Pat Leigh listens to the discussion at a recent Methow Conservancy focus group session. Photo by Marcy Stamper

Pat Leigh listens to the discussion at a recent Methow Conservancy focus group session. Photo by Marcy Stamper

By Marcy Stamper

Asked to list the best things about the Methow, people pointed to the intact ecosystem and residents’ commitment to one another.

And the role of the Methow Conservancy in preserving those attributes? The Conservancy listens well and can be a trusted voice on controversial issues. The organization can rally people of all persuasions and points of view around shared values.

These ideas of what is best about the Methow — and what could be improved — were aired at four focus groups organized in early December by the Winthrop-based land trust. For the second time in its 17-year history, the Conservancy is methodically gathering input from its members, people in the community, and its staff to help shape a new strategic plan and prioritize resources over the next five years, said Executive Director Jason Paulsen.

In addition to the focus groups from Mazama to Methow, they will talk to biologists, farmers and others who work with land and water to better understand stewardship needs, and hold two more gatherings in the Seattle area.

The process will identify conservation needs and assess the progress in addressing priorities compiled seven years ago, when the Conservancy last took such an in-depth look.

“Farmland was on everyone’s mind in 2007,” said Paulsen two weeks ago. “Market forces, particularly for valley-bottom farmland, seemed to be tending toward dividing land for residential uses.” Other emphases have been conservation of river corridors, of healthy Ponderosa pine forests and of shrub-steppe habitat.

While the Conservancy has yet to tabulate the results of surveys completed by the 70 people who attended the focus groups, some themes have emerged. Common threads include the importance of land-use planning, education and economic opportunity, but the main message has been for the Conservancy to stay focused on what it does well, said Paulsen.

“There have been a lot of visions for the future, but the best role seen for the Conservancy is for us not to take on new things,” said Paulsen. A more likely scenario would be for the Conservancy to convene a discussion rather than tackle those issues directly, he said.

The Winthrop focus group talked about the need for an economy that could enable young people to make a living here — but without detracting from the qualities that make the Methow Valley special. “It’s an inherent contradiction,” said one participant. “If you had it, the Methow Valley might not be what it is — it’s a Catch-22.”

Specific goals mentioned at the Winthrop meeting include a dark-sky initiative and preservation of open space. Many would like to see a trail system for people to commute to work and school, and suggested that the Conservancy could use its knowledge of easements to help build it.

Participants also urged that the Conservancy’s educational programs be expanded into the schools.

There was also a strong recognition of the importance of land-use planning at the local and regional levels. “The reason this place is so special is because there is planning — if that goes away, we just become another mountain town,” said one man at the Winthrop meeting.

 

Evolution of the organization

While the Conservancy’s mission statement has been revised many times, the organization’s central focus remains the same — as a land trust and provider of environmental education, an outgrowth of the two nonprofits that merged to form the Conservancy in 1996.

The Conservancy preserves land primarily through conservation easements, which are voluntary legal agreements between a landowner and a conservation organization. The easement limits the use of the property in order to protect such values as wildlife habitat, agricultural lands or open space, and stays with the land in perpetuity. Today the Conservancy has 102 easements encompassing 8,000 acres.

As a result of the last strategic planning effort, the Conservancy has pursued conservation easements on farmland and riparian areas. The organization also helped preserve key scenic places by shifting the development potential at the Mazama Junction away from the road and into the trees along the river, said Paulsen.

One change since 2007 is a broadening of the organization’s scope to include land protection in the lower valley, where they now have five easements, said Paulsen.

Would the Conservancy do the same thing over again if they had more money? “We’ve proven in this community, time and again, that dollars are never a barrier to what we want to get done,” Paulsen told the Winthrop focus group.

The Imagine the Methow campaign, which grew out of the 2007 strategic plan, has buttressed that confidence. The campaign raised more than $20 million in three years — a combination of private gifts, public grants and donated conservation easements.

 

Ways to weigh in

After more meetings in early 2014, the Conservancy’s board of directors will hold a planning retreat in March to begin sifting through the feedback. There is no firm deadline for shaping the new organizational plan, said Paulsen.

“That’s a challenge and opportunity the board gets to have — what does it mean, and how does it relate to what we’ll do?” said Paulsen.

Paulsen urges others to provide their input, either through the survey available on their website at www.methowconservancy.org (see “Focus Group Survey” on the right), or by calling the office at 996-2870. They ask people to complete the survey by Jan. 24.

Conservancy staff are also available to meet with neighborhood or other groups. “This is an opportunity to bring together people who are interested in thinking about these things and connect them with others they may not have met before,” said Paulsen.