Wendy Ninteman grew up near California’s nicest beaches. But when she and friend Ann Swisher extended a trip to Salmon, Idaho into Montana, Ninteman knew she had found her new home.
She had no idea where a move to Montana would take her career-wise, but as it turned out she’s had a major impact on the conservation landscape in and around her chosen home town of Missoula.
Now Ninteman is in a new job where she could leave an imprint on the rest of the western United States.
It was the summer following her senior year in high school in LaJolla, Calif., that Ninteman and Swisher decided to visit Salmon, where Swisher had an acquaintance.
“We got there and realized we could actually hit another state,” Ninteman recalled. “We got here and just absolutely fell in love with Montana, and (I) knew I was gonna come back.”
Ninteman had already enrolled at the University of California-Santa Barbara, so she planned her move to Montana for a year later. She had made the volleyball team there but quit right after tryouts, knowing she would be transferring to Montana.
Ironically the first people they met in Missoula were playing volleyball outside in the area where Washington-Grizzly Stadium now sits.
“We joined in and one thing led to another,” Ninteman recounted. “They said, ‘you girls could have a scholarship here (at UM).’”
Acting on their advice, Ninteman and Swisher visited with athletic director Harley Lewis who, in the absence of a head volleyball coach, offered them full-ride scholarships for the fall of 1978.
Dick Scott had been hired to take over a program, but he wasn’t in town when the two California girls passed through.
“I feel like timing was on my side, completely,” Ninteman said.
That timing worked again after Ninteman got her English degree from UM. She decided to go back to school to take journalism courses with an eye toward becoming a newspaper writer.
While playing city league volleyball in Missoula she met Jane Watrel, a reporter for KECI-TV who convinced her to seek at internship at the station. Watrel now reports for the NBC affiliate in Washington, D.C.
She started as a videographer for the station, moved into special features, anchored the early-morning news, did some reporting, and then anchored the 6 p.m. news for a time.
After about six years at KECI Ninteman took over as assistant news director for KUFM Radio. After another year she got married and left KUFM to help her husband start an environmental consulting business that helped pave her way into land trust work.
That lasted about five years before Ninteman took a job running the natural resource management division in UM’s continuing education department. Her marriage broke up during this period, but while at UM she volunteered to help promote Missoula’s first open-space bond proposal.
“I always have had such a passion for this landscape and enjoyed running in the mountains and on the trails,” Ninteman noted. “When the job came open at Five Valleys I had a friend on the board (who) encouraged me to go for it, and I did.”
Ninteman is just over two years into her position with the Land Trust Alliance, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. that has offices in six other locations around the country, including Missoula.
During her 10-year run as executive director of the Five Valleys Land Trust, also based in Missoula, conservation successes included the purchase of land on Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo and several conservation easements including one in the city’s south hills.
Her work got the attention of a headhunter who contacted Ninteman about the LTA opening for a western region director.
“I didn’t realize it at the time but Five Valleys Land Trust really is operating at the highest tier in the country,” Ninteman said. “There are not very many land trusts that are operating at that capacity, and so I was recruited.”
She wasn’t looking to leave and took about a year to think it over.
“I just felt that if I wanted to do something else and stay in Missoula that was going to be tough,” Ninteman recalled. “This just seemed like a good opportunity.”
She went from being a big fish in a small pond to being “a very, very small minnow in a big pond,” Ninteman said. “So I’m back on the learning curve.”
But she also shares her experience and knowledge with others. One of her first projects was organizing a leadership training session in California for land-trust executive directors across the West that took place recently.
“That really did give me the chance to feel like I was giving back,” Ninteman said. “Of course I learned from them as much as they learned from us.”
Ninteman said Montana has always been a leader in private land conservation.
“That’s the beauty of the land trust business,” she said. “It’s not a government entity. It’s all voluntary. No one tells you what you have to do with your land. It’s really honoring the landowner’s right to make those decisions, and (Montana has) a strong land ethic.”
Montana has roughly 12 land trusts and a state land trust association.
“I would put the work here up against any other state,” Ninteman declared.
The basic tools used in land conservation haven’t changed much over the years, Ninteman said, but now there are more funding sources available to help with the process, some local, some federal.
Admitting there were detractors along the way, Ninteman believes most of them didn’t really understand what land conservation was all about. Much of the criticism claimed that government was taking people’s land.
“They’re completely voluntary,” Ninteman pointed out. “The biggest (negative) is that it’s a permanent protection of your land. They definitely want to make sure that they (can) have that land passed to their children in a way that allows (them) to keep working the land.”
Ninteman said the notion that a conservation easement keeps people from working their land is another huge myth, and she added that easements do not create nature preserves.
The LTA is a service organization for land-trust groups across the nation, providing training, education and tools to help them “do their job to the highest quality possible,” Ninteman explained.
She said her interest in the environment and conservation probably came from watching her home town disintegrate around her as older homes were leveled and bigger, fancier places emerged. Favorite places simply disappeared.
When she got to Montana for the first time she couldn’t believe how beautiful it still was and how many places and activities were available. Her interest only continued to grow with every year she lived in Missoula.
“Anything I could do to make it stay the place that it is,” Ninteman said of her growing interest. “It’s not about stopping growth (which) is not a bad thing. It’s about making sure that we protect some of the best of the stuff that we don’t want to change.”
There’s no question that playing volleyball at UM when Ninteman did was a character-building experience.
There was no high school volleyball in Montana at the time, a stark contrast to what Ninteman and Swisher experienced in California. Volleyball was not part of the Big Sky Conference, so UM had to compete regionally with teams like Washington, Washington State, Oregon and Oregon State.
Most of the games during Ninteman’s career were part of large invitational tournaments. During that time the Grizzlies won 57 matches and lost 74.
“It was kind of deflating because really were not very good, the first year particularly,” Ninteman said. “As coach Scott was able to recruit there was vast improvement.”
She especially remembered playing on tournaments like those at the University of Washington.
“We’d lose so many games,” Ninteman said, “and then you’d finally get to the very end and try to put a happy face on the fact that you were going to get second-to-last place. There was a lot of trying to feel good about what you were doing.”
The good part was improving each year and knowing that groundwork was being laid for growth in women’s sports at UM. But for Ninteman it was a struggle.
“I came from a more competitive background (and) I was used to competing at a different level,“ she said.
There were fond memories. Playing with Swisher made things easier, and Ninteman recalls one shining moment at a UW tournament when the team won the last game.
“It was really neat how (Scott) let us feel good about that,” Ninteman said. “It was something like, even though we were second to last, we did fine, we held our own, we played well for our ability.”
Ninteman downplays the fact that she still ranks sixth at UM in career service aces with 133 and is tied for sixth in aces for a season with 51 in 1980. She claims it’s because UM, in addition to playing teams that were far better, also played teams that were worse than they were.
“I remember thinking (I) could never do that today,” she said. “It was not even fair. It’s apples and oranges.”
Following her last season of volleyball Ninteman joined the UM tennis team. That meant another adjustment, because that group was much more talented and she felt like the weak link.
Now nothing makes Ninteman happier than to sit at a Lady Griz basketball game and see the arena with so many people in it, a sign of just how far women’s sports have come at UM.
When Ninteman turned 50 last summer she attended a reunion of friends in California that included some beach volleyball.
“I hadn’t played for years,” Ninteman laughed. “That was absolutely hilarious. Beach volleyball is tough enough to begin with. It’s like playing in (wet) cement. We challenged some people to a game. They asked us, ‘old rules or new rules?’”
Ninteman describes her three years at UM as “kind of a blur.” She remembers a team with a “lot of heart and soul” that easily could have folded, but didn’t. She gives much of the credit to Scott, who “pushed us really hard.”
One memory Ninteman has of her college days in Missoula was how quiet the summers were.
“I live in the University District now and you can tell when school ends,” Ninteman said, “but not like it was back then. When school ended there was nothing happening in this town and there wasn’t a car on the road.”
Partly because of that memory Ninteman has labeled Missoula as a town that has really charted its course for change. She cited the Riverfront Trail, the Rattlesnake Recreation Area and the entire downtown as examples.
“I don’t know if it’s the people or the place or the combination,” Ninteman mused.
Ninteman is fairly certain her latest job change won’t be her last.
“The one thing I’ve learned is that the larger the organization you work for the more time you spend on internal matters and on the phone and in meetings,” she said.
“It’s been a great experience for me (but) I’m not sure that’s my forte. I like to be closer to the ground, so I’m not sure what the next step will be.”
This current position gives her the chance to build things from the ground up, something she really likes to do. It’s a new program out west and she gets to design how it works.
“Hopefully we’ll give people some tools to make changes in their own communities,” Ninteman said. “And then I’d like to get back involved at a more local level. I don’t see myself moving from Montana. If it’s in a voluntary capacity I need to be working for this community.”
Going from a competitive environment to one that wasn’t so competitive when she started playing volleyball at UM was a challenge to Ninteman. But she thinks the experience wound up being beneficial and contributed to making her the person she is today.
“It gave me more patience for the process,” she said, “but also not a lot of fear to try something different and work really hard, putting your heart into it, too.”
She has never given a thought to moving back to California, even though her future originally was uncertain and her father and lots of friends still live there.
“When I think about the things I’m most grateful for in my life, other than a lot of luck that led to a lot of these things, I think about that road trip and ending up at Aber Hall,” Ninteman said.
“To find a place that you feel like is home – I have the ocean in my heart and I love going down there to visit – but every time people ask me, ‘how does it feel when you come home?’ there hasn’t been a single time that I’ve landed at the airport or driven into town I’ve not felt incredibly grateful that I live here.”