Sara O’Brien

Sara O'Brien (she/her), Partner since 2013 | Executive Director

“This organization started as a diverse table of partners who understood that in order to solve hard problems, we have to dig in and work together across difference and disagreement. It requires a lot of humanity and also a certain amount of discomfort to work that way. This idea of real-world collaboration with a commitment to shared outcomes is a big part of what I inherited as a leader, and I am always working to help us grow into that vision.”

Sara’s passion and superpower is collaborative leadership – helping people work together to solve tough, complex problems that no one can solve alone. As executive director, she is responsible for continually growing the Partnership’s effectiveness and contributions, and she does that primarily by investing in people and partnerships. Internally, that has included building a strong collaborative culture at WP that carefully balances individual autonomy with a responsibility to contribute. Externally, Sara enjoys pitching in on projects that involve managing complexity and conflict, policies and politics, in cross-sector collaboration. She believes that relationships make the world go round. 

Prior to taking on the Executive Director role in 2018, Sara was the Partnership’s Director of Strategy and Business Development. She has a master’s degree in natural resource management with a focus on public policy and a bachelor’s in anthropology. One of the things she likes about working at the Partnership is that she gets to use both her natural resources policy brain and her anthropology brain every day.

“My leadership and management style is structured around the belief – which I learned from my family and community growing up in Iowa – that people find meaningful, beneficial, collaborative work deeply satisfying. If they face barriers to that–whether they’re cultural, habitual, or systemic–the best approach is to help them  clear those barriers out of the way so they can do their best work in support of their communities.”


  • Managing complexity and conflict in cross-sector collaborations
  • Natural resources management, policy, and finance
  • Strategic planning and doing


O’Brien and S. Vickerman. 2013. From principles to practice: Developing a vision and policy framework to make ecosystem management a reality. Pp. 261-282 in Robbins, K. (ed.) The Laws of Nature: Reflections on the Evolution of Ecosystem Management Law and Policy. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press.

Morehouse, B.J., S.E. O’Brien. G. Christopherson, and P. Johnson. 2010. Integrating values and risk perceptions into a decision support system. International Journal of Wildland Fire. 

Morehouse, B.J. and S.E. O’Brien. 2008. Facilitating Public Involvement in Strategic Planning for Wildland Fire Management. The Professional Geographer 60(4): 495-507.

Jensen, S.E. and G.R. McPherson. Living with Fire: Fire Ecology and Policy for the Twenty-First Century. 2008. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Jensen, S.E. 2006. Policy tools for wildland fire management: principles, incentives, and conflicts. Natural Resources Journal 46(4): 959-1003.


Masters of Science

University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ
Masters in natural resource management, with a focus on public policy

Bachelors of Arts

Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA
Major in anthropology, minor in comparative linguistics