New executive director values community connections, cooperation
By Ashley Ahearn
Jasmine Minbashian saw firsthand what being a citizen of the Methow Valley felt like when the Twisp River Fire forced her and her family to evacuate in 2015.
“The way the community supported us was such a beautiful thing. I’ve seen this community come together in such impressive ways around fires. It’s humbled me and brought me to tears,” Minbashian said. “I feel like that spirit of working together is really important to me.”
This week, Minbashian takes the reins of the Methow Valley Citizens Council (MVCC) as its new executive director, and plans to build on that spirit of working together, especially in the face of climate change.
The nonprofit came into existence in the early 1970s around a citizen-led effort to stop a large ski resort from being built in Mazama. Now, with roughly 500 members, its mission is to “raise a strong community voice to protect the natural environment and rural character of the Methow Valley”.
But that voice is not always unified. Environmentalists sometimes have very different ideas about how land and natural resources should be managed than those who live and work on the land. Minbashian acknowledges those different perspectives — and the tension that can arise there — and has spent much of her career in nonprofit work trying to bridge those political and cultural divides. As she looks to the future of MVCC, she sees a big opportunity to continue that work here in the Methow.
“We all love this valley and the qualities of this valley — the rural character of it, the wide-open spaces, the wildlife — no matter who you are. The differences come from how we achieve goals and get to where we need to be, and that’s a manageable problem,” Minbashian said.
Minbashian grew up in Seattle and earned her undergraduate degree in environmental policy at the Huxley School at Western Washington University. She has worked in the nonprofit world for more than 20 years, focusing on conservation issues including wilderness connectivity, biodiversity, old growth forest protection and wolf reintroduction — perhaps some of the most controversial and divisive environmental issues in the Northwest.
She says she’s always been drawn to those tension points and operates from a deep desire to find common ground among various stakeholders on an issue.
In the late 1990s, Minbashian helped build a coalition of 13 environmental groups that wanted to protect old growth forests in the Gifford Pinchot forest of southwestern Washington. Minbashian remembers that the strategy among environmental groups at the time was mainly to file lawsuits in order to stop logging.
“It was pretty effective but it got to a point where we had to say, ‘Litigation is not the ultimate answer, we have to bring people together to find a longer more durable solution,’” Minbashian said.
So Minbashian started organizing with mill owners and local community members in towns like Randall and Packwood, whose economies were struggling because of environmental limits on logging. She organized field trips where environmentalists and community members would spend time in the woods “standing around kicking dirt and telling stories” — and talking about what the future of the forest could look like. They found common ground, ultimately, that allowed for some logging alongside old growth protection, Minbashian said.
“There were some pretty intense moments and harsh words exchanged but the result was that people came together in this very powerful way and the Gifford Pinchot slowly started moving away from a model of old-growth timber sales and moved towards thinning and second growth logging — and getting onboard with restoration goals that protected water quality,” Minbashian said.
Connecting with people
That experience has shaped Minbashian’s views on working with various stakeholders around environmental issues in a community, and it’s what drew Maggie Coon, the founder of MVCC, to Jasmine as a candidate for the job.
“That’s one of the things that she highlighted a lot in our conversations, is her ability to talk to everybody across the spectrum,” Coon said. “Landowners, farmers and ranchers and people who have lived on the land for a long time, to connect with them. She’s someone who really likes other people and listens to them first, before expressing an opinion or a position.”
Minbashian and her husband bought land on Texas Creek 20 years ago and moved to the valley full-time in 2015 with her daughter, who is now 6. She’s an avid horsewoman and serves on the board of Methow Valley Riding Unlimited, where she is involved with therapeutic riding programs for at-risk kids and women recovering from trauma. She’s always seen horsemanship as a way to connect with people of all walks of life.
“Horses don’t care what political party you belong to, what your beliefs are, religion. When you meet someone else who’s a horse person, there’s some mutual respect that happens, and a common language that we can share. There’s an instant connection,” Minbashian said.
As she looks to the future of the MVCC, Minbashian says she’ll be focusing on getting the next generation of citizens involved on issues like climate change and how to make the valley more resilient to the changes ahead.
She says it comes down to two big issues: fire and water. There are certain things that are inevitable, like the increase of fire cycles and longer, hotter fire seasons. Combine that with a reduction in snowpack and more drought in the years ahead, and Minbashian says there are some tough decisions that will have to be made.
“It comes back to bringing people together and having those conversations and maintaining a culture of respect. It’s a tall order but if it can be done anywhere, it can be done here in the Methow,” Minbashian said. “I think everyone involved with MVCC honors that culture of respect in the community so it’s a matter of creating opportunities to build those bridges, and that’s what I love to do.”