For someone who has had a monumental impact on Arizona’s environment, Diane Brossart wasn’t much of a tree-hugger growing up in Michigan.

“When I moved here, I fell in love with Arizona — the blue skies, the sunshine,” says Brossart. “I asked myself, ‘How can we protect this and ensure that it stays this way.’”

She answered that question with a 26-year reign as the president and CEO of Arizona Forward, which brings business and civic leaders together to promote cooperative efforts to improve the environmental sustainability and economic vitality of our state and local regions.

The list of environmental accomplishments for Brossard, who announced in June that she was retiring from Arizona Forward, is vast:

• She  spearheaded the award-winning expansion of Maricopa County-based Valley Forward to a statewide entity — Arizona Forward — in 2013.

• Her advocacy of Rio Salado, regionally and locally, resulting in the creation of the Tempe Town Lake and Phoenix Rio Salado Restoration Project.

• She was part of the collaborative leadership that resulted in a regional light rail system that continues to expand.

• She led desert preservation and open space initiatives that protect public lands in multiple Valley communities.

• She organized educational and outreach programs on water issues that brought business and civic leaders together on ways to ensure a reliable water supply for Arizona.

“I’ve been privileged to lead one of Arizona’s most impactful nonprofits and work with amazing ambassadors of the Grand Canyon State,” Brossart says. “I’ll always support the mission of this exceptional and unique organization, which is poised for growth and ongoing success.”

Az Business sat down with Brossart, who was named one of Az Business magazine’s Most Influential Women of 2013, to talk about how Arizona is doing as a steward of its environment.

Az Business: How do you think Arizona is doing in 2017 in terms of taking care of its environment?

Diane Brossart: We’ve come a long way as a state in protecting and enhancing the environment. I’m encouraged by what I see not just in Central Arizona, but in Northern Arizona and Southern Arizona as well. We are making great strides in managing our water supply and forging partnerships between cities. On the land use side, I see lots of parks and open space, more walkable communities and a balanced multi-modal transportation system with alternatives to the automobile. It’s very encouraging. Are we perfect? No, but there will always be a place for a group like Arizona Forward to keep shining the light on how to grow in a responsible manner in a desert environment.

AB: What has changed the most since you started at Valley Forward in 1991?

DB: When I moved here from Michigan in 1982, each community was kind of siloed in how they thought of things. Over the years, that’s definitely changed. When the transportation initiative Prop 400 came around — light rail was important to Phoenix, arterial streets were important to Tempe, Glendale wanted freeways — everyone had to work together to split the pie and it was good. When Valley Forward went statewide and became Arizona Forward, we were told people in Tucson didn’t want to hear what people in Phoenix had to say. But we found that the business communities statewide are really interested in elevating Arizona and our position in the marketplace globally. They perceive the competition as Texas, Colorado and New Mexico, not Phoenix, Tucson and Flagstaff. So there is a real interest in working together and collaborating today that wasn’t always there in 1991.

AB: What is the state doing well?

DB: Water management is an area where we really excel and we need to because we have a finite supply of water and we are in such a unique environment here. Being that, we are seeing a lot more collaboration between private and public sectors. When I started in this job in 1991, it was very much an us against them — environmentalists vs. the business community — mentality. Now, the business community is leading the way and it’s commonplace, it’s not just trendy anymore.

AB: Where does the state need to do some work?

DB: We just did a statewide survey of Arizona residents and their biggest concern was water, where I think we are doing some of our best work. Two-thirds of the respondents don’t think the state is doing enough in terms of climate change and climate change mitigation. Arizona residents are worried about that and we should be, not just here, but globally.

AB: What has been your toughest challenge?

DB: When I first started in 1991, it was more about, “How do we raise enough money to keep the doors open?” than it was about, “What is the mission and how are we driving to it?” Those two have to go hand-in-hand. Fundraising is always a challenge for an organization. But today, we are very financially solvent, and that’s a very good thing.

AB: What accomplishment gives you the most pride?

DB: Taking Valley Forward statewide and becoming Arizona Forward. I’m very proud of the number of members we’ve been able to convene statewide. We now have Pima County, Coconino County, Pinal County, Maricopa County, ASU, the University of Arizona, NAU and the community colleges, so we have the best of the best from around the state. We’re into our fifth year as Arizona Forward and friendships have been made and trust has been built. Getting everything thinking together collaboratively and trying to solve the problems and address the issues collectively, which has been Arizona Forward’s strength over the years, has been very gratifying.   

AB: What can other businesses learn from Arizona Forward’s successful transition into a statewide organization?

DB: The key to success in any business is being collaborative. Sometimes, that’s difficult because we are all very protective of our niche. But as soon as you open the floodgates, good things happen. Compared with how business was done when I started in 1991, things are completely different in 2017. But I believe that relationship building will be key no matter what the year. And it’s not texting or emailing, it’s sitting down and looking at someone’s face and building that relationship.