In response to environmental protection rollbacks and increased politicization of the federal agencies charged with managing public lands, two Montana environmental advocacy nonprofits have joined forces to form what they believe will prove a model for the future of environmental activism in the Northern Rockies.
Last month the Ecology Center and the Native Forest Network merged, combining two of Missoula’s best-known environmental organizations into a new nonprofit under the name WildWest Institute.
The Ecology Center and Native Forest Network worked closely on environmental protection efforts for nearly 15 years before the recent merger, but when the American economy took a downturn in the wake of the 9/11 terrorism attacks and widespread corporate accounting scandals, nonprofit groups around the country began feeling a funding crunch, says Native Forest Network’s Matthew Koehler, now WildWest’s executive director. In response, the two groups began exploring merger possibilities in 2003 to help break down administrative barriers and streamline costs for both organizations. In 2004 the Ecology Center took the first step in that direction when it moved into shared office space with Native Forest Network in the Stensrud Building on Missoula’s north side, but Koehler says there was more than simple economics driving the merger.
“Economics was secondary to the fact that this merger will increase our ability to achieve our mission, which in turn will help us increase our capacity,” says Koehler. “For the last year and half we’ve been working even closer together. Not only on campaign issues and some of the projects we’re involved with, but in a physical sense as well.”
The merger was approved by both groups’ boards of directors in March and became official in April. The reorganization combines the boards and staff, which currently consists of Native Forest Networks’ Koehler and the Ecology Center’s Jeff Juel, now WildWest’s ecosystem defense coordinator. Jake Kreilick, currently of the National Forest Protection Alliance, will join WildWest as restoration coordinator starting June 1. The WildWest Institute combines the Native Forest Network’s annual operating budget of about $75,000 and the Ecology Center’s annual budget of around $34,000 while streamlining administrative costs such as bookkeeping, and reducing expenses including telecommunication and computer hardware. It’s a move both groups hope will help the WildWest Institute succeed in achieving their collective mission.
In the past, the two organizations brought different approaches to similar goals, including protection of wildlands in the Northern Rockies.
Juel says the Ecology Center’s primary focus over the last 18 years has been to hold government agencies accountable through official comments and administrative appeals when possible, and in the courts when necessary.
“We’re about no-holds-barred public participation that expects the agencies to follow the laws, which include and require consideration of the best science,” says Juel, acknowledging that that goal often leads to high-profile legal battles.
The most recent example arrived just weeks ago when Native Forest Network, the Ecology Center and Friends of the Bitterroot jointly sued in federal court to halt a fuels reduction project on the Middle East Fork. The suit was filed before the Montana secretary of state’s office approved the merger. Koehler says the court will be notified of the WildWest merger and the plaintiff’s name on the lawsuit will change; all future court filings will be made under the name WildWest Institute.
The legal battle over the Middle East Fork is just beginning, but media attention over the suit’s April 26 filing has already stirred emotions on both sides of the debate. Critics of the suit complain that the legal battle will stall much-needed fuels-reduction work near Sula, and suit proponents hope a decision in their favor will set precedents for the way future forest plans are developed. Without the courts, Juel says, agencies such as the Forest Service would run roughshod over public wildlands.
“Lawsuits and litigation sounds rash to some people, but it’s really just using the third branch of government for its intended purposes, and that’s to balance out the power of the executive and legislative branches so that things are done right,” Juel says.
In the past, much of Native Forest Network’s work included supporting the Ecology Center’s mission through research and outreach projects, as well as educating the public, the press and elected officials about the ecological impacts of various logging proposals. The merger places all that work under the umbrella of the WildWest Institute.
“We’re always hopeful on all these projects that we can work together not only with the Forest Service but with other interested citizens to devise projects that protect and restore forests and wildlife habitat and watersheds,” Koehler says.
The WildWest Institute will continue to do battle, legal and otherwise, with the Forest Service over how the Northern Rockies’ national forests are managed, but Koehler stresses that the dissemination of research, coalition-building and media-relations work is just as important.
“We’re quite confident that over the next couple of months people will come to know the WildWest Institute by the body and breadth of the work we’re doing,” he says. “The public is going to read about the WildWest Institute when they read about the Middle East Fork lawsuit, but they’re also going to read about the WildWest Institute doing community wildfire protection work up in De Borgia and promoting stewardship contracting workshops we’re putting on in June.”
For instance, even as the WildWest Institute was preparing its Middle East Fork case, Kreilick met with Forest Service officials, Lemhi County commissioners and community leaders in Salmon, Idaho, to talk about fuel reduction and restoration opportunities on the Salmon-Challis National Forest. Last Monday Juel met with representatives from the Lolo National Forest in Missoula to work out disagreements over the Frenchtown Face logging project and to try to get more money set aside for restoration work.
Native Forest Networks’ outreach and education approach to conservation has complemented the Ecology Center’s “no-holds-barred” approach for years. Now the WildWest Institute hopes those strategies will become even more effective.
“We’re pretty optimistic about actuating democracy and making it work,” says Juel.