Swan Valley conservation groups merge

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Northwest Montana has a new conservation organization after two longtime nonprofits in the Swan Valley announced a merger to kick off the new year.

Swan Valley Connections announced itself last week as a new 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that combines the land stewardship-focused Swan Ecosystem Center with Northwest Connections, which had served primarily as an education organization.

“Over the years, each organization evolved to fill their niche, but began overlapping more and more in the work that each conservation organization did,” Maria Mantas, the new director for Swan Valley Connections, said Wednesday.

Mantas was the executive director for the Swan Ecosystem Center and said the recent departure of the Northwest Connections director provided an opportunity for the groups to join forces.

“We are just dovetailing beautifully to set ourselves up for a really comprehensive conservation and education program.”

She stressed, however, that the focus of the new organization would remain local. The Swan Ecosystem Center began as a cooperative of local landowners, focusing on winning grants for conservation projects on private land including hazardous fuel reductions, invasive weed eradication and wetlands restoration.

Along with very little historical land conversion, the Swan Valley’s substantial wetlands make it an ecologist’s dream — even by Northwest Montana’s standards.

Mantas said about 16 percent of the forested valley floor is wetlands, far more than any other intermountain valley in Western Montana. Most valleys in the region have wetlands covering only 1 to 2 percent of their overall area.

“Any wildlife biologist will tell you, when you increase wetlands you increase biodiversity, the number of species you have,” she said. “Kind of our forte is we have habitat for wolves, Canada lynx and grizzly bears, and these are animals that live here, it’s not like in the Flathead Valley where they occasionally move onto private land. Private land here is habitat for those species.”

Conducted in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, forest carnivore monitoring had been one of Northwest Connections’ largest research projects. The program has been going since 2012, and using hundreds of DNA samples, researchers have captured baseline population data on lynx, wolverine and fisher populations in the area.

Northwest Connections was a predominantly education organization, offering semester-long coursework in ecology, resource management and a host of other classes for which students could earn college credit. Those programs will continue under the auspices of Swan Valley Connections, according to Mantas.

“When we decided to merge, what we committed to was providing all the same services and all the same programs that the two organizations had provided before the merger,” she said. “But over the next year or two ... we’re not averse to revamping programs, changing things up and dropping old things that don’t work anymore.”

One of the new organization’s goals is to expand beyond its current confines in the southwest Crown of the Continent, which extends from Rogers Pass to Missoula and north to the upper Swan Valley, also covering the Blackfoot River and Clearwater drainage.

“Now that we’re larger and have greater staff and efficiencies, we’ll be able to reach out even further and expand our geographic reach,” she said.

About half of the organization’s $1 million budget comes from “pass-through” grants, those that immediately get redistributed for projects such as fuels reduction or wetlands restoration on private property. Another big chunk comes from tuition for college-level coursework. Foundation grants and private donations make up the rest.

Swan Valley Connections has retained all the two groups’ staff, but Mantas said about four positions had been left unfilled in preparation for the merger.

Housed in the former Swan Ecosystem Center office in Condon, the new organization employs 11 people — most of whom have academic backgrounds in natural sciences.

“It’s almost as if all the stars lined up to give us the perfect staff to carry our mission forward. The staff we have here are just outstanding people in the fields, and I’m super-thrilled to be working with such a great group,” she said. “I think we have a lot of great things to come.”

Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at swilson@dailyinterlake.com.

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