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Know the West

Matthews wrote wet-blanket litany

  Dear HCN,

In a recent article, writer Mark Matthews agonized over alleged radical shifts in philosophy and direction here at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (HCN, 5/27/02: Elk conservation group sharpens its ax). Our immediate response was, "Huh?"

Bewildered, we're still not sure how (or why) Matthews weaved his handful of scrap info into such a wet-blanket litany. His misinterpretations were compounded by gross factual errors, such as over-reporting by $10 million the price of our proposed headquarters facility.

The bottom line is that our longtime mission - ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife and their habitat - continues to steer our operations. Fuel comes from urgency. In some regions where subdivision and development threaten critical elk range, we may have only 10-15 years to do our job. And then it'll be too late. We must adopt businesslike swiftness and efficiency. Tough decisions must be made now. A custom headquarters will provide us with infrastructure, a smaller staff is giving us focus, and our members and volunteers are adding sweat to aid our mission. Matthews' article was absurd to many of us whose hearts and heads are dedicated to effective conservation.

There's reason for our pride. In just 18 years, the Elk Foundation has enhanced or permanently protected 3.8 million acres - an area 50 percent larger than Yellowstone National Park. That's land conservation at a pace approaching a square mile per day. But we must continue to prioritize resources to do the most good for the most elk. Public access will be opened wherever feasible - in 2002 alone, we've moved more than 9,300 acres into public ownership!

Matthews attacked conservation easements, a tool we use to permanently protect privately owned elk habitat. His analysis of costs and benefits was poor, however, and I challenge High Country News to objectively explore this topic in a future article.

Steve Wagner
Missoula, Montana

The writer is public relations director at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Mark Matthews responds:

I did not editorialize on whether the installation of corporate-style management, layoffs and shifting emphasis to private land conservation at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation is bad or good. I only reported what happened and how the tenor of the organization has drifted away from its original down-home, grassroots character. It was RMEF's chairman of the board, Jon Fossel, who told me that he wanted to see RMEF get more involved in protecting private lands. Whether the public will be able to walk those lands is a legitimate issue: As I talk to hunters across Montana, hunting access is now their major concern. But as in every story, praise comes with criticism. I recently received an e-mail from a former RMEF employee with whom I have never spoken. The ex-employees cannot comment in public because RMEF made them sign a confidentiality agreement in order to get their severance package. The worker wrote: "Your article is so true. Thank you so much for writing such a wonderful article."