The Comprehensive Career of Jane Elder

Jane Elder
Jane Elder

Jane Elder could fill a book with the knowledge she has accumulated over a nearly 50-year-long career … and she has. From her beginnings at the Sierra Club to heading up the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters, Elder’s resume is no doubt impressive. 

Released on April 1, 2024, Wilderness, Water, and Rust: A Journey toward Great Lakes Resilience follows Elder’s life as she weaves memories from her time spent in the wilderness of the upper Midwest with her experience fighting for environmental protections throughout her career.  

Wilderness, Water, and Rust: A Journey toward Great Lakes Resilience
The cover art for Elder’s new book.

Organized into eight sections, Elder wanted to capture stories from the golden era of the environmental movement when she and her colleagues were making enormous change quickly. The book also lends Elder’s voice to the rising chorus about the urgency of today’s environmental challenges.  

Elder’s attitudes about the outdoors and spending time in nature were formed from her childhood growing up along a small lake in southern Michigan. She attended Michigan State University and graduated with a communications degree in 1976 (there were no interdisciplinary environmental programs at that time). However, Elder took as many environmental and political sciences courses as she could which aided her in her first job out of college: working at a statewide coalition to enact the Michigan Bottle Bill, one of the first efforts to restore deposits on bottles and beverage cans.  

“It was fast-paced, underfunded, and an amazing effort. I was one of two young staffers pulled in because we were cheap,” Elder laughed as she recalled her $100 a week paycheck. Elder’s job was to work on polls and surveys to learn about the public’s opinion about the bill and then develop messaging around it. “And we won!” Elder said. “It was very exciting and that gave me an opportunity to look for other positions in the field once the campaign ended and they shut down the staff.”  

Elder at the Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan, one of her favorite places on Earth. Photo courtesy of Jane Elder
Elder at the Sylvania Wilderness in Michigan, one of her favorite places on Earth. Photo courtesy of Jane Elder

This opportunity led her to the Sierra Club where she was elected to the statewide executive committee for the Michigan chapter. Through that, she attended a weeklong training in Washington D.C. where she met with federal agencies and members of Congress. “I came back from that really jazzed and knowing that I wanted to be more involved in environmental policy,” Elder said, which inspired her to approach her Sierra Club chapter and convince them to hire her as their lobbyist. Her chapter agreed, and Elder became the first paid lobbyist for Michigan’s Sierra Club and one of the few people in the halls of the state legislature who was in their early twenties and female. 

While at the chapter, Elder helped pass the Michigan Wetlands Bill, repeal the state’s coyote bounty, and worked on the early stages of what would become the Michigan Wilderness Bill. After a few years, Elder applied for an opening at the Sierra Club’s Midwest office based in Madison. On the flight over to the interview, Elder sat next to a woman who told her, “Honey, if you get this job, you’re never going to leave Madison.” And so far, she’s been right. Elder got the position and has lived in Madison since 1979.  

Working as a field lobbyist assigned to cover the Midwest, Elder worked to organize grassroots activism in key congressional districts, and would also fly to Washington, D.C., to lobby there. Her new position meant that Elder had to be an expert on her region’s environmental issues while also having great people skills and the ability to make connections. In the mid-1980s, Elder was promoted to head up the Midwest office where she established the Sierra Club’s Great Lakes program and continued working on the Michigan Wilderness Bill, as Michigan was within her territory. And in 1987, after a 10-year battle, Congress passed the Michigan Wilderness Act and President Reagan signed it into law. It remains “one of the things I’m proudest about in terms of where I invested my time and career,” Elder says. 

A photo slide from Elder’s first trip to Washington D.C. with the Sierra Club in 1977. Photo courtesy of Jane Elder
A photo slide from Elder’s first trip to Washington, DC with the Sierra Club in 1977. Photo courtesy of Jane Elder

Elder then enrolled in graduate school full time at the end of the 1980s while continuing to work half-time at the Sierra Club. “I don’t remember much about that time other than that I took showers [and] dashed back and forth,” Elder said. After graduating from UW–Madison with an MS in land resources, Elder left the Sierra Club but continued to work closely with the organization as a consultant. 

In the mid-1990s, Elder became a parent and, soon after, joined the Biodiversity Project — a nonprofit that advocated for public awareness of biodiversity and its conservation. Elder spent 10 years as its executive director before transitioning back to working as an environmental consultant which gave her more control over her schedule and availability as a parent. 

Rounding out her career, Elder became the executive director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 2012 where she spent 10 years before leaving to focus on her book. “I finally gave myself space to finish this book project that I had begun working on in 2004,” Elder said. 

Looking back across her career, Elder is glad she was able to follow her true calling. “I was able to keep my fingers in the environmental issues I cared the most about, which include the Great Lakes and the surrounding natural lands,” Elder said. She enjoyed the camaraderie of working in the environmental policy field, sharing her passion for creating change, and winning the hard-fought battles that make the world a better place. “That was one of the greatest thrills,” Elder said. “To do something that was good for people, the environment, and future generations.” 

Elder encourages younger generations to pursue their own environmental passions and advises them to understand that change can take years, decades, and sometimes lifetimes, but to never give up the fight. “When I look at our current inability to act rapidly to stem crises such as climate change and mass extinction, along with the brokenness of our democracy, a rational person goes, ‘it’s hopeless.’ But sometimes we have to be thoughtfully irrational and choose to take action anyway,” Elder reflects. “And I’d rather be on that side.” 

Meet Jane Elder during Earth Fest
Wilderness, Water & Rust Book Launch and Signing

Tuesday, April 23 | 6:30–8:30 p.m.
Learn more