it was launched by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The goal? To provide a conduit for private donations and businesses who want to support local wildlife. Though the Wyoming Game and Fish Department’s conservation efforts were traditionally funded by anglers, hunters, and outfitters, they recognized that the tourism industry relied heavily on the presence of wildlife but had no way to show its financial support.
The job was the perfect fit for Chris, who grew up camping, fishing, and hunting with his grandfather and father.
“It isn’t so much about catching a fish or harvesting an animal anymore, it is about the process — being out there, being one with nature,” says Chris. He recalls being out with his dad in a blind before sunrise, watching a bobcat walk by as the forest awoke. It is a fond memory, and one he holds close as he considers his own young son, Lincoln.
Chris, a native of Indiana with a lot of ambition, was elected mayor of his hometown of Frankfort at age 23. Limited by a small budget, he learned early on the power of using private-public partnerships to fund and accomplish projects. When the opportunity to work for the Fund and move to Wyoming, “the mecca of wildlife,” came along, Chris saw it as the perfect way to use his knack for creating productive partnerships while feeding his passion for the outdoors. He and his wife “packed up the wagon” and headed west.
Chris has overseen the Fund’s flagship initiative, WTFT, alongside Taylor Phillips, a local business owner with a definitive interest in a thriving wildlife presence (he owns Jackson Hole EcoTour Adventures, a wildlife touring company). For Taylor, it’s easy to see the responsibility the tourism industry has in sustaining a healthy wildlife population. And with 43 percent of Wyoming visitors identifying wildlife viewing as one of the area’s top draws, according to the Wyoming Office of Tourism’s 2018 visitor profile, Taylor knew he wasn’t alone.
Though Taylor had been donating to conservation organizations for years, he suspected that there had to be a way for his dollars to go further and do more. Historically, wildlife conservation efforts have been funded by hunters and anglers, but Taylor wanted to evolve that model to include businesses like his, businesses that have a stake in healthy wildlife.
To date, Chris and Taylor have put together a roster of over 50 Wyoming businesses — including outfitters, tour companies, hotels, eateries, and realtors — that are passionate about supporting the efforts of the Fund and WTFT.
The private-public partnership model that WTFT employs has distinct advantages for both the Fund and business owners. Direct donations — like those to the Fund through WTFT — can be funneled toward certain projects, allowing the business owner to specify what project they want their donation to go toward. Funds can also be used to match grants that public agencies award. And finally, the donations are tax exempt and undiluted: 100 percent of the donation goes to on-the-ground efforts.