Grace departs KLT as organization flourishes

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(Courtesy photo) Eric Grace, Kaniksu Land Trust executive director, is moving on after leading the organization to a successful community-based model since joining KLT in 2011.

SANDPOINT — Through hard work, dedication, and a network of dedicated board members, staff and volunteers, Kaniksu Land Trust has been successfully transformed to a community-based model, somewhat unique to an organization of its kind.

Leadership has played a key role in that transformation as well. Since 2011, Eric Grace has led KLT through the transition to a community-based model with a focus on education and health, going above and beyond the traditional land trust model.

“It has been a privilege for me, quite honestly, to be here,” Grace said as his final days serving as the organization’s executive director for KLT ticked away this past week.

Friday, in fact, was Grace’s last day at KLT, as he departs for Boise to begin a new journey as executive director for the Land Trust of the Treasure Valley. The new job, however, is not the reason he chose to leave KLT.

“I was leaving this job regardless, because I felt I’d done what I needed to do here at the land trust, at Kaniksu,” Grace said. “The Treasure Valley job, that just happened to be luck of timing ... My decision to leave here was based really on the fact that I’ve been here for seven-and-a-half years, and I felt that I have gotten the organization to a really good place, a really solid, strong place … and it was a time for change.”

Jim Zuberbuhler, KLT board of directors chair, said the transition “truly” reflects well on KLT in a variety of ways. The organization is in good shape financially, has a “wonderful” staff and a strong board, Zuberbuhler said, so while he has known of Grace’s plan to resign since November, the board is in no hurry to replace him.

“We have the luxury of going about a thoughtful process, and in great part because of the work that Eric has done over the last seven-and-a-half years,” Zuberbuhler said. “Eric is taking this job, which will be wonderful for him, but it’s also really great for us that we feel strongly about him moving into this great new job ... As I said, it reflects well on Kaniksu Land Trust that he has landed well, and we have certainly been supportive of him.”

Regan Plumb, KLT conservation director, will serve as interim executive director. Zuberbuhler said KLT is currently in the process of doing an organizational self-assessment, after which the board will develop an appropriate job description and post the position.

From a “global perspective,” Grace said what he is most proud of during his time at KLT is that it is now an organization that is making meaningful impacts to the community as a whole.

When he first started at the land trust, it was called the Pend Oreille-Clark Fork Conservancy — changing the name was one of the first things he did. POCFC was founded in 2002. While the organization was doing good habitat protection work, he said, it wasn’t engaging people to the extent he felt that a land trust should.

It is easy to appeal to the bird watchers, the hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts, he said, but there is a large segment of people in Idaho’s Bonner and Boundary counties, and Sanders County in Montana, who do not think about conservation. Grace wanted to find a way to appeal to those people as well.

“Everybody benefits from conservation — how do you get them to understand that?” Grace said. “You do programming that is relevant to them.”

And so they did. KLT has added education in schools, as well as programs outside of school for kids. Working with many of the schools in the Lake Pend Oreille School District, KLT delivered more than 70 days of in-school education to students in 2017, reaching an average of 250 students per week. KLT also supports participation in the Idaho State Forestry Contest held annually in Careywood. Outside of school, KLT offers an after-school “WildCrafting” program, as well as summer and winter camps.

KLT’s ParkRx program promotes public health, working with doctors to prescribe walks in nature for patients, as time in nature is proved to have positive impacts on physical and mental health.

“We are sort of innovating in a way of combining education, combining public health, all with conservation, and we have done that really well,” Grace said. “That’s what I am most proud of, because that’s made us a community institution, as opposed to an elite environmental group. We are an organization that speaks to everybody in this community.”

Zuberbuhler said the KLT model is still unusual in the land trust world, and has attracted the attention and support of the national Land Trust Alliance, as well as regional organizations such as the Idaho Coalition of Land Trusts.

“Eric has a pioneering attitude about his work,” said Wendy Ninteman, western director for the Land Trust Alliance. “He likes to try new approaches, to push the boundaries of more traditional conservation projects, to engage diverse audiences. He is committed to making the benefits of land and water conservation more accessible to more people in the communities Kaniksu serves. Pine Street Woods is a perfect example of that. This has made Eric, and Kaniksu, national leaders in what the Land Trust Alliance calls ‘community conservation’ — land trusts engaging communities in broader, deeper and more meaningful ways, enhancing the impact of and support for land conservation. Eric was just the right person at just the right time for Kaniksu and for Sandpoint. He had the business sense to be able to build a professional, nationally accredited nonprofit, and the heart to recognize the importance of putting people — all kinds of people — in the conservation equation.

“He should be able to leave Kaniksu feeling a sense of accomplishment, and confidence knowing that he’s leaving Kaniku in the capable hands of a strong and talented staff and board. We are sad to see Eric leave Sandpoint, but are pleased that he will continue to be an important part of the land conservation community nationally and regionally at The Land Trust of The Treasure Valley in Boise.”

While KLT’s community-based model is unique, Zuberbuhler said the organization has not abandoned the traditional conservation easement, only reinforced it. On the conservation side, KLT’s 26 protection projects span more than 3,600 acres across Bonner, Boundary and Sanders counties. Grace said KLT did more conservation work in 2018 than in any year previous.

“So not only are we bringing in more money, getting more volunteers, reaching and having meaningful impacts with more people, but the land protection side is increasing as well,” Grace said. “So across the board, everything has benefited.”

But none of it came without risk — and a lot of hard work, Grace said.

It was a “big leap of faith,” Zuberbuhler said, when KLT embarked on the $2.1 million Pine Street Woods campaign. The main driver behind Pine Street Woods was the development of the organization’s education and health programs. While there is conservation value in the land, he said, it was not a conservation-first drive. It was about “connecting people to the land in a meaningful way,” and it is close to town, Zuberbuhler said, which is a big shift for a land trust.

The 160-acre purchase was the first capital campaign for KLT, Grace said.

“To jump in and do a $2.1 million campaign with no track record other than the experiences that we had collectively brought to the board and the staff, that was ambitious — that was very ambitious,” Grace said. “If we had started it in 2012-2013, we wouldn’t have been ready.”

For its programming, KLT has several partners in the community, including the school district, the Music Conservatory of Sandpoint, Mountain States Early Head Start, the East Bonner Library District and Kinderhaven.

Grace’s ability to build those partnerships and relationships with others in the community helped in the Pine Street Woods campaign as well. Major foundations such as the Equinox Foundation, LOR Foundation, the U.S. Forest Service, Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and the Innovia Foundation gifted funds toward the campaign, as did Idaho Forest Group, the family of Jessie and Luther Cunningham and Middle Fork River Tours. More than $250,000 was donated through individual and small foundation gifts as well.

Then there is Lester L.E. Krause, who had inherited 20 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to the Pine Street Woods. Grace reached out, and by the end of the 90-minute phone call, Krause had agreed to donate the land to KLT. But again, Grace said, had KLT been the organization of 2012, the agreement never would have been reached. Grace said he spent the first 45 minutes of that conversation answering difficult questions posed by Krause, but he had the confidence and ability to answer them.

“Things like that happen if you are putting yourself out there and you are professional, you are running a good organization — there is going to be serendipity that comes your way,” Grace said.

After raising the $2.1 million last year, Pine Street Woods is expected to be open to the public this summer. The property purchase was $1.8 million, with $300,000 going toward improvements such as trail building, signage, road improvements, toilets, a parking area and more. Grace said they will be expanding KLT’s summer camp this year to five, one-week sessions that will be held at the Pine Street Woods.

“I am very proud of what I have been able to do,” Grace said. “My only regret is that I am not going to be here as the Pine Street Woods gets developed to see what it looks like in three years. It’s not too far to come back, and I’m sure I will, but it would be really fun to be part of that process.”

Mary Malone can be reached by email at mmalone@bonnercountydailybee.com and follow her on Twitter @MaryDailyBee.

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