Steinkraus leaves legacy of stewardship for Flathead watershed

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Robin Steinkraus, pictured near Flathead Lake in Polson, retires July 31 as executive director of the Flathead Lakers, a nonprofit organization focused on water quality and other issues in the Flathead Watershed. (Duncan Adams/Daily Inter Lake)

Visits to grandparents in northern Minnesota nurtured in young Robin Steinkraus a love for clean, cold lakes and wild country.

“It was a lot different from hot Iowa cornfields in summer,” Steinkraus said.

The same is true of Northwest Montana, where, since 1997, Steinkraus, a native of Waterloo, Iowa, has served as executive director of Flathead Lakers. The nonprofit organization says its mission is “to protect clean water, healthy ecosystems and lasting quality of life in the Flathead Watershed.”

July 31 will be Steinkraus’ last day at the helm of Flathead Lakers. On July 10, in her office in Polson, she talked about her tenure.

When Steinkraus became executive director, she was the sole employee. Today, in addition to the executive director position, Flathead Lakers employs three part-time workers.

She believes the annual budget a couple of years after she started was about $30,000. Today, it totals about $250,000, she said. The organization holds fundraisers but membership contributions provide its primary source of money, Steinkraus said.

She said Flathead Lakers has about 1,500 members.

And what has been accomplished by the organization, its volunteer board and key partners during her tenure?

A lot, it seems.

The organization’s Critical Lands Project, spearheaded by Constanza von der Pahlen, was launched in 2000 after booming growth and development presented clear threats to water quality in the Flathead River, its tributaries and Flathead Lake. Its purpose is to protect the lands and waters most critical for sustaining water quality, healthy habitat, fish and wildlife, and prime farm land.

In partnership with landowners, scientists, the Flathead Land Trust and Montana Land Reliance, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks, Confederated Salish & Kootenai Tribes, and others, the partnership has worked with interested landowners to protect thousands of acres through voluntary conservation easements and land acquisitions.

Partners have also completed restoration projects to revegetate riverbanks.

Separately, Steinkraus expressed great satisfaction about the outcome of a prolonged fight to protect the Flathead watershed from coal development.

In 2010, the government in British Columbia and the U.S. Congress approved measures banning mining and oil and gas development in the watershed of the North Fork of the Flathead River.

“That was a huge success,” Steinkraus said.

During the 1990s, Flathead Lakers formally intervened in the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s 50-year relicensing of Kerr Dam. Steinkraus said that effort yielded changes in dam operation to protect and restore fisheries and mitigation funding for the dam’s environmental impacts.

And Flathead Lakers was among the individuals and local organizations raising early alarms about the potentially devastating impacts of aquatic invasive species — especially invasive mussels.

“The Lakers were instrumental in the success of the first legislation on aquatic invasive species in 2009 and we’ve successfully worked with local legislators on bills to improve that initial law and to fund an effective state program to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species in every subsequent session,” Steinkraus said.

On the eve of her retirement, what does Steinkraus believe she brought to Flathead Lakers?

“I think I brought vision and direction to the organization while promoting a culture of high ethical standards and teamwork to achieve our mission,” she said.

Building partnerships was important too, she said.

Born and raised in Waterloo, where her father was a carpenter and her mother a bookkeeper, Steinkraus later attended Bemidji State University in Minnesota. She majored in English and philosophy, but an honors seminar introduced Steinkraus to the alluring subject of natural resources.

While at Bemidji State she met Mark Potter, a biology major. One day Potter made two suggestions — that the couple marry and move to Montana, a place they’d never visited. She agreed to both.

Ultimately, Steinkraus graduated from the University of Montana with a master’s degree in environmental studies.

Her jobs after graduation included stints at the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Missoula and at the Flathead Lake Biological Station, where Mark Potter also worked.

After the birth of the couple’s second child, Steinkraus took a break from full-time work. Eventually, she was invited by Dick Wollin of the Flathead Lakers board to complete some part-time administrative tasks for the organization.

Later, she became its full-time executive director.

On Thursday night, at the Flathead Lakers annual meeting, von der Pahlen presented to Steinkraus the organization’s Stewardship Award.

In advance of that meeting, von der Pahlen shared her intended remarks with the Daily Inter Lake.

“It has been my honor and pleasure to work with Robin for 18 years and experience her deep foresight, her tough yet thoughtful questions and, as others have said, for always being available,” von der Pahlen said.

“Partners have said of Robin that she is always polite, yet ‘undaunted by challenges and unafraid to shy away from tough topics’ [and] ‘asking tough or uncomfortable questions for the benefit of all involved,’” von der Pahlen said.

She quoted others who have worked with Steinkraus. She was described as a person who “approaches everything with informed intelligence,” and “absolute personal accountability and integrity.”

Von der Pahlen said Steinkraus demonstrated an exceptional devotion to getting things done.

“Meetings often end with Robin asking, ‘So, who’s doing what, and when will we get that done?’” von der Pahlen said.

Thomas Cox, board president for Flathead Lakers, said he consulted with other board members before sharing these thoughts about Steinkraus’ work.

“Tremendous commitment to the Lakers over many years, great knowledge of the Flathead watershed, effective interaction with others on common concerns — building and maintaining contact with Lakers members through written communications, providing a solid foundation for continued important work and new initiatives,” he said.

Those initiatives have included seeking a comprehensive derailment protection plan along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River to try to protect the river and the watershed downstream from oil spills from railroad cars in a remote and hazard-filled corridor.

Steinkraus’ successor will be Kate Sheridan. Sheridan came to Montana for the environmental studies graduate program at the University of Montana and has spent the six years since obtaining her degree in political, labor and community organizing around the state. She has worked on the Montana Wilderness Association’s public lands campaign and, most recently, for Lake County Community Development.

Meanwhile, Steinkraus said she looks forward to enjoying a break from regular work. But she said she plans to stay involved in efforts to help protect and preserve the unique environment of Northwest Montana.

She said she worries about the far-reaching and potentially destructive impacts of climate change and about international predictions for mass extinctions of species.

“I believe that global warming and the unraveling of our global biotic community are the most critical threats to water, watersheds, ecosystems, communities and people, here and everywhere,” Steinkraus said.

More regionally, she said, there are “iconic fish and wildlife and scenic beauty and all these things we’ve had and loved forever.”

Von der Pahlen’s tribute to Steinkraus included this line: “Robin’s work is a great gift to all our children.”

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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