Elk conservation group sharpens its ax

New CEO tries corporate-style downsizing

  • Jon Fossel

  • Rich Lane

 

MISSOULA, Mont. - When Rich Lane was named CEO and president of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation last fall, the board of directors handed him two seemingly contradictory tasks: slash the work force and construct a grander headquarters.

The proposed $22 million new building, with its expanded educational center, would join a string of remarkable achievements by one of the nation's foremost conservation organizations.

Grown from a grass-roots origin - four hunters holed up in a tiny trailer in northwest Montana 17 years ago, gabbing about a dream of saving wildlife habitat - the Elk Foundation today claims 138,000 members spread across every state and at least 30 other countries.

As the dream has taken shape, the Elk Foundation has orchestrated almost 2,900 land acquisitions to protect or enhance more than 3 million acres of habitat for elk and hunters. It has helped reintroduce elk herds to places like Pennsylvania and Tennessee, and it publishes the respected hook-and-bullet bimonthly, Bugle.

But along the way, like many other "big greens," the Elk Foundation has taken on corporate overtones. A striking example came when Lane cut 30 employees from a total of 172 and restructured the duties of survivors. For many, it felt like a tactless, cold-hearted downsizing, such as any Fortune 500 company might do, orchestrated by a board that kept loyal employees locked out of the process.

"Some of the moves to me were shocking," says Bob Munson, one of the founders and president emeritus of the Elk Foundation. "Over the years some of those employees had thrown their hearts over the bar for what (the Elk Foundation) stands for."

Many of those let go were long-time staffers with a vast knowledge of elk conservation - including the world's leading elk scientist, Alan Christensen, who declines to comment. Those whose job is raising money, for the most part, escaped the ax.

Since the layoffs, the Elk Foundation has walked a tightrope of transition, apparently with an altered philosophy. In the past, it often acted as a middleman helping government agencies acquire land, in effect creating public land. Now, from the top down there is more emphasis on protecting private land - which often remains off-limits to the public, or at least to anyone who doesn't pay for access.

Business backgrounds

Leading the changes is Jon Fossel, an avid bowhunter who has served on the Elk Foundation's board for five years and became chairman last year. He has a background on Wall Street, where he built the $120 billion Oppenheimer mutual funds and led the push for privatizing Social Security.

The Elk Foundation needed new leadership, says Fossel, who retired from Wall Street to live on a ranch near Ennis, Mont. "Normally, the geniuses who start an organization don't have the same kind of talent to run it when it gets to a certain size."

Many nationally known conservationists and several former and present directors of state wildlife agencies applied to be chief executive when the previous CEO, Gary Wolfe, resigned. The board's selection of Lane seemed unusual.

Lane was regional forest resources manager for Smurfit-Stone Container Corp., a cardboard box manufacturer in a Missoula suburb - where he supervised five people. He was also chair of Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission - for less than a year, appointed by Gov. Judy Martz, who has declared the environmental movement to be her archenemy.

"We went looking for someone who could bring to the job a conservation passion and good business judgment," Fossel says. Then the board told the new CEO to cut staff, he says, because, "We got a little fat."

Donations such as cash and land had risen dramatically, from $1.8 million in 1994 to $12.3 million in 2000, according to tax records. Additional revenue from memberships, grants and other sources helped raise the total annual operating budget to more than $40 million.

As revenues mounted, the Elk Foundation had added high-level staff and taken on more projects. By 2000, 33 employees had salaries in excess of $50,000. The senior vice president of operations topped the list at $120,020.

Asked if the layoffs of scientists in particular will make it difficult to identify critical habitat and other elk issues, Lane says those functions can now be handled efficiently by consultants.

The private direction

Fossel has pushed more preservation of private land, using conservation easements and similar tools. From the beginning, the Elk Foundation has accepted donated easements, and in some cases it bought easements, so that it now owns easements on 63 properties totaling 133,241 acres. But the strategy hadn't been used much in recent years until Fossel took over.

In 2001, the Elk Foundation acquired its largest easement ever - on 27,000 acres of the Culebra Ranch in southern Colorado. Now it's negotiating an easement on the 100,000-acre Double H Ranch near Magdalena, N.M. No public access is stipulated in the easements.

A new campaign aims to raise $250 million over five years to "conserve and improve" another 2 million acres of habitat, but much of that land will also likely remain in private hands.

The easements work for landowners who typically get a tax write-off. And they could be good for the 350 commercial hunting outfitters who are Elk Foundation members. They often pay for access to prime hunting ground and sell it with their services to wealthy hunters. But it worries people who think in terms of the average hunter.

"Maintaining public access to wildlife is the absolute cornerstone of the North American conservation ethic," says Jim Posewitz, who runs two Montana-based conservation nonprofits, the Cinnabar Foundation and the Orion Hunters Institute.

Ninety percent of the Elk Foundation's members are hunters, but many make their living in blue-collar jobs and can't afford to hunt on private preserves.

"On one end of the perspective," Fossel says, "I hear from rich people who say they won't donate any more money because we hand land over to the government, which doesn't know how to manage it. On the other hand, I hear from hunters who complain that the rich close off their land to hunting. Our mission is to protect habitat. How we do it is much less important than that we do it."

Munson, recently employed by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Alliance and now semi-retired, is among those who don't buy it. "In any organization, the heart and soul is grass-roots involvement - that has to be held first and foremost. That tends to get lost in the shuffle as you involve corporate America in the boardroom."

Mark Matthews writes from Missoula, Montana.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, 800/225-5355, www.rmef.org;
  • Bob Munson, 406/887-2126.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Mark Matthews

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