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 seven in the series.

July 2010

Gates Watson Fishing Gates Watson

Gates Watson grew up in western Pennsylvania and arrived in Montana for the first time in August 2001 to become state director for The Conservation Fund.The Conservation Fund is a national conservation organization created in 1985.Before arriving in Montana, Gates earned a business degree from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, and among his jobs was work for an Internet start-up company named Wise-Wire before the company was purchased by Lycos.Gates says at the time Internet technology was “growing by the hour” but sensed there was more to life than developing technology for rapid information searches on the Internet.Shortly after college graduation Gates started the Youth Outdoor Adventure Program for inner city youths in Pittsburgh. The program offers educational, adventure and outdoor programs for youth and still serves about 2,000 youths each summer.Gates is an avid hunter, angler, hiker, mountain biker and plays competitive hockey and soccer. He has been with The Conservation Fund since 2001, and during that time The Conservation Fund has helped protect over 100,000 acres of Montana lands. Nationally, The Conservation Fund has helped protect over six and a half million acres.

Q: How did a Pennsylvania native who worked with Pittsburgh inner city kids make his way to Montana?

A: Internet technology was exciting, but I’d been in western PA for a long time and I was looking for a change of scenery. I began looking at opportunities, and connected with Pat Noonan, founder of The Conservation Fund. I was interested, pursued the opportunity, and for the first time came to Montana.

So I left western Pennsylvania for Missoula and western Montana, and when I arrived in August, the first thing I thought was, “Where are all the big snow-capped mountains, and why is everything so brown?” (Laughs) It was in August and it was pretty dry. But it didn’t take long to fall in love with the place.

Q: Let’s go back to Pennsylvania for one more question. What prompted you to start the Youth Outdoor Adventure Program?

A: At the end of the day I just didn’t have a passion for what I was doing (Internet technology). But the idea of starting a business from scratch, serving the needs of inner city children and getting them engaged in outdoor activities and environmental education was very exciting.

I’m from a rural community and I was brought up with the outdoors as a way of life. I did not grow up with video games, computers or a television. I grew up spending my time outdoors.

If we’re going to protect our natural resources into the future, we have to create an understanding in today’s youth about the importance of those natural resources. If we don’t show them the benefits of what’s out there, why would they be interested in protecting it?

Q: What attracted you to The Conservation Fund?

A: The Conservation Fund is very results oriented, and at the end of the year I can quantify much of my success, which is acres protected. I found it very difficult working on the advocacy side of the conservation movement - which is equally important - but it’s not very tangible and the results were seen over a very long period of time. That’s difficult for me. I’m much more suited to at the end of the day really being able to see what I’ve done.

That, on top of my passion for landscapes, wildlife habitat and public recreation, makes The Conservation Fund a great fit for me.

Q: The Conservation Fund is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2010. What’s The Conservation Fund’s basic business model?

A: The Conservation Fund is a leading national group whose mission includes land conservation and economic development. We believe a healthy environment and economy go hand-in-hand. So in addition to saving land, we also help communities plan for growth, support sustainable small business development and train the next generation of conservation leaders.

We choose which lands to save by working with partners, like a local land trust or a public agency, who’ve identified top conservation priorities and need help protecting these places, valued for wildlife, recreation, a community’s quality of life and other benefits. When a property with high conservation value comes up for sale, our partners turn to us to skillfully buy and hold that property while they amass funds to purchase and permanently protect it. We use our $100 million revolving fund to buy the property. Once we sell the land to our partners, the money comes back to us - to the revolving fund - and is ready to be used in the next conservation transaction. In this way, we’re able to move quickly and efficiently for conservation.

Q: The Iron Mask project seems to be a good example of how The Conservation Fund operates and what The Conservation Fund does. Could you walk through the Iron Mask project and The Conservation Fund’s role?

A: The Iron Mask property is south of Helena, north of Townsend, and is within the Bureau of Land Management’s Chain of Lakes Recreation Management Area. That’s an area in which The Conservation Fund has done about 16,000 acres of land conservation.

Iron Mask was a transaction that the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation had been working on for a number of years, and like most real estate deals it had a lot of complexity.

The opportunity to acquire the property ended up coming within a very short timeframe. The Elk Foundation needed to act extremely quickly. At the time, though, the Elk Foundation had most of its conservation capital tied up in other deals. They did not have the money to close with the seller in the short period of time required by the seller. So they asked The Conservation Fund if we would help them purchase the property. We worked with the Elk Foundation to satisfy all the due diligence requirements, and when that was complete, The Conservation Fund - using our $100 million revolving fund - purchased the Iron Mask property on behalf of the partnership and held the property for about two years before we sold it to the BLM for public ownership.

Once the BLM purchased the property from us, the public funds went back into the revolving fund for more conservation projects.

Without the exciting partnership between RMEF and The Fund, the property would not have been protected. The Elk Foundation shouldered the responsibility for covering the expenses generated by the transaction itself. The Elk Foundation volunteers in Montana raised the money to cover the interest costs associated with that project. Without those volunteers, I don’t think that project would have been completed.

Q: One newspaper headline about a Conservation Fund project was headlined “The art of the land deal.” Are land deals art, science, business, all three?

A: From my perspective, land deals are business transactions. The Conservation Fund, in any given deal, is not only working with sellers, but we’re also working with the ultimate buyers and owners of the land. So there’s a tremendous amount of complexity involved, and so the deal or project really needs to be treated as a business transaction.

Q: When you Google “Gates Watson” you find the name crops up everywhere from Newsweek Magazine to BLM newsletters, from Congressman Denny Rehberg press releases to National Trail System publications, from conservation group websites to traditional land-use websites and more. You seem to be able to work with everyone. Is that true?

A: I think it’s absolutely true that that’s consistent with our business model of working with conservation partners, and those “conservation partners” vary greatly from transaction to transaction. We work with state and federal agencies, land trusts, corporations, private individuals, watershed groups…the list of partners goes on and on. And I think one of the key reasons for The Conservation Fund success is our ability to work with just about anyone to achieve a defined conservation objective.

Q: In a 2008 magazine article about the Circle R River Ranch project, you’re quoted as saying, “For us, the fact that the acquisition opened access to more than 9,000 acres of public land was a big deal.” Why is that a big deal?

A: That was a fantastic transaction and a good example of The Conservation Fund’s ability to respond extremely quickly and help our partners.

The Circle R Ranch was listed for sale and it was very much of interest to the state of Montana as a state park. The problem was that the sellers had a very specific timeframe under which they had to sell the property. The Conservation Fund was able to act quickly and purchase the property, which gave Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks time to gather all the funds needed to purchase the ranch.

Why this was such a great project - relative to the BLM lands - has to do with leverage. We all talk about leveraging private or federal dollars, and in this case we were able to leverage state dollars and acquisition of the Circle R to open up an additional 9,000 acres of BLM lands - publicly owned lands that the public could not get to - so from an acreage standpoint relative to access, it was huge.

Q: Some people suggest we already have too much public land. They argue public land is poorly managed and when converted from private land to public land takes property off the tax rolls. How do you respond when folks bring up those points?

A: The majority of the acquisitions The Conservation Fund works on that convert private land to public land enjoy tremendous broad public support, with especially strong local support. The kinds of transaction we work on are ones that protect the integrity of public lands. An example would be an in-holding in a national park. Yes, by purchasing that in-holding we are changing private land into public land, but most importantly what we’re really achieving is protecting the integrity of the existing public land system.

So really the point of these land transactions is to protect the public resources that are out there.

We understand the effects of converting private land to public land, but we also know that conservation is an investment in America’s future. By protecting our land and waters, we make sure that communities have clean water to drink, clean air to breath and places to play.

Q: The Conservation Fund has focused some of its energies on Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. What makes the Front such a critical area?

A: The Rocky Mountain Front is one of the last completely intact, functional ecosystems left in the United States. It’s a place where grizzly bears are still moving from the mountains out onto the prairie.

The Rocky Mountain Front ownership is still, for the most part, in the hands of multi-generational old Montana families that are making a living in the ranching industry, and these individuals recognize the incredible resource they own and manage. They recognize that it’s unlike almost any other place in the world. They want to see the landscape protected, they want to see their way of life maintained and protected, and we want to help them do that. So the work we’re doing on the Rocky Mountain Front largely helps landowners put conservation easements on their land. In a lot of cases it speaks to The Conservation Fund’s charter as working on land conservation but on economic health as well, working with landowners and rural communities. On the Rocky Mountain Front, The Conservation Fund is helping to generate cash-flow for working ranchers through their sale of a conservation easement. The income from the easement allows them to take that cash and make their ranch operation more viable, fund retirement plans, fund insurance policies, put money back into the community. It’s a really incredible opportunity to protect a way of life, protect an ecosystem, and help keep people on the land.

Q: Who is someone from the conservation community - past or present, local or international - you greatly admire and why?

A: Pat Noonan. He founded The Conservation Fund after leading The Nature Conservancy in the 1970s and starting the American Farmland Trust.

The Conservation Fund has helped protect over 6.5 million acres of land since 1985. Pat could throw a dart at a map of the United States and land close to some real estate transaction he’s done. I think arguably he’s done more for the land conservation movement than just about anybody.

His energy and enthusiasm are infectious. After a 40-second phone call with Pat you’re recharged for another three months of work.

Another thing about Pat that’s so unique is his interest in training and mentoring the next generation of conservation professionals. We have a leadership development program within the Fund that’s aimed at training future leaders. It’s why Pat has hired some younger folks like myself…not many organizations will hire a 27-year-old state director. Pat hired me because he believed he could train me and create a leader heading in the future, and for that opportunity I’ll be forever grateful.

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