There is a new book out, Keeping the Wild, a compilation of essays and articles edited by George Wuerthner, Eileen Crist, and Tom Butler. I have not read it but will, and wanted to promote it here as it was recommended to me by a rock thrower over the weekend.
I used to be a volunteer for Montana Wilderness Association. This was the period from perhaps 1992 to 2000 or so – I am not clear. I sat through endless meetings, but it was a learning process more than a time when I was doing effective work. It was like being dropped in the middle of the Keebler Elf cookie factory, a buzz of activity and left to me to figure out who’s doing what and who is in charge. I joined because I like the product.
I do remember a trip to Great Falls in the early 1990’s with the Eastern Montana organizer, Tammy, to meet with people from the Pew Charitable Trusts and try to get some financial support. I was determined at that time to try to understand Max Baucus, and so took with me a yellow legal pad so that I could jot down thoughts as we traveled. I remember that. That was just a beginning, of course, and a long period of self-education followed, still going on. But I did ask a question.
In the aftermath, and memories are not clear, I do know that we were turned down by Pew, and that Tammy was disappointed. A young fellow from back east, John Adams, the successor organizer for the Eastern office, would later tell me that he was of the impression Pew was trying to take over the program for MWA, and offered grants only if the organization conformed to its objectives, abandoning its own.
At that time, I recall MWA having three paid staff in Helena, Bob Decker, Executive Director, John Gatchell, Conservation Director, and Susan, the administrative assistant. There were also paid field offices in Great Falls, Billings, and a couple of other places. It had a host of volunteers*, the old guard, the men and women who formed the organization and fought and won many of the wilderness areas that Montana still enjoys. These men, like Joe Gutkowski, Don Mazola, and two I never met, the Baldwins, and a host of others whose faces I know but names I’ve lost, formed a backbone of directed energy that accomplished goals over a long-term. I do hope that in writing this people come along and refresh my memory, as too much time has passed since my involvement. I would like that list of names, as I could not find it at the MWA website.
An important feature of MWA was poverty. Bob Decker, an engineer by trade, along with Gatchell and Susan, made very little money despite having good skills and talents. That’s a hard way to live, but is part of the deal in the environmental movement ethos – there isn’t a lot of money to be had. Poverty draws out the dedicated souls who are more concerned about mission than comfort. But that’s easy to say of other people. I always wanted to make enough money to be comfortable. So did they. So do we all.
Decker left. Susan probably retired. Gatchell is still there. Pew moved in. Pew won. Here’s a list of current staff of MWA:
- Bryan Sybert, Executive Director
- Carl Deitchman, Finance Director
- Laura Parr, Business Manager
- Amanda Hagertym, Administrative Assistant
- Sarah Shepard, CFRE, Development Director
- Kassia Randzio, Development Coordinator
- Molly Severtson, Donor Relations Manager
- Denny Lester, Communications Coordinator
- Gabriel Furshong, State Program Director
- Mark Good, Central Montana Field Director;
- Casey Perkins, Rocky Mountain Front Field Director
- Zack Porter, NEXGen Program Director
- Amy Robinson, Northwest Montana Wilderness Field Director
- Cameron Sapp, Eastern Montana Field Representative
- John Todd, Southwest Montana Field Director
- John Gatchell, Conservation Director
- Shannon Freix, CDT Montana Program Director
- Meg Killen, CDT Montana Field Crew Leader
- Sonny Mazzulo, CDT Montana Field Coordinator
- Cedron Jones, GIS Mapping Specialist
Good heavens! That’s not a dedicated group of volunteers – these are mostly degrees and salaries and the hubris that goes with that. Quite a few are dedicated to “development,” or keeping the engine going that pays the salaries. It’s become a self-feeding machine that needs a continual source of new food to keep going.
Wilderness has always been a tough fight, but the fighters left MWA as the Pew children moved in. The culture changed. These folks, one in particular, refer to the old guard as “rock throwers.” The new guard are well paid I assume, and comfortable with development of donors instead of wilderness. These are our “collaborators.” They throw rocks at outfits like Alliance for a Wild Rockies, the men and women who fight the fights that MWA used to help out with.
I once referred in a blog comment to a similar experience that Trout Unlimited experienced, an influx of foundation money, as “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” These people talk like wilderness advocates, and they all attach their canoeing and hiking affectations to their resumes. Perhaps they’ve noticed, then, as I have, that the back country is virtually empty these days, as are parking lots at trail heads. That was our constituency, wilderness users. Without them, it will soon be rolled over by ATV’s and snowmobiles and loggers, the people whom MWA collaborates with.
MWA website is littered with pictures of cherished areas. Gone are any references to the founders, any history. If anyone criticizes them for selling out, as they surely have, they are likely to get that piercing and deeply disturbing scream that Donald Sutherland did so well in the 1978 movie about moving automatons into the bodies of real people.
These people, the current staff of MWA, and there are two that were there when I was there, will never know the thrill of a victory. They don’t try to win anything. But they also don’t know the other part of being alive, as essential as an occasional victory, the pain of defeat. Since they don’t try to win, by definition, they don’t know what it is to lose. So life is good for them.
It’s always been easy to call losing something else. But that’s what they do for living.
*Do not confuse “volunteers” with “membership.” There were perhaps thirty hard-core volunteers even as MWA listed thousands of members. The requirement for members was a $35 annual contribution, and it had a four-fold effect, that is, if you sent them that, they would assume you had a spouse and two children, and add four people to their rolls. I assume that chicanery goes on throughout the not-for-profit world, as there’s very little active volunteer activity in this country outside churches.