This week, I threw off my COVID shackles and traveled to Spokane to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the Spokane Conservation District‘s shiny new building.
Board members, staff (current and from earlier eras), partners, and more gathered to hear about how this amazing project came to be and to celebrate this accomplishment. (More information about the project is available at https://www.spokanecd.org/property-updates/.)
The Spokane CD means Conservation District team did a wonderful job of tying this modern-day accomplishment to their past. Their new board room features a mural wall that memorializes the many people who have been instrumental in the success of the district. Those of us who remember Jim Armstrong (wasn’t he the first WADE is the Washington Association of District Employees president?) may recognize his handiwork in some of the photos that are on the wall. That collage of photos will witness every future board meeting of the Spokane CD means Conservation District. It is a wonderful testament to their people and an anchor to their roots.
As I wandered through the new facility and listened to the presentations, I felt a lot of emotions stirring. I invested years of intense effort in the construction of the Clackamas SWCD conservation resource center and the acquisition of their Eagle Creek Community Forest. Most folks don’t realize how much of myself I put into those initiatives. My spouse certainly does because I spent almost every day for two years on-site on one or both of those projects!
So I know from my own experience how much Spokane CD means Conservation District Director Vicki Carter had put into their incredible achievement. I know how exhausted she is right now. I know that she doesn’t quite know how to feel about her huge accomplishment because while folks are celebrating it, she is seeing all the work that still needs to be done.
I could talk about the amazing partnerships Vicki created that were critical to getting to this moment. I could talk about the serendipity of driving by a site and going up the driveway just in case it could be the one the district had been looking for. I could talk about how well the Spokane CD means Conservation District connected their building to their unique property and to their region. I could talk about how Vicki and I have been there for each other for nearly 30 years, checking in with each other and seeking the other’s counsel a few times (sometimes several times!) a year.
What I will talk about is the intense sense of family and appreciation that was evident on Wednesday when a cedar garland was cut in their ribbon-cutting ceremony. What washed over me in that moment was how much love and appreciation for each other was in evidence. The feeling I had was that these are my people and I am a part of this family, present and appreciated as much as anyone else.
In a career where the gifts of time and caring by conservation district board members and employees are not often visibly appreciated, that moment in the new Spokane CD means Conservation District building was truly overwhelming.
As the celebration came to a close, I visited with some folks from my conservation community history. Some had been on their way to retirement as I came into the community. Some I worked with for many years. Some I still work with. There was a strong sense of continuity. I could sense the faith and belief that their family would always succeed.
As soon as I could, I escaped to my car in the parking lot because my eyes were filled with tears. In my experience, the feelings of love, family, faith, belief, honor, and appreciation present in that room on Wednesday were not something we usually see at a conservation district event. We rarely see or hear true, heartfelt appreciation of board members. Similarly, we rarely express appreciation for the heart invested by district employees as they work to fulfill the district’s mission.
It was so rare — at least to me — that the emotions hit me suddenly and hit me hard. I was overwhelmed. As I write this a few days later, I still am.
The achievement of the Spokane Conservation District deserves to be noticed and celebrated. It is an incredible accomplishment on their long journey toward this outcome.
But we should also remember that every conservation district board member in Washington State gives their time and energy in the often thankless task of governing local conservation districts. Without boards, we would not have functioning, effective districts. How do we make sure that they know how much their investment is valued and appreciated?
Every conservation district employee cares deeply about the mission and values of their conservation district. They wouldn’t be in a conservation career if they did not care about natural resources and people. How do we acknowledge their value and appreciate their vital work?
In my 29 years in our conservation community, I have come to believe that the Washington Association of Conservation Districts represents conservation districts. What do I mean by that? I’ve heard people say that WACD is the Washington Association of Conservation Districts is an association of conservation district supervisors. I do not agree. WACD is the Washington Association of Conservation Districts is an association of member conservation districts: whole, entire districts. Our conservation districts succeed because board members and employees respect and honor their different roles as they work together to achieve their mission. They could not succeed if they only had a board of supervisors. They could not succeed if they only had staff. Our people have become symbiotic, helping the organism to be successful. Therefore, WACD is the Washington Association of Conservation Districts is an association of whole, entire conservation districts.
When conservation district supervisors succeed, we succeed. When conservation district employees succeed, we succeed. When our partners succeed, we succeed. We are all part of a community where when one of us stumbles, the rest are there to help pick us up. When one of us has a big win, the rest are there to help us celebrate.
The Spokane Conservation District demonstrates this sense of a whole conservation district with clearly stated roles and responsibilities for their people, all working toward a common mission, and taking the time to honor and appreciate the great value that each person brings to the district’s work. They are not the only conservation district in Washington State to function like this but with their new building, they bring to us the newest and most remarkable accomplishment for us to celebrate.
I’ll paraphrase an exchange between Galatea and Andrew in the movie Bicentennial Man where, in my summarized version, Galatea exclaims: “I’m unique, you’re unique! We’re the same!” (A more widely known quote on this theme is by Margarat Mead: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”) Every one of our 45 districts is unique. Every person governing or staffing or partnering or being served by a conservation district is unique. What binds us together is love: love of land, of water, of wildlife, of farming, of forestry, of voluntary approaches, love of each other, and more. With love comes the opportunity to express that bond by telling people how much you do appreciate and value them. We don’t do it often, and we certainly don’t do it often enough.
I felt that on Wednesday in Spokane. It was such a rare and powerful moment and I wish we could pause and truly appreciate each other more often. It had deep meaning for me and I think it would be meaningful to many of our people in every conservation district in Washington State.
Tom Salzer, WACD is the Washington Association of Conservation Districts Executive Director