September 9, 2020|By Clint Miller| Land

Conservation During the Pandemic: Renewed Appreciation for Land and Open Space

Why did you choose conservation for your career? 

Clint Miller: The Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom TV show is what got me interested in conservation. Watching Jim Fowler jump out of that helicopter and wrestle anacondas to the ground while Marlin Perkins narrated was the coolest thing, and made a huge impression on me growing up in the 1970s. In high school I went to a career fest and Dr. Scott Craven at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus described what a wildlife biologist does, and he described Jim Fowler’s job. I decided that’s exactly what I wanted to do. 

So, I got my BA and MA in wildlife biology and spent 14 years doing that, crisscrossing the country. I slowly transitioned my career into land management, getting to know landowners and that got me onto a land conservation career track. I’ve spent 10 years working for national and state-wide land trusts and joined The Conservation Fund (the Fund) 13 years ago. The Fund provides the freedom and autonomy to pursue projects with that unique balance between natural resource protection and economic development.

Describe your role at The Conservation Fund. 

Clint: I am the Midwest Project Director, with land protection responsibility from North Dakota down to Oklahoma and back up to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. It’s a pretty broad area and I work collaboratively with other colleagues in the region. On a day-to-day basis I work with partners—federal, state and local governments, land trusts, and landowners—on their conservation priorities. We pick out the best projects and do everything from contacting landowners, due diligence, negotiating acquiring the land, arranging financing, and then transferring the land to our long-term partners.

And of course, we make sure it’s all paid for. I learned early on that everybody’s a fundraiser at a nonprofit. We have our Revolving Fund, which is our liquid capital, to buy in advance if the seller needs to move at the pace of the market. Often our partners cannot move as quickly. So, the Fund can access this pot of capital to acquire and then sell property to our conservation partner to recoup the costs. We try to reduce the cost of land by negotiating with the landowner and in some cases structuring the transaction to enable them to benefit from a tax deduction. Oftentimes we bring money to the table through grants and philanthropic contributions. Ultimately, our goal is to help partners have a smooth transfer at the best price possible.

Mark Twain Wilderness, Missouri.In collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, we recently helped protect more than 2,000 acres of land at Mark Twain National Forest. A major focus of our conservation efforts has been the protection of properties along a 16-mile stretch of the Current River, which runs through the National Forest across southern Missouri’s picturesque Ozark foothills north of Doniphan. Photo by Justin Baillie.

What are the best and most challenging parts of your job? 

I love seeing lands that are important to people. That can be lands important for wildlife habitat, wilderness, recreation or culturally or historically significant reasons. Getting out on the land and meeting the people, particularly landowners who are passionate about their properties and want to leave a conservation legacy, is my favorite. I really prize working with families, some who have owned their land since the 1850s, who really appreciate their own history.

I travel and lot, and while I do enjoy the feeling of travel and all the many sights to see, it’s a big territory and it runs me down at times. Hotels all look the same after a while! 


Since the pandemic arrived, how have you adapted? What has changed and what has not?

Clint: The pandemic has not changed people’s interest in selling and conserving land. Demand for our services is up. I am busier now than I have been in years because demand from our partners is way up. Perhaps people now have more time to think about larger life decisions. The problem is that I can’t travel to meet with them, which slows things down. It’s hard to negotiate a contract over the phone or video. Usually you want to be sitting across the kitchen table developing a rapport because most of the time it’s a mutually agreeable conversation. That is difficult to do over the phone—you can’t engage in the same passion the owner has for the land.

We’re been seeing steady increase in land values in the Midwest, particularly agricultural land. There seems to be a growing interest in people investing in land and not in the stock market. I’ve heard that institutional investors are looking at agricultural land in a new way, which may be fueling this change. 

Land trusts are moving forward well. The ones with strong relationships with their donors and are sticking to their missions are doing well, and I hope they continue to do so. That all depends on the economy of course. But they’ve adapted well, and I find there is more communication going on with them since the pandemic hit. It’s good to have robust communications and to hear from people. 

9 9 20 Green Photo 1I recently helped the Fund acquired a 140-acre property rich in history from the Green family, which had owned it since 1852. The land in northeast Arkansas is an integral part of the battle of Pea Ridge in March 1862, when a Union victory ended the potential for Missouri to secede and securing the region for the Union. The Green property also played a significant role in pre-Civil War history. The old Telegraph or Wire Road, which traverses the northeast corner of the parcel, was traveled by thousands of Cherokees and other Native Americans in the winter of 1838-39 during their forced removal from their homelands. Today, mature forest provides habitat to migratory songbirds and rare bats at the site. Photo by Clint Miller.

While it’s impossible to predict most things today, what do you see as some of the lasting impacts the pandemic will have on your work and on land conservation in the U.S.?

Clint: The pandemic has presented us with opportunities to rethink how we do business. Working from home is one thing, but larger issues have also come to the foreground, such as the vulnerability of supply chains, especially agricultural ones.

One great development is that people are having a renewed appreciation for the land, and so many people are out there accessing the outdoors for relief and recreation. Whether it is the “great outdoors” or a small space outside someone’s quarantine window, I hope that translates into greater support for open spaces. The passing of the Great American Outdoors Act is a huge step forward for America, especially addressing the infrastructure backlog, which is long overdue. The change in attitudes about the need for open spaces will last long after the pandemic, which is a good thing.

9 9 20 CM Hannibal ClintMissouri SteveOrr043At the southern border of Hannibal, Missouri (home of Mark Twain), bat biologists determined that an extensive network of abandoned mines and caves, like those immortalized in Twain’s novels, were providing essential hibernating habitat for an estimated 168,000 Indiana bats. I helped lead the effort to conserve this special place—Sodalis Nature Preserve—which now operates as a bat preserve and a favorite community park. It’s outcomes like these that make my work so meaningful. Photo by Whitney Flanagan.


Please read the first blog in this series, A Forester’s Work is Never Done… Even During a Pandemic, authored by The Conservation Fund Forest Technician, Olivia Fiori.

“I feel comforted knowing that as our work proceeds, we are continuing to transform the landscape into a healthier ecosystem, while stimulating and keeping the local economy engaged during a global pandemic.”
– Olivia Fiori

Written By

Clint Miller

Clint Miller joined The Conservation Fund in 2008 and serves as the Midwest Project Director. He works throughout ten Midwestern states, including the Dakotas, Nebraska, Missouri, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Iowa. He is the Fund’s lead on implementation of the Midwest Habitat Mitigation Project, a $22 million compensatory mitigation program for a 600-mile oil pipeline running across four states. 

Clint is a seasoned conservation professional who has worked since 1988 in land conservation and wildlife management from Alaska and Florida to the Great Plains. He is a recognized expert negotiator and facilitator, working with federal, state and local agencies, corporations and families on complex real estate transactions, conservation easements, mitigation, public and private funding and finance.