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Doni’s note: In September, Ben Miles replaced Kathleen Gilman, Shasta Land Trust director and founder. Today we meet Ben Miles and hear what he has to say about his new position. Stay tuned for Kathleen Gilman’s upcoming Q&A.
Q: First, congratulations on your new position. Would you please tell us a little about yourself?
A: Thank you, Doni. I have been a Shasta County resident now for about a year and a half. I moved here from Chattanooga, Tennessee, where I received a Master’s degree in Environmental Science. I grew up on a small farm in central Kentucky, where my parents still live. I received a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from the University of the South, then moved to Flagstaff, Arizona where I spent two years working for a conservation corps. I lived in a variety of places between my undergrad and graduate schooling, including a year working on an organic farm in the redwoods of Mendocino County.
Q: How did you end up as the new Land Trust director? What kind of education path leads someone to this position? Also, when was your official first day in that role?
A: I started as Executive Director of Shasta Land Trust on September 2, after Labor Day. Though I did not know it at the time, it seems I had been ‘interviewing’ for the position of Executive Director since Kathleen Gilman hired me as Land Projects Manager in the summer of 2007. At the time I was hired, Kathleen had already discussed with our Board of Directors the possibility of her retiring, and they had all been evaluating the possibility of me taking on that role upon her eventual retirement. I guess I passed the evaluation.
As far as what education led me to this role, there could have been no greater preparation than the year I spent working for SLT as a Land Projects Manager. During that time I became intimately familiar with all of our current projects, as well as procedures for completing those projects. Additionally, Kathleen was quietly tutoring me on all things that have to do with the operational and fundraising elements of this organization, though I didn’t readily see that at the time.
Q: Do you have a philosophy about a Land Trust’s role in a community?
A: I think one of the many things that Kathleen did extremely well throughout her leadership of SLT was to build a strong base of support for the organization within the community. I am continually inspired and overwhelmed by the level of support and generosity that so many of our supporters bring to SLT.
As a local, community-supported non-profit conservation organization, Shasta Land Trust will always strive to serve the public of the northstate. In order to do that, we must maintain the strong relationships we have with local citizens, as well as continually work to engage new members of the public in what we do. Our mission to conserve land in this region to the benefit of local residents can only be accomplished through continued collaboration between Shasta Land Trust, our supporters, and other members of our community.
Q: Are there common misconceptions about what a Land Trust does and doesn’t do?
A: Land trusts across the country take many different forms and engage in a variety of work, but as far as Shasta Land Trust, I’d say the most common misconception relates to perceived ownership of the land projects on which we work.
I often hear people talk about SLT properties, or Trust-owned lands, which is not exactly correct. With minor exceptions, all SLT land projects currently involve conservation easements on privately owned ranches. The private landowners continue to own the land and may continue to use it in certain ways, but SLT has acquired an easement which prevents certain land uses which are deemed incompatible with protection of the land’s conservation resources. Therefore, we do not purchase or own the property outright; instead we own or “hold” the easement which gives us certain responsibilities and also grants certain rights. Those rights do not include the right to access the property at any time, nor do they mean SLT performs maintenance of the Property. It is a minor distinction, but important to the details of our projects.
Q: What are the area’s special challenges, and conversely, opportunities not found elsewhere?
A: From a land conservation perspective, the Shasta County region offers enormous OPPORTUNITIES which far outweigh some minor challenges that are unique to this area. Specifically, this area has not suffered the landscape-level conversion of open space to residential uses. Of course there has been of a lot of development here, as there has been all over the world, but in Shasta County there are still vast expanses of undeveloped and rich open space. Land here is still in large chunks and large properties in many places, which makes large-scale land conservation noticeably easier to accomplish. While further development is assured here and everywhere else, the largely intact conservation resources of this region present an extremely exciting opportunity to accomplish meaningful conservation within a context that can support permanent protections and productive use of land.
Q: How do you see Kathleen’s time with the Land Trust, and how does that differ from what you see as the task before you?
A: Any time a small non-profit, such as Shasta Land Trust, loses its executive leadership, the transition will be difficult. In Kathleen, SLT lost someone who was instrumental in the organization’s formation as well as its development over the past 10 years. At times, Kathleen was the only employee of SLT, and she has always been the face of the organization.
I can never hope to replace that level of leadership. My hope is that I can help guide the organization as we enter our second decade of existence, and that I can carry on the tradition of superior community leadership that Kathleen exemplified through Shasta Land Trust for so many years. I should add, also, that Kathleen is still volunteering with SLT quite a bit, and is always available as an advisor to me, which has been invaluable as we’ve negotiated a fairly smooth transition. Also, our Board of Directors has been absolutely incredible in helping me grow into the new position of Executive Director.
Q: Anything you’d like to add?
A: Shasta Land Trust is hosting a ‘Holiday Open House’ on Thursday, December 4 at our offices on West Street. It will be open to the public and all are welcome to come by. Also, SLT has a couple of very exciting land projects which will be completed in the coming weeks. I’m really looking forward to sharing news of some amazing properties that will receive permanent protection very soon, so please ‘stay tuned.’