Conservation Heroes: Meet the Land Protection Committee

April 22, 2021

By Caroline Woodwell, Conservancy Volunteer Writer

Lindsay Chutas grew up playing golf and basketball in Walla Walla. Rebecca Brown went to the Olympic trials in white water slalom racing after years of kayaking with her family on the rivers of southeastern US. Carl Griffin spent his career in Colorado as an IBM executive in management and marketing. They didn’t know each other until they, along with nine others who have diverse backgrounds, skills and perspectives, sat down together as members of the Land Protection Committee at the Inland Northwest Land Conservancy. There they found a group of people who were equally committed to land conservation in the Inland Northwest.

Formally, the Land Protection Committee “provides guidance and expertise to the conservation staff and to the Board, and it ensures that the Conservancy’s land protection work fulfills the Conservancy’s mission,” according to its charter. In less formal language, the committee is “the brain trust, the red-light green-light for all projects,” says Conservation Director Chris DeForest, who staffs the committee. “It’s at the heart of the Conservancy’s work.”

Swans landing for the night on the Coeur d’Alene River, North Idaho

Members of the Land Protection Committee are responsible for reviewing all land protection projects, recommending those that will move forward, proposing conservation strategies, reviewing land protection tools and processes, project selection criteria, reviewing and recommending projects with partner organizations, and reviewing management plans. They report to the full board, which draws heavily on the expertise and recommendations of the Land Protection Committee to make its own final decisions about projects.

It’s should be no surprise then, to learn that members of the Land Protection Committee are selected for their expertise, skills, community connections, their scientific knowledge. When the whole committee sits down at a table (or populates the squares at a Zoom meeting), the Land Conservancy has a range of talents, tools, world views and local perspectives about land and community at its disposal.

Eric Erickson, for example, began a career as a marine geophysicist when there were no electronics. Maps and graphics were drafted by hand. When the first Geographic Information Systems became available for mapping layers of data about land and land use in 1995, Eric retired from his job and became a GIS consultant. Today he makes all the maps for the Conservancy. It’s simple for Eric: “I love maps and I love being able to make maps.” In addition, he says, he appreciates the “intent” of the map: land protection. Eric has volunteered at the Conservancy for more than ten years – long enough to have his own office in the Conservancy’s suite of office in Spokane. Being there at the heart of the Conservancy’s work “gives me a sense of accomplishment and community.”

Biking on the Trail of the Coeur d’Alenes, North Idaho

Judy Stafstrom also finds a sense of community at the Land Conservancy. This lawyer-turned-teacher, came to Spokane when her husband retired, both to be near family and because of the access to the outdoors. Raised in Wilmington, Delaware with time spent in the lakes region of New Hampshire, she credits years of teaching high school students for her ability to pay attention to the process and the details as she and the Land Protection Committee evaluate projects. She is always prepared to make the argument that open space enhances communities; that “the public land and the park system is all part of moving things in a better direction.”

Members of the Committee who have strong community connections often bring the voices of those they serve. Rebecca Stevens has a personal commitment to land and water protection in the Coeur d’Alene Basin, and that commitment fills her professional life as well. Rebecca is Lake Management Restoration Coordinator for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. A biologist by training, she first worked with a native tribe, the Ojibwe Community around Bemidji, Minnesota, while she was in college. Now she finds consonance between the tribe’s goals and the Land Conservancy’s goals for preserving land in the Lake Coeur d’Alene watershed, which is also the aboriginal territory of the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

Paul Knowles also brings his personal passion and his professional knowledge to the Land Protection Committee. As Manager of Special Projects for Spokane County Department of Parks and Recreation, and with a masters degree in urban and regional planning, he brings questions about the landscape scale to review of the Conservancy’s projects. Paul grew up on the Tulalip Indian Reservation in Snohomish County, Washington, cementing an interest in the outdoors by wandering the beaches and forests around his home. As someone who focuses on land for public access in his day job, Paul brings a public use lens to the Land Conservancy. “What things should we be thinking about,” Paul asks of a project like Waikiki Springs. “How do we engage the community in this project?”

Sunset over Rattlesnake Ridge at Waikiki Springs Nature Preserve, Spokane

Part of the Conservancy’s mission is to protect habitat, including rivers and lakes for waterfowl, forests and grasslands for songbirds, and undeveloped land for migratory birds. Lisa Langelier is the Land Protection Committee member who knows birds. Retired from a career with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Lisa was most recently manager of three national wildlife refuges that merged into a refuge complex (Little Pend Oreille, Kootenai and Turnbull National Wildlife Refuges). She has spent her career and her free time studying birds. Twice a month during the winter, Lisa and a friend do two raptor counts in Spokane & Lincoln counties, looking for birds of prey: red tail hawks, kestrels, bald eagles, rough legged hawks, northern harriers.  As someone who brings both a wildlife management perspective and an understanding of forest habitats, Lisa knows what kind of land makes good habitat and she knows what it takes to manage a piece of land for habitat and public use.

Tom Bradley, who is chair of the INLC board, also spent his career managing public lands. Beginning as a park ranger, he spent 40 years in the National Park Service, retiring from a position as Park Superintendent at Gateway Arch National Park in St. Louis, Missouri. He and his wife moved to Spokane for the outdoors, the inventory of historic buildings, and because there was a vibrant land trust in the INLC. Like Lisa, Tom brings an understanding of the federal, state and local players that can breathe life into a land protection transaction.  

Spring clouds over Slavin Conservation Area, Spokane

Carl Griffin’s career in marketing and management taught him how to bring complex ideas together into an action plan. Carl has the added benefit of six years on the board, with one as Chair, as the board grappled with growth, both in size of staff and the nature of projects. He saw an evolution from a small organization with a focus on private land owner conservation deals to a growing organization that works beyond conservation easements to projects like Waikiki Springs (where the Conservancy partnered with the Spokane Tribe to purchase 95 acres as a public preserve adjacent to state-owned land along the Little Spokane River in North Spokane) and Rimrock to Riverside (a project to expand Palisades Park and connect it to Riverside State Park in Spokane, creating an 11-mile recreation and habitat corridor between downtown Spokane and Long Lake to the north). Today Carl brings history of the organization and the momentum of someone who can cut through complexities by asking what he calls “the dumb questions.” But, as he notes, there is value in those question. Sometimes, the simple questions show the clear path forward.  

Sunset at Rimrock to Riverside, Spokane

Becky Brown, the avid white water kayaker and now Chair of the Biology Department at Eastern Washington University, got involved in the Conservancy’s work through a personal connection to a single piece of land. She and her family moved to Palisades Park  when they came to Spokane for her job as a professor. Their neighbor, Craig Volosing, had a vision for expanding the Park and when several parcels in his plan came on the market, he persuaded Rebecca and her husband to buy one. Then the Land Conservancy got involved in consolidating and purchasing parcels, moving the Rimrock to Riverside vision forward. Executive Director Dave Shaub asked Becky to join the Land Protection Committee. As a restoration ecologist, she brings a sense of priorities to the Conservancy’s land protection projects, drawing on information from the state’s Natural Heritage Program where she serves on the advisory committee.

Lindsay Chutas, who chairs the Land Protection Committee, is also an avid outdoor adventurer. But that hasn’t always been true. She golfed and played basketball in high school then turned to ultimate frisbee. It was as a student majoring in geology at the University of Washington that she got an introduction to the great outdoors. When she moved to Spokane she volunteered at the County Conservation District then landed a job as Riparian Program Leader. Like others on the Land Protection Committee, she brings both her work and her passion to the table. These days, in her spare time, Lindsay can often be found roped into a pitch on a high rock cliff overlooking protected lands. As a user of protected lands, she brings an awareness of how groups and individuals are using the land, and she brings professional expertise in restoration and management.

Land Protection Committee member Judy Stafstrom “in the wild”

Peggy O’Connell is the longest serving member of the Land Protection Committee, a former member of the Conservancy board, and a professor of biology (and former Chair of the Biology Department) at Eastern Washington. She and her husband do biodiversity assessments for the tribes, for the Conservancy, and for others in the region. A strong proponent of protection of the full diversity of habitats, she has been known to remind Conservancy staff who are occasionally enamored of forests, that “we are not the Inland Northwest Forest Conservancy!” 

As the Land Conservancy’s Waikiki Springs and Rimrock to Riverside project take shape, as the Conservancy launches Olmstead 2.0 with its promise of a connected network of parks, paths and protected lands, these members of the Land Protection Committee bring community connections, scientific expertise and resources to ambitious land protection goals.