Karen Knudsen

Who are you, and what do you do?

I’m Karen Knudsen and I am the Executive Director of the Clark Fork Coalition (CFC), a member-supported organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the Clark Fork watershed.

What has been one insight or lesson that has been most helpful in your career?

Having strategies that begin and end with your personal values – the things and ideas that matter to you most. For me, that includes positivity, perseverance, openness, kindness, humility, gratitude, and a commitment to action on behalf of nature. When you are operating in sync with your personal values, your career decisions have force and coherence. Your inner and outer ambitions are in balance. You get your head and your heart in the game, which is a powerful and joyful place to be.

What has been your favorite mistake? A mistake that in retrospect led to a great lesson and progress.

Mistakes can be painful, but they teach us so much! About 10 years ago, the CFC partnered with Missoula County on a land-use ordinance that would have required new buildings to be set back a certain distance from local waterways. Our stream assessments showed that growth and development in floodplains and riparian zones were harming stream health and function, degrading water quality, and putting landowners at risk. And surveys at the time showed strong public support for government action to tackle these problems. To us, that signaled a “green light” to propose setback regulations. The effort totally backfired. Angry mobs turned out to the half a dozen public meetings we held throughout the County, and made comments like: “This is yet another example of government trying to steal private property! Your surveys are bogus! Your science is wrong! You’re just getting a toehold and then you’ll come in and take more! Go back to California!” No question: we misread the social and political optics on this one and didn’t seek out input from likely skeptics before the public rollout.

This stumble forever changed how we do advocacy at the CFC. We now make it a point to seek out opposing viewpoints, engage in dialogue with diverse interests, look for areas of overlapping interest, and get better attuned to our blind spots. This lesson has paid off in important ways over the years – particularly in our efforts to work with landowners and agricultural communities on sharing and managing the waters we all share.

Project forward ten years. How will your industry or field be fundamentally different then? What opportunities do you see?

Mind you, I’m an optimist. But in 10 years, I see growing interest and investment in river conservation and water resource protection and management. That will trigger more opportunities and interdisciplinary approaches in this field – and in the nonprofit, government, and private sectors. The devastating effects of recent flooding, droughts, and extreme fires are hitting home for more and more people and a water ethic is taking root. In a decade, fewer people will buy into the false dichotomy that it’s jobs vs. clean water, or that it’s the economy vs. the environment. It’s becoming plainly obvious that we won’t have a sustainable economy without a sustainable environment. And water is the foundation for both.

What are some bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?

That hydroelectric dams are a source of clean, renewable energy. While they don’t burn fossil fuels to produce electricity, hydroelectric dams have a whole host of downsides, including: blocking free-flowing wild rivers, reducing populations of migrating fish, altering habitat, disrupting the timing of flows, triggering methane emissions from their reservoirs that may even cancel out energy gains, and displacing people. Right now, 3,500 new dams are proposed worldwide. Rather than building new dams, we should be expanding efficiencies and capacity in existing ones and investing in hydropower technologies that don’t involve dams or diversions.

In the last two years, what have you become better at saying no to?

Saying no is hard. However, to deliver on our mission in a dynamic, rapidly changing world, it’s imperative that CFC maintains a sharp focus on core initiatives, and preserves the internal space and time to innovate, adjust strategy, and capture opportunity. For that reason, the “no’s” mostly cluster around requests from other groups to partner on a new project or campaign. Collaborating with partners whose lives and livelihoods are linked to the river is one of our core values at CFC. Sharing ideas, lessons learned, and financial resources are huge benefits of collaborative partnerships – not to mention the unexpected solutions they often generate. That’s why we carefully assess all requests and ask if the issue is “wet enough” and aligned with our core mission whenever asked.

What is the one book you recommend most often and why?

No question: A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. This book is a Montana classic. On its face, the story seems to be about Maclean’s tumultuous relationship with his brother and their shared love of fly-fishing on the Big Blackfoot River. But it is a much grander story than that. With fly fishing as the vehicle, A River Runs Through It explores deeper mysteries, beauties, and truths about the world and its moving parts, including family, religion, art, and nature. It affirms an important fact about life – namely, that we’re all connected and we’re all in this together. That’s an important message for these times.

What advice would you give a smart and ambitious recent college graduate? What advice should they ignore?

Even though you have a degree in hand, I’d suggest re-reading Mary Oliver’s poem, The Summer Day. Her final line – Tell me, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” – can really focus some deep thinking on the subject of what’s next! In that vein, my advice is to commit to something large and important – something so big it can’t be completed in a single lifetime. Ask yourself, “What is life asking of me? How can I match my training, education, and intrinsic talents with one of the world’s deep needs?” Once you have some answers (it took me 4 years of ski bumming after college to get a handle on those questions!), get busy and activate your networks. With any luck, you’ll have widened the circle of relationships with people who know you and care about you while you were in college. Talk with them. Find out what lights their emotional and intellectual fires. See who they know in your field of interest. Tap their connections, find out what paths are out there, what skills you need, what advice or work they might have for you. Volunteer and immerse yourself in the mix of causes in your community! Be open to possibilities and embrace your adventurous spirit.

Advice to ignore is: “Have a plan.” It’s mostly excellent advice, but not always. In life and in a career, you have to be ready to mobilize in the face of tough and unexpected problems. You need to be able to move ahead with partial solutions and pursue something open-ended, trusting that you will invent the rest as you go along. If you have your vision in sight and are operating in sync with your personal values, obstacles become learning adventures and mere detours on the road to your ultimate goal.

What is your favorite quote, one you aim to live by?

Ugh, it’s so hard to choose among the many that I keep close! But to get me fired up for a day speaking up for the river, there’s nothing like a little Edward Abbey: The idea of wilderness needs no defense, it only needs defenders.