The cruel irony of a job with The Wilderness Society is it often leaves little time to get into the wilderness.
Megan Birzell spends a lot of time driving by some of Montana’s most cherished and controversial landscapes as she shepherds the Southwest Crown of the Continent’s many stakeholders toward successful projects. For the past three years, Birzell has kept a network of loggers and conservationists, ranchers and rafters, politicians and business owners on task up and down the Blackfoot River watershed.
Birzell’s first job out of graduate school was with the Clearwater Resource Council in Seeley Lake. There she was the chief writer of a $90 million funding proposal for a forest restoration plan covering public land from Lincoln to Condon. It became one of the first funded initiatives in Congress’ Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration legislation.
“I was on vacation with my family in Colorado when I got the phone call that it was funded,” Birzell said. “I literally started jumping up and down. Then we realized the fiscal year ends in September, and we had just six weeks to figure out how to spend the first $4 million.”
The year’s worth of preparatory work paid off. She knew all the proposed projects that collaborative groups on the Lolo, Flathead and Helena national forests had developed, and which ones had enough analysis and buy-in to go forward.
Birzell then shifted to her current job with The Wilderness Society, in charge of keeping those projects moving forward. To do that, she had to keep the participants connected and communicating.
“I knew some people see The Wilderness Society as a big, giant environmental group and a lot of people around the country are skeptical about that,” Birzell said. “It’s difficult to sit down with someone who isn’t willing to see things from another angle. I try to approach from pragmatism – all these people love this landscape, and that’s why we’re here. It’s about the people, not the organizations.”
Birzell said she tends to be an introvert, and leading big roomfuls of stakeholders isn’t her favorite thing. But making one-on-one contacts and keeping each of those people updated and engaged makes the bigger sessions much easier, she said.
“You need to find the themes that emerge and what needs to be addressed,” Birzell said. “It can be issues, or personalities, or timelines. But it needs to come from the ground up. Often we don’t agree on what should be done. We just agree on what the issue is. And we try to put people in a problem-solving mode, not a blame-laying mode.”