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 five in the series.

Connie Cole Connie Cole

May 2010

Connie Cole and her husband, David, arrived in Montana in 1970. They drove here in a pickup truck, pitched a tent in a local campground, used area gas station restrooms to wash up before job interviews, and moved into a family member’s garage for six weeks before finding work. Connie started with the Montana Department of State Lands the same year the Mine Reclamation Act went into effect. Later, she worked as a private sector consultant in hard rock mine permitting, and then had another stint with state government as a mine permit coordinator. She has since worked for Pegasus Gold in the Governmental Affairs Office and currently is a certified project manager for ARCADIS, an international engineering firm. Connie is a former amateur competitor in equestrian events who still rides recreationally on area trails. She is an avid hunter and enjoys shooting trap and sporting clays and says she feels “equally comfortable with a rifle or shotgun in my hand.” She has been on the Prickly Pear Land Trust board of directors since the land trust’s creation in 1995 and has served two terms as chair, serves on several of Prickly Pear’s committees, and she was active in passage of the 2008 Lewis & Clark County Open Lands Bond Initiative.

Q: What does a certified project manager for ARCADIS do?

A: My office at ARCADIS specializes in providing services to assist companies remediate impacted sites. As a certified project manager I work on issues involving hydrology, soils, vegetation, wildlife, cultural questions, wetlands, and other environmental sciences to ensure project compliance. I’ve worked in many different places…Montana, Alaska, Utah, Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and am working now on a large project in northern Manitoba…my part of the projects usually focuses on working with the client and regulatory authorities on permit issues and closure issues.

Q: How has your background as a state environmental regulator and a natural resources consultant helped you in your role as a Prickly Pear Land Trust board member?

A: It helps me because in my career I have been regulated, and I’ve also been a regulator. So I’ve had both viewpoints. That’s led to a greater appreciation of the nuances from both perspectives.

And as a land trust board member we deal with willing landowners in complex situations where there is a steep learning curve for everyone involved. An understanding of the nuances from the landowner view and the board view is very helpful.

The family (considering the easement) has to go through a lengthy decision-making process that involves one of their most valuable assets - their land. Then there are the regulatory and taxation aspects. There’s also the concerns of an outside entity coming into a very private part of their lives…for the landowner exploring the potential of a conservation easement it is a very personal decision and process.

Having been through those kinds of difficult processes and decisions in my professional life, and understanding conservation easements from dual perspectives, I think it’s easier for me to understand what families go through during the easement process.

Q: In your non-governmental professional career, you’ve kind of been in the multiple-use camp. Has anyone ever asked you how a mining consultant fits in with a conservation group like PPLT?

A: I think whether it be a mineralized/industrial area or completion of a conservation easement, they’re both closely allied with the fact that in either case we’re looking for successful closure. It just feels like a seamless combination of interests. I might be working for industrial clients who are trying to plan for a site closure that’s intended to be a low cost, low maintenance and self-sustaining rehabilitation of the site.

Basically, it’s the same thing with land conservation. You want to have a solution that’s going to be comfortable for the landowner and comfortable for the surrounding community, and a solution that provides the perpetual regulatory compliance that serves everyone.

Q: What originally spurred what has become a lengthy involvement in PPLT?

A: (Laughs) Well, I was working for Pegasus at the time, and John Fitzpatrick (of Pegasus) was asked to be on the Prickly Pear board. John said, “Cole, you do it.” (Laughs again) It sort of came out of the blue. I didn’t know very much about Prickly Pear or land trusts, and our knowledge base - mine and Prickly Pear’s - sort of grew together. Now, I can’t imagine living without deep involvement in the land trust.

Q: What are the attributes or skills of a successful land trust board member?

A: A willingness to work with others, a willingness to seek consensus as a way of decision-making, and one of the toughest nuts for board members to crack is that we have to be able to ask the community for financial support. That’s a very important but at times very difficult issue for a lot of board members.

There are many ways board members can be involved with Prickly Pear Land Trust and help us to thrive and grow as an organization. But in addition to loving land, loving trails and liking to work with people, there is always a fiduciary responsibility that comes with being a board member.

Q: How important is Prickly Pear Land Trust’s role in helping shape the quality of life attributes of the Helena Valley and surrounding area?

A: Oh, it’s critical. We’ve all made a conscious decision to live in Montana. It can be difficult to make a living wage in Montana and there are always opportunities for professionals to make more money in other states. But it’s the quality of life that draws people here, and it’s the quality of life that keeps people here.

Once you’re here and committed to Montana, you want to help preserve what it was that attracted you here…the friendliness of the people, the cleanliness of the air and water and the open space around us. The open lands refresh your soul and refresh your heart. That’s what keeps us going.

Q: One of Prickly Pear’s areas of work - and something that makes it distinct from most land trusts - is its extensive work on recreational trails. Talk a little bit about your role as an active advocate of the trails system.

A: Helena’s trail system is completely unique. Most major cities have a trail system, but the trails are not integrated into the community…they don’t get right down into neighborhoods. That’s one of the things that makes Helena’s trail system so complete. It’s completely interwoven into the community.

And that has really helped for realtors to see Prickly Pear Land Trust not as an adversary but as an advocate, because the trails system here provides an added amenity to the price of homes; being located near a trail adds value to the home.

I live in the north Helena valley, so my big avocation is trying to get the same availability and quality of trails throughout the Helena valley that’s available to the south hills users and Helena.

Q: I think that’s a perfect lead-in to the next question. Folks who work with you on the PPLT board of directors suggested I ask you about the significance of 59602.

A: (Laughs) That’s the zip code for people who live outside of the municipal Helena area. Part of my vocation on the board is to work to obtain the same amenities and trails the city has for the people who live in the valley and further north.

Andy (Baur, PPLT executive director) and I have worked with the BLM for years on the North Hills and Scratch Gravel Hills non-motorized trail projects. The north backdrop to the city of Helena is critically important to my career with the land trust.

And we’re making progress. The Scratch Gravel Hills have been designated a non-motorized trail area. My ultimate goal would be for Prickly Pear to have the same kind of trail maintenance agreement with the BLM for the Scratch Gravel area as PPLT has with the city of Helena on the trail system here.

Q: Do you walk or ride on the trails?

A: I walk the trails in the south hills. The trails in the north hills are the ones I ride on my horse. Prickly Pear has been involved in cleaning up the north hills trails, but the land trust does not have any ongoing responsibility for the maintenance of those trails.

Q: What’s the most enjoyable aspect of shooting trap?

A: Immediate gratification when the clay explodes.

I’ve been seriously shooting trap for three years. I was never a bird hunter - I’d always been a devoted big game rifle hunter - but I’d never hunted with a shotgun. I got involved shooting trap three years ago, and it started coming together within the past year. As a rifle hunter, I had always shot with one eye closed. You can’t successfully shoot a shotgun with one eye closed.

And so my big thing this past year was I started to double digit. You get 25 shots when you shoot trap, so your score is 1-25. It took me three years before I could consistently double digit (shoot 10+ of the 25 clays). I’d been on the low end of success with a shotgun until I started shooting with both eyes open.

Q: And you’re still a hunter as well?

A: I’ve hunted deer, antelope and elk, but my husband and I are at the age when shooting something as big as your horse is a daunting task. But for 16 years we’ve spent the opening weekend of big game hunting season on the Hibbard Ranch (north of Helena) and that’s the Serengeti of the United States. Those were very, very special moments for us.

But our age and our knees have sort of reduced our range a little bit, and our current favorite place is to hunt on block management land at the Bay Ranch near Wolf Creek.

Both the Hibbard and Bay ranches have conservation easements on them, and both are spectacular places.

Q: You were a strong supporter of the Lewis & Clark County Open Land Ballot Initiative. How do you see the implementation of that program benefiting county residents, businesses and Prickly Pear Land Trust?

A: I think one of the very important aspects of the open space bond election was its educational value for the community. The ballot measure got people talking about conservation, and it got landowners thinking about conservation.

It also provides landowners with the potential for long term planning on their properties. And of course, Prickly Pear, as an advocate of helping landowners understand what a conservation easement means, is integrally involved in bringing open space projects through the process and ultimately to the county commissioners for approval.

So the ballot measure has been a very important opportunity for the community as a whole to think about land conservation and what values we want to try to preserve as a community.

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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