Taking the Bull by the Horns

Karen Knudsen from Missoula, MT

The Project

Karen Knudsen, executive director of a 28-year-old nonprofit called the Clark Fork Coalition, is a big fan of taking the bull by the horns. Literally. The Coalition works to protect and restore rivers in western Montana. For over one hundred years, mining, logging, agriculture, and development have taken a toll on the health and vitality of the basin's headwaters. But instead of fighting, Karen opted to take the Coalition down a different path. She routinely directs her staff to sit down with other groups and water users in an effort to hammer out win-win solutions that benefit people as well as rivers. In the biggest example of her 'sit down at the kitchen table' approach, Karen decided in 2005 that the Coalition better buy a big ranch—complete with 300 cattle—to figure out if and how successful ranching and healthy rivers might go together. Nine years later, the 2,300-acre ranch is a model for how ranchers can conserve water, clean up pollution, and restore floodplains—and better yet, make more profit. Springboarding off this ranch demonstration project, Karen expanded the Coalition’s “join ‘em” approach by adding innovative water transaction contracts to the toolbox: she and her team design unique win-win contracts that compensate water users for leaving more water in thirsty streams. Sometimes this means taking a dam out, and sometimes it means buying a dam. The Coalition’s done both under Karen’s leadership. She believes the best way to keep water clean and abundant is to engage the hearts and minds of the people who use it—and often abuse it—via incentives rather than sticks, and with a “show” rather than “tell” approach.

The Progress

The Coalition is a nationwide example of a watershed group that takes risks to make change. Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch is a successful showcase for a “green enviro group” putting its money where its mouth is. The ranch sells grassfed beef at Farmers’ Markets, installed 10 miles of wildlife-friendly fencing, replanted 5 miles of barren streambanks, and upgraded irrigation efficiency to restore streamflows. Karen espouses the value of finding the “first follower” to act as a conservation leader, rather than the Coalition, and hit the mark when neighboring ranchers began signing up for water leases that restore flows to streams in the dry summer months. Her vision for the Upper Clark Fork watershed in western Montana is to completely rebuild it to revitalize local communities. She and her team are putting into action a 10-year, $30-million plan that helps farmers and fish alike by partnering with cities, public land managers, and ranchers to re-water dry streams, reconnect cut-off habitat, and restore floodplains. Each project is approached as a contract that benefits all parties, rather than a “winner take all” approach to environmental conservation. The Coalition now holds 17 different contracts with water users that restore water to critical headwaters streams, and manages 2 dams to release water from reservoirs when fish most need it. Karen oversees dozens of contract negotiations, and is working to secure a $20 million flow restoration fund from the State of Montana.

The Team

The Coalition isn’t your typical watershed group. Karen put together a team that includes ranchers, lobbyists, international restoration experts, scientists, social media gurus, and—most of all—“people” people. She knows that environmental causes can too often be trapped in wonky rhetoric surrounding policies, ecology, and other boring stuff that average people don’t relate to. The key to moving the dial forward on conserving water is to engage as diverse an audience as you possibly can, so Karen’s first priority is hiring people who can communicate clearly and easily with all sorts of folks, including government bureaucrats, investment bankers, ranchers, miners, or kids. Her team is now 11-strong at the Coalition, and is backed by 15 board directors and almost 3,000 members, all of whom are united behind pushing forward out-of-the-box solutions that create vibrant, clean, and healthy riverside communities.

The Fearlessless Changemaker

Pinpointing my proudest accomplishment is easy—it’s perseverance. I’ve been at the Clark Fork Coalition for 20 of its 28 years. Many of my friends who work in the non-profit field eventually burn out, or switch to more lucrative endeavors in the for-profit world. For me, the fire just burns brighter instead of burning out. In Montana, where life centers around renowned rivers and majestic snow-capped peaks, that means delving wholeheartedly into conserving and protecting the natural assets that make this place one of a kind. Water is closest to my heart and my passions—I adore skidding down snowy mountains on my telemark skis, rafting down whitewater rapids, and throwing my fly line in deep holes in search of big trout. Protecting clean water is a cause to which I’ve devoted almost half of my life. The main reasons I’ve avoided “burn out” at the Clark Fork Coalition are three-fold: 1) I’ve had the privilege of exploring different roles, from business manager to communications director to executive director, which means constantly learning and teaching new things from fresh perspectives; 2) the Coalition takes risks that lead to exciting and unexpected solutions that unfold between diverse partners, including ranchers, miners, venture capitalists, politicians, and the neighbor who lives next door; and 3) I’m surrounded by a team of top-notch professionals that gets tough work done with amazing zeal, intellect, skills, and humor.

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