As of last week, Kalen Cottingham has retired as the Director of the Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO). Over the course of her nearly 15 years leading the agency, she has overseen an incredible array of important projects supporting salmon recovery, expanding recreation access, wildlife protection, and working lands conservation. We didn’t want to let her go without saying goodbye, so we “sat down” with her to reflect on a long and celebrated career helping to protect the lands and waters we rely on.
WALT: Over the years, you’ve gotten to know (and hopefully love) many of our land trusts personally. Do you have any pearls of wisdom for us as we look towards the future and our work with the new Director, Megan Duffy?
Kaleen: As I am about to end my career, at least the paying part, I’ve been looking back on my more than 40 years in natural resources and recognize that we’ve come a long way.We understand that the forest management practices of bygone days aren’t good for our ecosystems.
We don’t strip rivers of their logs and root wads anymore now that we know the wood provides good fish habitat.We recognize that we need to not build so close to the shoreline.
We recognize that we need to not armor the shoreline with bulkheads because of the damage that does to habitat.
We understand the damage caused by a whole host of chemicals from DDT to the copper in brake pads and are taking steps to remove them.
And we understand how important it is to let our lawns go brown in the summer to save water.And the list goes on and on.
There are several items that are on the horizon that we all need to be thinking about now
They’re not making land anymore so it’s up to us to take care of what we have. This is where land trusts have done such a good job and are so important for the future. Land trusts are more nimble than most. You can move a lot quicker than we in government can to buy the land that comes on the market. You are closer to the pulse of local happenings and know better what needs to be saved, and you enjoy more public approval for making land purchases than government.
Climate change is happening now and we all need to do a better job of thinking about and planning for it. If you are not already purchasing lands that will make us more resilient in the face of climate change, you should be.
Population growth will continue into the foreseeable future. How are we going to accommodate that growth and keep the wide-open spaces that make Washington so special today? And how does housing affordability fit into the current strategy for land conservation?
While we are making great strides to fix damaged habitat to recover salmon and orcas, we need to think about preserving what hasn’t been damaged already. It’s a whole lot cheaper.
Government can’t do it alone. And some don’t want government to be in the land acquisition business. The public-private partnerships, which land trusts are so good at, are far more accepted as the way to accomplish land conservation than conservation by government agencies. We will need you in the future more than ever. Or at least until the anti-government sentiment fades away.
It is vitally important that we market the public benefits of land conservation. We live and breathe it, but many people don’t understand the dollars and sense of land conservation and the protection of open space. We have to do a better job of explaining to people–decision-makers and the general public–what’s in it for them with every project and every communication. Public support is so important for all of us to continue to be able to conserve important lands and landscapes.
Finally, we need to be building the next generation of conservationists and stewards. As baby-boomers and Gen Xers move on, who will take their place? The Millennials, who are 25-39 years old, are more disengaged from public and political processes, so we’ll have to develop new ways to recruit them to be our next advocates. We need them to choose careers in natural resources and conservation.
WALT: Do you have any “unfinished business” that you personally hope will continue to be a high priority for the next director and the agency as a whole
Kaleen: RCO has a lot on its plate. We are just wrapping up an update to the state’s strategic plan for salmon recovery and we are just launching the update to the state’s strategic plan for outdoor recreation and conservation. Land trusts need to be involved with both of those efforts because they will guide how the state will invest in lands and outdoor facilities for the next decade and beyond. And the more voices we hear from, the better the plans will be at reflecting the values of every Washingtonian.
WALT: Of all the great land trust projects you’ve overseen through the years, do you have a particular one that stands out personally or exemplifies the ethos of the department? Why?
Kaleen: Our database shows that we’ve given (or are about to give) 371 grants to land trusts. About 70 percent of those grants are related to salmon recovery and 30 percent to conservation (from the Recreation and Conservation Funding Board). It’s hard to pick a favorite. But I’ll pick based on favorite places or people. I like the Bailey Farm conservation easement (Washington Farmland Trust) because the farmer is important to me. I worked for Cliff Bailey when he was a senator in the 1980s. He was a kind man who was passionate about Snohomish County and farming. My next favorite is the North Nemah project in Willapa Bay (Columbia Land Trust) because it’s close to my cabin and next to some friends’ property. My most troublesome one was one that was litigated in Puget Sound (called Beaconsfield acquisition (Forterra)). The purpose of the acquisition was to remove a bulkhead. The litigation was over whether the bulkhead could be removed. The answer was no.
WALT: What has been the most rewarding part of your service (aside from working with WALT, obviously)?
Kaleen: I get to work with some incredible people (inside and outside of RCO) and on issues that I’ve been passionate about all my life–conserving important landscapes and open space. Those of you who work directly with RCO staff know what an incredible gem the RCO is and how helpful and passionate the staff are. What’s not to love about being their leader? I also get to travel (pre-COVID) around the state to see all sorts of fabulous places and meet incredible people. I was born and raised in Washington State and I still love to get to all four corners and everywhere in between. We have conserved some pretty wonderful places.
I have also loved working with the land trusts. You are a group of passionate, dedicated people, who are working everyday for the things I value the most–making sure what we love about Washington–its water, its forests, its shorelines, its farms, and its wildlife habitat–will be here forever.
For me, the most rewarding work has been watching some of those very special places in Washington be conserved. Knowing that they will be protected and restored makes me appreciate that our work is really about leaving a legacy so that those who come after us will still see what a special place Washington is.
The other rewarding piece has been mentoring young professionals–helping them work through challenging issues, helping them navigate the politics of any given land purchase or navigate the state system. It’s rewarding to see them take flight and move into management or director jobs and know the work is in good hands.