The Story Behind the Story

I was a somewhat seasoned professional returning to college for a master’s degree in environmental studies. I was investing in my future, so I chose my educational institution carefully. I looked for a program that was designed around contemporary conservation ideas but that also embraced cultural traditions. I sought committed and creative professors and innovative coursework. And I hunted down a chance to better comprehend the scientific and philosophical concepts of ecology and conservation biology, and the principles of resource management. I was intrigued by the extensive and comprehensive curriculum offered by Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont—one of the nation’s pioneer environmental liberal arts colleges. It created immediate opportunities to transcend conventional graduate education by requiring students to apply their knowledge identifying and solving issues of their home bioregion. The thesis-based master’s program appeared distinctive and appealing.

Once enrolled, I was given the choice of a “traditional” thesis—try to develop a provocative research project that offers groundbreaking thinking—or an “applied project” thesis which, while not groundbreaking, might immediately benefit the community and region’s natural resources. I chose the latter. I wanted a project that would combine my new education with my lifetime of experiences and take advantage of my organizational talent (or severe affliction, depending on whom you ask).

I reached out to a few trusted sources in my search for a thesis project. Thanks to a mutual friend, I landed in a Kalispell café with a respected, long-time Flathead community educator, Lex Blood. His apprehension of taking on a project of this type with a typical graduate student melted quickly as he learned about my experience, interests and work ethic. He spoke to me about a group of educators with whom he was involved, and a project they were hoping to accomplish. I was interested in hearing more and meeting the people for whose work in their real jobs I had so much respect. Lex brought me to a meeting of the CORE Watershed Education Committee where eight dedicated professionals discussed some general Flathead resource education business and then “the project.” With the inclusion of other interested people, this group became the steering committee which met periodically throughout the project.

The project discussed that day became a huge part of my life for the following two years. The idea initially met with great skepticism outside the steering committee. Every potential participant I spoke with wanted to see the book and website materialize. But few thought it was doable. One person laughed. My thesis committee expressed their deep concern for the massive scope of the project. Perhaps they thought that if I put the level of energy into my thesis that I was putting into their classes, I might explode or implode. Fortunately, I incorporated many hours of project research into my coursework. Throughout the project, Lex—who had become my local thesis advisor—strongly supported my work, but expressed concern over the timeframe I had set to complete it. The project changed and grew in complexity as such endeavors often do, but we never allowed it to waver from the committee’s original intent.

It was a breathtaking amount of work. It required extensive research and endless hours of writing. But half of the effort was in procedures and communications. Research included extensive exploration, excursions to college and public libraries, copious reading, field trips, and hundreds of conversations. After returning all of the “borrowed” reference books, I was left with a pile of material just under five feet high. I developed a review process with electronic filing forms, and identified and engaged reviewers. I was in constant contact with more than 60 reviewers throughout the project, balancing and incorporating their suggestions. I created a process for the more than 50 individual submissions, and in a few cases conducted interviews and drafted the narratives. Each one required review cycles, photo management, design time, and numerous communications. These contributions would become the Watershed Perspectives that populate the book. Funding the project was a slow, intricate, and sometimes complex task. There were extensive grant applications, presentations, and letters of rejection. But as the project started to come together and content began circulating across appropriate desks, organizations and individuals stepped in with their support.

I appreciated the opportunity to work with the steering committee and the many people and organizations of the Flathead Watershed to bring this book and its companion website to the community.

And, I did earn a Master of Science along the way.

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