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Collaboratives Behind-the-Scenes: Intermountain West Joint Venture

Welcome to the Western Collaborative Conservation Network’s profile series “Collaboratives Behind-the-Scenes.” This series features Q&As with different conservation organizations to provide a view into what it takes to run a collaborative organization from challenges faced in building partnerships to tips for budding organizations. Whether you’re already running a collaborative and are looking to increase your efficiency or are thinking of starting a collaborative but want to know more about what you’re getting into, we hope you find this series insightful!

The Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV) is one of 22 Migratory Bird Joint Ventures across North America. Joint Ventures (JVs) are voluntary, cooperative, regional partnerships that work with stakeholders to conserve habitat for the benefit of birds, wildlife, and people. The IWJV works across 11 western states to “conserve priority bird habitats through partnership-driven, science-based projects and programs.”

Dave Smith, IWJV’s Coordinator, talked with us about the formation of a Joint Venture in the Intermountain West, the organization’s diverse partnerships, and the need to find common ground amongst partners to maintain engagement. 

Note: This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

How did the Intermountain West Joint Venture get started? 


The Joint Ventures arose out of the North American Waterfowl Management Plan (NAWMP) in 1986. That plan was a landmark agreement between the US and Canada to work together to restore habitat to conserve waterfowl populations at desired levels. There had been a big decline through the 1970s to the 80s in waterfowl populations. The birth of it was that doing wetland work whenever and wherever we could wasn’t going to add up. So the idea was that we needed to take this to a more grand scale, but really be strategic about it. The two principles of NAWMP, which are still valid today, were that habitat work had to be implemented strategically to have the greatest benefit to waterfowl populations, and public-private partnerships were essential to implementation at scale.

There was this idea that we needed to have these joint ventures—these self-directed public-private partnerships—working at ecoregional scales. The two governments decided this needed to be a homegrown effort. 

So they said, “These are the most important areas for waterfowl in the country. As the federal government, we’ll offer a coordinator. Now, partners, if you want this, build your own board. Build your own self-directed public-private partnership.” It was brilliant to not be top-down, to not say, “This is all how it has to work,” but to say, “Here’s the idea. If you care about waterfowl and wetlands and habitat and all this, you build your own partnership. But we’ll offer a little bit of help.”

Photo credit: Ali Duvall, IWJV

These initial partnerships were established in the Central Valley of California, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, the Prairie Pothole region—places that were thought to be most important to waterfowl. The Intermountain West was not one of those. We were the white space on the map. In 1994, a group of conservation leaders in the West said, “This Joint Venture idea seems to be gaining traction in other parts of the country. Let’s create one here in the Intermountain West.” And so they did. 

That original board was as homegrown as you could get. They had a vision that was way ahead of its time. In the Intermountain West, just getting a bunch of biologists together to talk about conservation wasn’t going to be successful. We had to have much broader partnerships of stakeholders in this region. They had mining companies, oil and gas, ranchers, farmers, other private landowners, the states, the feds, and so forth at this table. 

From what you know of IWJV’s creation, what tips do you have for newer conservation groups that are just starting? 

A new conservation effort that is forming has to have relevancy from day one. You can’t build that relevancy around success and progress—you’re brand new. Try to think about what’s going to matter, why people want to get engaged. I think that was what the IWJV founding board did pretty successfully by saying, “We’re going to work on conservation, but we’re going to do it together across jurisdictions, across perspectives that might not always align.” They created something new and energizing. 

I’ve been in meetings in congressional offices in Washington DC over the years where a congressional member will say, “What are you folks all doing together? Ducks Unlimited, ConocoPhillips, farmers and ranchers, wildlife people. We normally have individual groups coming in and talking to us.” And that, I think, is part of what’s been successful in the JV world. We’ve found ways to get people with widely different views to find a common ground that makes sense to all of us and is relevant to all of us. 

What tips can you offer other groups when forming partnerships, whether it’s with ranchers or industry groups?

Looking for common ground is number one from my standpoint. The Intermountain West is a place where saying, “We need to restore wetlands because it’s good for birds,” is only going to go so far.

When I came to work in 2007 as the IWJV Coordinator, I was still geared on, “There’s got to be a reason to do this for ducks or for other wetland birds.” But what we came to in 2017, 2018 was a new approach to bird habitat conservation that was as much about people as it was about birds. For example, today our wetland conservation approach is what we call our Water 4 Initiative. It’s “water for” people,  conserving wetlands and water for irrigated agriculture, fish and wildlife habitat, groundwater recharge, and landscape resiliency. How do we make this work for agricultural irrigators and help them stay in the business of flood irrigating meadows that provide tremendous migratory bird habitat, recharge flood plains, and return flows into the streams for fisheries? How do we work with Trout Unlimited and the other native fish partners to improve fish passage? When we’re working together, it’s not fish versus birds, it’s not ranchers versus wildlife. It is about finding stuff where there’s multiple benefits. In the water world, we say, “Same land. Same people. Same water.” There’s no reason to dice it up. Let’s find the common ground.

Photo credit: Hannah Ryan, IWJV

What activities does IWJV dedicate most of its time to? 

We’ve tried a lot of different things. In the early days, our Joint Venture would just provide grant funding to do habitat projects. When I got here in 2007, I came off 3 years working for the NRCS in Montana. Our state NRCS office was handling about $25 million a year. At IWJV, I looked around at an 11-state region, 486 million acres, and we’re going to spend what? $300,000 a year on habitat projects? The tongue-in-cheek story I shared with our Management Board was that NRCS loses that much in the hallway. 

Basically, what I proposed to our Management Board was, “We have to make on-the-ground conservation happen, otherwise we are irrelevant very quickly.” But $300,000 a year of our million-dollar base budget is a drop in the bucket across this region. It’s just not ever going to be anything you can really see. So, how do we help other agencies that have bigger budgets focus dollars in areas that really amount to millions of dollars of habitat conservation and hundreds of thousands of acres of accomplishment? 

The board really bought into that. We talked to a lot of people on the ground across the states and they said, “It’s down to people. There’s more than enough funding for conservation available from the federal agencies. But a lot of times, we don’t have the right people in the right places. We don’t have the capacity.” So we shifted into a capacity grants program. 

We’ve transitioned from there to working with the key federal agencies: the NRCS, the BLM, and hopefully soon the US Forest Service. We put together a model based on helping the agencies build the capacity to implement conservation through partnerships. That involved getting boots on the ground in key locations. In 2012, we started by helping NRCS implement the Sage Grouse Initiative by cost-sharing 24 new positions in rural outposts of sagebrush country. We ended up with $40 million a year being contributed by NRCS into a strategic sagebrush conservation program through what is today known as Working Lands for Wildlife, one of the Nation’s great examples of collaborative conservation. That original capacity, those people at the local scale, had a big role in helping the NRCS spend $40+ million per year over the last decade, helping get landowners interested in those projects. 

We then transitioned into the BLM partnership. Same idea there. The boots-on-the-ground is a big part of what we try to do. We’re helping broker partnerships to share the cost of the person’s salary and the cost of being on the ground in that location. Then that person works with BLM staff to help implement hundreds of thousands of dollars of on-the-ground conservation every year. 

Along with field capacity, we’ve seen a great need in a lot of places to have more science capacity. There’s been a gap for decades in the wildlife management profession between the research and conservation delivery communities. How do you transfer the science and developed tools from researchers to on-the-ground people working on conservation? We’re helping partners find ways to address that gap with workshops and tours and outreach. It’s kind of a whole cottage industry forming around how you do these projects, like beaver dam analogues and low-tech mesic restoration. 

Photo credit: Laurel Anders, IWJV

Another piece of what we do is communications. We see what can happen when you bring diverse partners together and have them work on this common ground, but we also recognize that the conservation community is sometimes talking mostly to ourselves. We have three outstanding communications specialists working for the IWJV today because our Management Board deeply understands and appreciates the value of strategic communications. We’re using a wide array of communications tactics and tools, and one of the most promising is storytelling. We believe the stories of rural people, landscapes, and wildlife from this region of the West will strike a vibrant chord with people that live in the urban areas and other parts of the country.

And lastly, we focus on partnerships. We work across 11 different states and have partnerships at national, state, and local levels. We think every day about how best to build and strengthen partnerships, leverage funds, and build momentum for conservation.

So, those four areas—field capacity, science-technical transfer, communications, and partnership development—are really what we do. 

Considering those four areas, is there anything you would ideally like to dedicate more resources to? 

Looking ahead, it’s probably about expanding into the western forests. That was a strategic omission in our habitat conservation portfolio for a long time. Western forests are a big chunk of our region, but we struggled to understand how we could be effective in forestry issues, how we could be a valued partner, how to engage with the US Forest Service. And honestly, we didn’t have the capacity to go there. So far, we’ve drawn a line that we are only going to work on the sagebrush and water issues. And I think we have shown pretty significant accomplishment in both those arenas. If you try to work on everything, you can get so scattered as a partnership that you can’t really make tangible accomplishments.

That said, we currently have stellar leadership from the US Forest Service on our Management Board, and it looks like this is the right time for us to expand into western forest work. There’s a clear nexus between forest restoration, improved hydrology and downstream water supplies, and reversing the well-chronicled three billion bird decline.  Western forest birds declined 29 percent over the last 50 years. We’ve not yet launched a new western forest initiative, but we’re doing a lot of homework on it, and it sure appears that there’s a need for some of the things we can do pretty well.

How do you measure if you’re being successful? 

We did some strategic planning focused on what we do really well. What makes this organization click? We boiled it down to four core values: 

The first core value is relationships. Why would oil and gas, wildlife organizations, and ranchers want to work together? We’re relentless about wanting to build those relationships and find common ground. 

Number two is that we had to take a strategic approach. We’re working on a landscape that’s 486 million acres. $4.5 million doesn’t go very far across 486 million acres if you were just spending it on on-the-ground projects, so we’ve really figured out how to be strategic in our work. Right now, we’re highly focused on water and wetlands, and the sagebrush ecosystem. We believe those two things are going to define the West in the future. 

The third is innovation. Because we’re a self-directed public-private partnership, we are able to live in an innovative world where we can put new ideas in motion in ways that some larger agencies can’t do as quickly. We’re always looking for new ways to spur conservation and help partners get things done.

Our fourth core value is “get ‘er done.” That came from our board member Jim Stone, a pretty well known rancher from Ovando, Montana. Jim and the other private landowners have brought a lot to this Management Board, including the concept of, “Let’s not just be a group that convenes and talks and thinks. Let’s be a group that actually catalyzes some conservation on the ground and tries to help scale up strategic, landscape-based conservation on working lands.”

Photo credit: Ali Duvall, IWJV

Of those things, the one measure of success that’s probably most telling is if our management board is engaged. If they are, you’re going down the right road. If they cease to be engaged, you better step back, take a look. Today, we have an incredible executive-level Management Board, 12 employees, and a $4.5 million budget made up of $1 million of base funding from the US Fish and Wildlife Service and $3.5 million contributed by our key partners (BLM, NRCS, ConocoPhillips, Rocky Mountain Power, and other programs of the Fish and Wildlife Service). That level of engagement by the Management Board and the $3.5 million in partner contributions is indicative that we are working on relevant issues, filling a key niche, and getting things done.

We’re thinking about all four of those things all the time: relationships, strategic approaches, innovation, and get ‘er done. And we need to see all four. We can’t really get by by saying, “Ok, we’re going to innovate. We’re going to be strategic in our thinking. We’re going to be building a lot of relationships.” But if nothing’s getting done on the ground that we influenced, we’re going to be losing engagement. 

How do you maintain interest in your organization?

There’s a number of tools we’ve used to sustain high levels of engagement. A lot of that comes back to our Management Board. We have four board meetings a year. In a normal setting, we would have two in-person board meetings. Those are big events. Part of the fun is that we take our executive-level Management Board out on a field tour the day before a board meeting. We rotate these around the West, so you’re getting to see most of the Intermountain West over 5 years. Those field tours are based with our local partners,showing things that are getting done on the ground, challenges, partnerships. Those field tours, there’s a little bit of secret sauce there, that you’re mixing the executives with the on-the-ground people and it’s really fun! Our management board members that are running agencies or working at really high levels in US government, they’re like, “This is one of the best days I’ve had, to be out on the ground in the Blackfoot Valley of Montana. We saw all this. It was wonderful.” The people on the ground are appreciative of us bringing leaders to their local landscape. 

In the board meeting, we do a reception at the beginning, a group awards dinner, things like that throughout that whole 3-day time period that provides the board members and some of the local partners a whole lot of time to get to know each other and build friendships in many cases. In my career, I’ve seen so much value come out of those personal relationships that have been built around time together. 

The other big piece of running the organization that we do that’s a little different than most entities is an annual operational plan once a year. Most entities would do a 5-year strategic plan. We do that. We have an implementation plan. But the annual operational plan is pushing ourselves to say, “Are we spending our time and energy on the right things in the right places? And are we adaptable to change?” Every new administration brings a new set of ideas, new priorities. We have to adapt to the external environment we’re living in. The climate is changing, public sentiment is changing all the time, and, to me, it’s unrealistic to think that over 5 years you’re just going to wake up every day and just know what to do. We don’t generally make gargantuan shifts year to year. It’s subtle, but it’s taking the time and effort to ask ourselves the hard questions. We relentlessly challenge our Management Board and staff to ask the right questions and make the adjustments needed to know we are spending the time and the energy and the resources in the right places.  

Thank you to Dave Smith for sharing his experience and reflections!

Find out more about Intermountain West Joint Venture on their website

If you have a chance, be sure to take a look at our profile highlighting the challenges emerging leaders face when entering the conservation field. You can find out more about IWJV’s work in leadership development through the Western Conservation Leadership Development Program. This program works to “equip a diverse set of public and private partners in the western region with the leadership and relationship capacities that are needed to inspire and create a legacy of conservation for future generations.”

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