Profile: Rodger Schlickeisen, Defenders of Wildlife

  • On break from city life at his ranch near Big Timber, Montana, Rodger Schlickeisen and Defenders of Wildlife Rocky Mountain Region Director Mike Leahy take in the local wildlife.

    Jason Creps photo courtesy Defenders of Wildlife

"I like snow on the Crazies," says Rodger Schlickeisen, longtime president and CEO of one of the most ardent D.C.-based environmental groups, Defenders of Wildlife. He's not talking about snowflakes falling on members of Congress. He means the white stuff that piles up on Montana's Crazy Mountains, northeast of Bozeman. For 22 years, Schlickeisen has had a cattle ranch in the foothills, and snow on the peaks "means my ranch will get water."

Schlickeisen grew up in the Northwest around Seattle and in rural Oregon in the Cascade Mountains, where he attended a one-room schoolhouse and learned to hunt, fish and ski. Both his father and stepfather worked in construction; when Schlickeisen was just 15, he lied about his age to get a job in a camp for workers building dams on the Umpqua River.

He took an unusual path to become a professional environmentalist, earning a bachelor's in economics at the University of Washington, an MBA at Harvard Business School and a doctorate in finance at D.C.'s George Washington University. He served two years in the Army, had a stint in economic development consulting (he helped put together the environmental impact statement for Alaska's oil pipeline), did budget-crunching as a congressional staffer and in the White House for President Jimmy Carter, was a consultant helping progressive groups raise money by telemarketing and direct mail, and worked for Montana Sen. Max Baucus, D, in a challenging 1990 re-election campaign. Then, in 1991, a head-hunting firm recruited him to run Defenders of Wildlife.

Under his leadership, Defenders has grown from some 60,000 members to roughly 800,000, partly by taking uncompromising stands and filing lawsuits to enforce the Endangered Species Act. Schlickeisen also founded the Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund in 2001 to do political campaign work, a key factor in electing some greenish candidates and defeating some opponents, including Calif. Rep. Richard Pombo, who'd tried to gut the ESA in Congress. "I think the environmental movement is a paper tiger when it comes to political things -- extremely weak," he says. "So I decided to do something about it."

Schlickeisen lives in a nice suburb (Alexandria, Va.), takes a commuter train to D.C. and walks five blocks to Defenders headquarters, savoring the irony (he got the group to buy the former headquarters of the National Mining Association). He's deeply worried that "the loss of biodiversity is constant," but with characteristic liveliness describes his work for Defenders as "a lot of fun -- oh my God, yeah." He turned 70 in January and plans to reduce his workload this fall by becoming the group's president emeritus. That will allow him to spend more time at his 2,000-acre Montana ranch, where he's restoring a creek, grasslands and historic buildings. He loves fishing in Montana, and says that his Western experiences have been "character shaping" -- giving him his toughness and "the appreciation for wildlife and wild landscapes. It's easier to pick that up in the West than elsewhere."

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