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 to Montana’s economy. The interviews are conducted by Glenn Marx, executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. This is number nine in the series.

September 2010

Marilyn Wood Marilyn Wood

Marilyn Wood has worked in conservation for 30 years, and has served as the Flathead Land Trust executive director since May 2007. Marilyn, a Nevada native, earned a bachelors degree from University of Nevada-Reno and a masters degree in zoology from Montana State University. She started her conservation career as a wildlife biologist working with grizzly bears in Yellowstone National Park, and later served as a special projects biologist for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. She also spent 13 years as the Northwest Montana Program Manager for The Nature Conservancy before joining Flathead Land Trust. She enjoys hiking in Glacier Park, kayaking, and training horses. Flathead Land Trust, headquartered in Kalispell, is a community trust and serves the greater Flathead Valley in northwest Montana. FLT began work in 1985 and holds 43 voluntary conservation easements that protect nearly 12,000 acres in the Flathead Valley. The land trust has a staff of six, a 10-member local board of directors as well as a nine-member group of community advisors.

Q: Flathead Land Trust celebrated its 25th anniversary this year. What were you working on 25 years ago?

A: In 1985…let’s see…I was working for the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife & Parks as a wildlife biologist, hired to work on special projects. At that time, special projects meant creating the baseline wildlife assessments for impacts from hydroelectric dams here in northwestern Montana. So I worked on projects around Kerr Dam and Noxon Rapids, and I did the baseline reports for the wildlife mitigation efforts that would be later funded by the Bonneville Power Administration settlements.

So I’ve come full circle, I guess, which is pretty interesting. I’m still working with funds as a member of Flathead Land Trust that were in part determined by reports I prepared 25 years earlier while working for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. That’s pretty amazing.

Q: Speaking of amazing, on August 28 Flathead Land Trust celebrated its 25th anniversary. It’s pretty impressive, isn’t it…to realize a community land trust has been working in the Flathead for a quarter-century?

A: Absolutely. I think it’s a testament to the perseverance of the people who started the land trust. In the first 10 years it was pretty tough for this organization to keep momentum, keep completing good projects and keep advancing and growing.

During our 25th year celebration event, we honored some of the key people who helped create and inspire the work of Flathead Land Trust, and while it is the projects and conservation that we tend to recognize and promote, there has been a special group of people who make those projects and that conservation possible.

You hear stories of the early days here when members of the land trust board of directors would literally pass a hat at board meetings to keep the doors open and keep the organization viable. Some brave, creative, talented, determined and passionate people have shaped and guided our organization, and each one of them should feel very, very good about their role and what they’ve accomplished to get Flathead Land Trust where it is today.

Q: What do you view as some of Flathead Land Trust’s most important accomplishments?

A: A major accomplishment is that Flathead Land Trust is here…that it has survived since 1985. It has taken a hidden treasure of community efforts to bring Flathead Land Trust from 1985 into 2010.

And now, here in the Flathead and elsewhere, there’s a growing understanding and appreciation of private land conservation and for land trusts, which has helped what once was a fledging little group evolve to the point where it has worked with landowners to protect nearly 12,000 acres.

So I’d say a major accomplishment has been Flathead Land Trust moving from an all volunteer organization to a staffed organization with experienced and talented people - governed by a strong board of directors - which has enabled us to move into larger and more complex projects. That’s really significant for this organization.

In some ways, the former tiny all-volunteer land trust is now running with the big dogs, and doing projects that involve larger sums of money, larger projects such as our River to Lake Initiative and North Shore proposal, and more complex private and public partnerships. And that has been an impressive and amazing transition.

Q: The Flathead can be a challenging place for conservation work. How have you and the land trust addressed those challenges?

A: Flathead Land Trust was “quiet” in the past, because there were times when you did not want to be called an “environmentalist” or “conservationist” in the Flathead, and there was a great disparity among residents of a vision for the Flathead’s future.

So there was a period when people did not appreciate the great work the land trust was doing because they did not know about the great work the land trust was doing.

What has made it more effective lately is the positive news generated from landowners and the board about the work we do, and that the work we do is voluntary, and that our work is centered on private property rights and a nonregulatory way of doing conservation. And I think we’ve made a concerted effort along the way to get that story out, because it’s a compelling and positive story. When long-time local landowners, or community leaders who are also land trust board members, tell that story, it is even more positive and effective. So I think we’re accepted now as an important part of the community as opposed to a radical environmental organization impeding what some people care deeply about.

Q: Water quality is important everywhere, but it seems to be critical for many reasons here in the Flathead. How important - from an economic and quality of life perspective - is Flathead water quality?

A: Water quality is one of the single most important attributes of the Flathead. It really is the economic driver and defines what makes this area so special. Flathead Lake is the iconic symbol of the Flathead Valley and northwestern Montana. It’s what brings people here, and what keeps people here.

Anything that impacts water quality in this area is going to impact the long-term economic drivers here…including tourism and quality of life for residents.

We have to always be thinking about the impacts to water quality. It’s one of the main reasons why a group of us came together and decided to focus our efforts…we knew water quality was the top priority, and we knew the mainstem of the Flathead River held some of the most important wetlands and highest priority waters in the state. So we came together as a group - FLT and our public and private partners - and we felt we could be most successful by focusing on the river system all the way to the north shore of Flathead Lake. That includes the river tributaries and some of the most important wetland complexes in Montana.

So we’ve really focused on that. And I think it’s a testament to that focus when you see our success over the past few years. We’ve been able to bring a lot more funding sources in, we’ve been able to talk to a lot more landowners - they “get” the big picture idea built on water quality; they see that their particular property connects to a whole bigger system - and it makes them much more willing to think about the conservation needs on their property. They see they’re part of something much bigger than their own property.

So in part because of the broadly recognized importance of water quality, all the partners within the River to Lake Initiative have protected nearly 10,000 acres along the river system and north shore. In the last five years, we’ve protected or restored 6,000 acres - and restored nearly 3.5 miles of streambanks - in part, again, because of the priority status of Flathead water quality. We have new fishing access sites and new wildlife management areas along the river and north shore, and we estimate that nearly $10 million of private and public funding has been brought into the valley to help complete this conservation.

Q: Can you put your organization’s ongoing north shore effort into a Flathead Land Trust priority perspective?

A: It was a huge reach for this land trust. The fact that we are even able to be at that level and be part of negotiations over a piece of property like the north shore really shows how far Flathead Land Trust has come.

In all my years in conservation work, I have never run into a project that has triggered so much positive feelings about an area. When you mention the north shore of Flathead Lake and you talk about all the attributes out there, people “get it” right away. It’s amazing. Folks always, say, “Of course it should be protected.” It’s one of those places everybody agrees should be conserved. The trick is finding a way to make that happen.

In fact, a lot of people think the north shore is already protected. It’s one of the last great landscapes here…it has broad agricultural fields, very few houses and very few landowners. And when people realized the north shore was not protected and was, in fact, under threat of development, they were shocked. It was a real wake-up call for folks. The north shore became an important project…people wanted to see something positive done.

Unfortunately, we weren’t able to negotiate a final settlement. But I can tell you the land trust, in concert with the county, was able to bring significant sums - millions of dollars - to the table to make it happen. The developers and their partnership ultimately did not accept our offer.

But we’re still moving ahead on other north shore efforts…with our partners we have completed a couple projects and we’re still in conversations with some north shore landowners.

Q: What’s it like to work with a Great Chief (former FLT board chair Ken Siderius, named the Great Chief by the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce) and a former Montana Supreme Court Justice (current FLT board chair Jim Regnier)?

A: Ken Siderius led this organization for a number of years and he richly deserves his Great Chief title and the community recognition. His background is in education, and the Siderius family is well known with deep roots here in the Flathead. We used to joke that Ken either taught everyone in the valley or he was related to everyone in the valley.

As chairman, Ken was instrumental in helping moving this organization to the next level. Ken had a really important way of thinking about land conservation and how nonprofits should work. He always felt that if we had any money in the bank, it was surplus, and he wanted that money put on the ground (in land conservation projects).

Ken wasn’t especially focused on the bureaucratic aspects of the organization. He was a can-do kind of guy, and he always thought that if it was a good project, we’d figure out how to get it done, but above all, get it done. He always found a way to make things happen. His biggest asset was he could talk to anyone, any farmer or rancher. He knew them, he knew their kids, their grandkids, and it was a great entry way for us.

We’re fortunate that Ken’s still involved - he’s chairman of our project committee - and so anytime we need Ken, he’s there for us, which is fantastic.

And now we’re very fortunate to have Jim Regnier as chairman. He’s well known, he obviously has a background in law, he’s passionate about conservation and he’s very experienced in mediation, which has helped us think through some of these tougher projects. In fact, Jim led our effort on the north shore ranch negotiations. He was incredibly thorough and professional and I think he represented Flathead Land Trust very well.

Ken and Jim have two very different styles, but the timing of the transition was perfect. Ken was chairman for nearly nine years, and he really led us through a time when we needed to get land deals done and get our name out there. He knows everyone and helped set up a lot of these projects along the river. And now Jim is very anxious to see the organization grow and he understands the fundraising side of boards, and that’s been very important.

Q: There is a group of people here in the Flathead who either don’t recognize or don’t appreciate private land conservation. What do you say to people who wish you’d stop working here in the Flathead?

A: I flip the issue back to them, and talk about private property rights. A lot of land conservation opponents are private rights advocates, and what Flathead Land Trust does is work with landowners on a voluntary basis, using an existing property right to retain open land.

To me, private land conservation is the ultimate expression of those property rights. For a landowner to make this voluntary decision on a conservation easement to conserve their property…that’s their right as a property owner as much as it is to sell that property or develop the land. It’s their right, it’s their choice, and it’s based on private property rights.

It’s puzzles me that that connection isn’t made more readily by private property right advocates.

Q: You’ve worked in conservation your entire adult life. What one project are you most proud to have worked on?

A: (Pause) When you raise that question…I can think of a number of land protection projects that have meant a lot to me. I think of the Rocky-0 Ranch in the North Fork, which some said would never get done. It took me eight or nine years to get the effort completed, and that project helped protect the integrity of the northwestern boundary of Glacier National Park.

And while I can think of other projects that were really significant, if I had to pick out the one thing I’m most proud of, it would be leading a land trust organization to another level. It’s something I never would have guessed would be that exciting or satisfying…but to change an organization, to see it grow, to see it be successful, has really been amazing. For me, being able to work with a young staff and actually be a mentor to the conservation folks who are coming along - realizing they’ll be the ones taking over organizations like ours - to see them learning from the things I’ve either done well or not so well…I think that’s been the biggest satisfaction I’ve had.

Q: Look ahead 25 years. What will Flathead Land Trust be celebrating at its 50th anniversary?

A: In another 25 years, I think we will be looking at all we’ve completed, which will include not only the efforts on the River to Lake Initiative but I’d really like to see our north shore conservation efforts come to fruition.

I also see the land trust being able to continue to grow and take on even bigger and more complex projects. One of the things we’re seeing now is a real need to pick up some of the projects that The Nature Conservancy and Trust for Public Land weren’t able to do with Plum Creek as part of the Montana Legacy Project. There are some very significant corporate timberlands here that would be wonderful, I think, for the land trust to step in and help facilitate getting those land protection deals done. These lands are not only very important for wildlife habitat and outdoor recreation, but they mean a lot to the local communities.

I also hope the land trust will finally be successful in a public funded conservation initiative here in Flathead County. We’re seeing that even though we’ve been successful here, I think that having those funds available would serve as a great source of matching funds for some significant future land conservation efforts.

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