Montana Association of Land Trusts

Private Land Conservation

Glenn Marx
Executive Director
PO Box 892
Helena, MT 59624

Conservation Conversations

Conservation Conversations is a 12-part series of interviews from the Montana Association of Land Trusts that seeks to present a deeper and broader understanding of private land conservation and the work of Montana’s land trusts. Each month in 2010, a leader within the Montana land trust community will voice their personal perspectives about the value private land conservation brings to Montana’s landscape, to the people of Montana and Montana’s economy. The interviews are conducted by Glenn Marx, executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. This is number three in the series.

Kat Imhoff Kat Imhoff

March 2010

Kat Imhoff, Montana State Director of The Nature Conservancy since early 2008, is a Utah native who has lived and worked extensively across the U.S. She has bachelors and masters degrees in urban and environmental planning from the University of Virginia and has worked for local government in land use planning and in state government for the Virginia Legislative Assembly. Kat previously worked for the Piedmont Environmental Council and the Preservation Alliance of Virginia, and before accepting the TNC job in Montana, she served as vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation in Virginia. Kat oversees Montana TNC’s 34 staffers, works with a membership of about 6,500 and with landowners and communities to conserve over 550,000 acres in Montana. She also assumed a leadership role on the Montana Legacy Project, in which TNC purchased over 300,000 acres of Plum Creek Timber Company lands in western Montana for close to $500 million.

Q: Clearly you have made conservation your career. How and why did you make that decision?

A: I came by it the old fashioned way: I inherited it. My father is a water resource planner and geologist, and I doubt I ever thought about a career that didn’t involve conservation. Growing up, we lived in many different states but a common thread that runs in my family is a love for the outdoors. One of the things I learned by living in all those places is that lands are saved by very dedicated folks and that each generation has to step up to the plate and care for special places.

I was always very interested in historical landscapes…why do some landscapes stay intact and others don’t? I’ve always had one foot in conservation and one foot in the people side of life – I’m very intrigued with what makes communities livable as well as why wild places are important to folks. I’ve always been fascinated with what defines why people care about a place.

So, during my career, I’ve gone from “Why do people care about these places?” to “How do you protect them long term?”

Q: What was the most fascinating aspect of your job with the Thomas Jefferson Foundation?

A: I was the vice president and chief operating officer for the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, which has the unique responsibility and honor of maintaining Monticello, Jefferson’s home.

One fascinating part of the job was a really unique opportunity to be part of a group of people who were planning the Lewis & Clark Bicentennial Commemoration. The Lewis & Clark story is one of the more interesting and heroic of our country. So we at Monticello and the people at Fort Clatsop were identified as key points within any kind of commemorative experience. We were asked to develop a national Lewis & Clark commemoration, and that was one of the most exiting things I’ve ever worked on.

In some ways, that’s why I’m here in Montana. During the bicentennial we really wanted to tell the Native American story and the Lewis & Clark experiences as they encountered many different tribes. One of my first assignments was coming out West and forming a circle of tribal advisors.

So in working with tribes in the West, I kept coming back to Montana. The most miles in any state of the Lewis & Clark Trail are in Montana and the most sincere and fervent interest in Lewis & Clark came from Montana. And I remember in 2000, going home to Virginia and telling my husband, “You know, we’re going to move to Montana.” I told other people I was moving to Montana. I was just smitten with the state.

I will never forget leaving Great Falls, and that first view of the Rocky Mountain Front… I will absolutely never forget it. What an amazing landscape, and what a vision for Lewis & Clark.

Q: You were the executive director for the Preservation Alliance of Virginia and vice president at the Piedmont Environmental Council in Virginia. How do land conservation efforts in Virginia differ from your current work in Montana?

A: One of the things that strikes me most about working in Montana is that so much of our land conservation is working with landowners in areas where there already has been a significant public investment. That’s very different from Virginia.

People don’t have access to these kinds of public lands in the East. These lands simply don’t exist, certainly not on the scale that you see here. In Virginia, nearly all the conservation efforts have been parcel by parcel by parcel, without getting the kind of conservation that supports large-scale ecosystem protection.

One of the great advantages Montana has is large and fairly intact blocks of land under public ownership coupled with very important privately held lands where people are beginning to see – you can really see it on the Rocky Mountain Front – the value of the private stewardship of those lands.

So the federal ownership and state ownership changes the scale and types of discussions. I don’t think landowners in Virginia are different from landowners in Montana in why they support private land conservation. When you scrape below the surface, people care deeply about their property. Whether it’s 100 acres of a Civil War battlefield or a 140,000-acre western ranch, the motivating factors are more similar then dissimilar. People do it for a love of the land.

Also, here in the West people have so much more of a connection to wildlife. Most of these wildlife species no longer exist in the East. People in Montana want conservation for elk, grizzly bears, migrating trumpeter swans. The depth and connection to wildlife here in Montana is far more impressive.

There is more acceptance of conservation by zoning and land use planning in the East, where here in the West it is done more through stewardship and financial incentives.

Q: Why did you volunteer to serve on the Land Trust Accreditation Commission?

A: When the Accreditation Commission was first being formed I was absolutely intrigued with how you might create a review process for some 1,800 diverse land trusts in the U.S. Also, living in Virginia, I was very aware of the increased scrutiny of easements from the IRS… located just up the road in Washington, D.C. I was also aware of the cynicism that was happening related to some of the conservation work in other parts of the country.

I was pretty passionate that we needed to find ways for private landowners to maintain their land, pass it along to heirs, based on the concept of permanent stewardship.

There were concerns about easements, about the value of easements, and about the quality of easements. Based on all this, I saw a need for quality control, and a need to create a process that showed Congress and the IRS that we really had a meaningful, quality program to protect land and provide land stewardship in perpetuity.

The fun part was being in that first group of people who got to create the process. We looked at the best standards and practices that defined private land conservation… how they worked on the ground, how they were applied across the country. Helping to create the accreditation program was a very exciting intellectual enterprise. It was an honor and a privilege, truly, and we truly regarded it as a grave responsibility.

Q: You could work anywhere in America, or the world for that matter. You talked about what drew you to Montana, but what drew you to The Nature Conservancy?

A: (Laughs) I don’t know if I should say this, but I really am drawn more to Montana than to The Nature Conservancy. That’s my honest answer.

I’ve had amazing respect for The Nature Conservancy for over 20 years. But it was this chapter (Montana) that was the luminary in the TNC constellation. The Montana Chapter is really doing community-based conservation through an amazing vision that includes a commitment to work well with others. There’s a great staff here, great history, and a great landscape. It was all these attributes that said, “Now is the time and place to do significant conservation, working with a professional group that has always had good community relations and good partners.” And that’s kind of unique. It doesn’t happen everywhere.

Q: Put the size and scope of the Montana Legacy Project within a broad context of what people generally call “conservation projects.”

A: The Montana Legacy Project is the largest conservation project in the history of The Nature Conservancy. The Nature Conservancy is 50 years old and this project – amount of purchased and conserved acres – is roughly three times larger than any project in TNC’s history. We always talk about scale and landscape conservation, and the Montana Legacy Project changed the context of “scale.”

TNC is increasingly talking about, and passionate about, working with partners and saving life on Planet Earth. And you can’t do that with a 100-acre easement here and a 100-acre easement there. You really have to find ways to conserve whole ecosystems. And there aren’t that many places in the lower 48 states where you still have intact ecosystems.

One of the things about the Montana Legacy Project is that it became an example of a new way of doing things that create places where we know species can exist for another 100 years. That’s possible because of the conserved lands we purchased, and also because the purchased lands create linkages that connect these large landscapes with one another.

So terms like “large” and “big” are really being re-defined right now. It has to do with more than acres or dollars. It has to do with… do these lands link up? How many species live in these places? Will they be viable in a world with changing climatic patterns? Will they be viable with more competition for water resources?

So “conservation scale” has a lot of new components added on to it. And Montana is really fortunate to be one of the places where there is still a lot of opportunity.

And there’s a very critical working forests aspect to the Montana Legacy Project that is specifically designed to manage healthy forests, help maintain a vital industry and a western Montana tradition and way of life, and produce food and fiber from intact forests. That’s a very important aspect of the basis for the Montana Legacy Project.

Q: Relate the conservation values associated with Montana's Crown of the Continent within a national perspective.

A: Actually, I think you can put the conservation values of Crown of the Continent in a global perspective. One of the things we know from our scientists is that there are very few places left on Planet Earth where the whole original suite of species still exist.

The Crown of the Continent is really unique in that sense… the only one in the lower 48 states. And the species are interesting because while we tend to think about the charismatic mega fauna like the grizzly bear, some of the species don’t get as much attention but are just as important. One-third of Montana’s important plant species are found in the Crown of the Continent. It’s really where our state’s bio-diversity is. So it’s not just about the beautiful pictures and the large, interesting animals. It’s the water howellia. It’s the Canada lynx, which uses the Clearwater area as a springboard to populate other areas. It’s the wolverine that needs very specific snowpack conditions and a 500-mile territory. So we need large landscapes to accommodate these animals.

So the Crown of the Continent is this 10 million-acre area, one million acres of which are privately owned, and that one million acres are where most of the biological diversity and food is located. And yet you also have its shape and size… because it’s long (north and south) with major elevational change, so Crown of the Continent provides places for animals to move. They can move up and down and directionally.

So here you feel the public and private investment really has the best chance of anyplace, of being able to accommodate population pressures and climate pressures as the world changes in the next 100 years.

It sounds dramatic, but I view the Crown of the Continent as a kind of Noah’s Ark. With the Crown and the connecting areas, you’re going to be able to have genetic diversity in a broad enough inventory of animals so that they’ll… make it.

Q: The Montana TNC focuses on specific areas in Montana. Where are those areas and how were they selected?

A: One of the greatest attributes about TNC and something I have long admired from the outside is that TNC recognizes that other organizations are great at conservation as well, so we’ll support our partners, and we don’t have to be working in areas where they’re working.

We’ve also always made science drive the mission. I think you could argue that every square inch of Montana is worth some level of working lands stewardship or conservation. We’re not talking about everything becoming a nature preserve. One of the great things about Montana is the way private lands are managed and, in many cases, wildlife actually need land management. Grazing regimes for livestock, for example, in the northern prairies are so key to getting the right habitat cover for bird species.

The “where to work” part comes from eco-regional planning. We sit down and look at all the available information about wildlife populations; we work with landowners, with state and federal governments; we layer all this information in; we look at what has already been developed; we look at where other groups are working; and we look for areas where we can make a definable difference. In Montana, that means a handful of areas.

Here is where I’d like to tip my hat to Bob Kiesling, Montana TNC’s first state director. He was talking about focusing on large intact landscapes over 20 years ago, before TNC was even thinking that way. Back then, TNC was working on little preserves here and there, but Bob wanted to tie the whole thing together and work where TNC could make a real difference.

So right now we’re focusing on a handful of areas: Crown of the Continent (Swan and Blackfoot River Valleys and the Rocky Mountain Front), Big Hole, the Greater Yellowstone system (Centennial Valley, Yellowstone Valley included), and in the Montana northern prairies.

Q: You mentioned TNC work in the Blackfoot, and one of the more talked about projects in the Blackfoot is trumpeter restoration. What was it like to hold and release a trumpeter swan?

A: Someone told me swans are supposed to play dead when you hold them. It’s a survival mechanism so if they’re grabbed by a great predator, they collapse, pretend to die, and then escape when the predator drops them. I had a swan that hadn’t learned that. I had an armful of life, in all senses of the word. The swan was amazing. It was so unafraid and so curious. We had eyeball-to-eyeball conversations. It was one of the most interesting moments I’ve ever spent with what was clearly a very wild thing that was about to be released to its new life. It was life-changing for me.

Q: In one of your early TNC columns you wrote, “Our strength lies in our dedication to conservation that delivers benefits for the ages.” In your mind, why is that so important?

A: With each of us, you have to go back and ask what you think your purpose in life is. What intrigues me is that people in every generation come along and pick up the conservation gauntlet. I’m just so impressed by the people who had the vision to create Yellowstone National Park. To save Yosemite, they fought every fight.

People in our generation are continuing that tradition. We’re saying perpetuity is important… that it’s important to protect opportunities for people 200 years from now to reconnect with nature. If we lose the places where the wild things live, we lose a lot of our soul. That connection is critically important to us as people.

I think one of the great values of what TNC and other groups are doing is staking places on Planet Earth and saying, “These places are really significant.” We’re creating a constituency for why these wild places are important and need to be protected. And that’s the defining difference of the work that other groups do. We’re talking permanence so that 200 years from now, people can say they saw a grizzly bear or a Canada lynx, and we’re talking about honoring our promise of stewardship to future generations.

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