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Wilderness lobby chops jobs

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For eight years, Cesar Hernandez, a field organizer for the Flathead-Kootenai chapter of the Montana Wilderness Association (MWA), has been an advocate for Northwest Montana forests and a lightning rod for controversy in the politically conservative region.

As of June 1, Hernandez is no longer the local face of MWA.

In recent years, Hernandez says, much has changed about the 49-year-old organization, which advocated for the 1964 Wilderness Act and the Bob Marshall, Scapegoat and Absaroka-Beartooth wildernesses.

He says the change began in 2004, when MWA hired a consultant to help the group become “a million-dollar organization.”

In order to take in more money, Hernandez says, the group was advised to apply more personnel to pursuing grants, rather than fieldwork.

“The organization adopted a business model that is less grassroots,” Hernandez says.

Despite the push for more funds, he says, MWA’s administration told field staff that some of the group’s grants didn’t come through last year, and that MWA would undergo a reorganization, which would require everyone to reapply for their jobs.

Hernandez reapplied, but was ultimately replaced. He’s not sure why, although he suspects it was his opposition to the reorganization. Dave Hadden, the other Flathead-Kootenai staffer, chose not to reapply. Also this spring, nine of 11 board members for the Flathead-Kootenai chapter resigned over the changes.

The reorganization took MWA from eight field staff and six administrative staff in Helena to eight in Helena and five in the field. The Flathead-Kootenai staff now consists of one new staffer, and MWA’s Billings and Helena offices have been closed.

Jan Sensibaugh, deputy director for MWA, acknowledges the closings, and the fact that the organization cut field staff while adding one staff member to help secure grants.

But she doesn’t see the changes the way Hernandez does.

“We were having a budget shortfall,” she says, describing changes in staff as a reaction to budgetary realities.

Whatever the ultimate reasons for the changes, Hernandez says he’ll remain active in local environmental issues as a volunteer.

“The forest is still out there, and I’m still interested in what goes on in it.”

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