Jim Howe oversees local chapter of Nature Conservancy
At the suggestion of a friend, Jim Howe often thinks about what life today would be like had the United States been settled from west to east, with the original colonies in places such as California, Oregon and Washington. So much would be different, including the way local and regional natural resources are viewed.
“My friend says that if the continent was settled this way, we would have two incredible national parks, Finger Lakes National Park and Adirondacks National Park,” Howe says, noting national parks are more prevalent as one travels west. “It really makes you stop and think about what we have in our own backyards.”
Howe, executive director of the Central and Western New York chapter of the Nature Conservancy since 2003, has dedicated his adult life to protecting the environment and preserving land and to ensuring those natural resources remain accessible to the public.
Leading a team of 18 staff members, he is responsible for building a strong board of trustees, setting strategic direction and raising a $3.2 million annual budget.
Steve Rosenfeld M.D., who served on the organization’s board of trustees for nine years, has worked closely with Howe on many occasions. The pair even traveled to Mexico and Africa together in support of several projects of the Nature Conservancy.
“You really get to know someone when you’re traveling in Africa,” the Pittsford man says. “Jim is hard not to like. He is just such a pleasant guy.”
For future generations
As a child, Howe grew up appreciating nature, with fishing one of his favorite hobbies.
“I really connected with the outdoors,” he says. “Webster was pretty rural at that time when I was growing up. I watched as my community developed. It made me realize we should be protecting some of these places.”
During his tenure, Howe has helped the Nature Conservancy preserve land that otherwise might have been developed. When he reviews his long track record, he is perhaps most proud of his efforts in leading the charge to preserve Canadice and Hemlock lakes, located 30 miles south of Rochester.
In the 1870s, the city of Rochester began using these lakes for its water supply. By the 1890s, development—including some 200 homes—appeared, causing alarm among city officials concerned about the quality of the water supply. In response, the city bought land at every opportunity, amassing 7,000 acres by the 1950s on and around the lakes.
With changes in standards for drinking water in the 1980s, Monroe County built a new treatment plant for drinking water. The plant could make the water from both lakes safe, and the city no longer needed all of the land it had acquired.
“The city was now sitting on this major asset—7,000 acres—and all of the shoreline of these two lakes,” says Howe, who has a bachelor’s degree in natural resources from Cornell University. “People began thinking, ‘What should we do with this?’
“A coalition of concerned people formed. These lakes look as they did when the continent was settled. To no longer have two Finger Lakes that look the way they did thousands of years ago would have been a real loss to this region. They really are a snapshot in time.”
For some 15 years, beginning in the mid-1990s and ending in 2010, Howe led an effort to help preserve the lakes. He and others spent countless hours shuttling between City Hall in Rochester and the state capital in Albany, identifying potential ways the city could sell the land to the state, which in turn could preserve the natural resources.
At one point, it looked like we were going to have to buy the two lakes ourselves,” Howe says. “That would have been a very expensive proposition, but we were prepared to do it.”
Eventually, thanks in large part to advocacy by the Nature Conservancy, the city sold the lakes to the state for $14 million.
“I think that’s a bargain to protect two Finger Lakes in perpetuity,” Howe says. “The Nature Conservancy was a major player in bringing parties to the table and making sure the price was reasonable for both sides. At the end of the day, I think that is the kind of accomplishment this organization can bring.”
Howe also spearheaded an effort to protect 45,000 acres of forestland on Tug Hill, east of Lake Ontario, a project that culminated in 2002 when the organization acquired the vast expanse of forests, streams, and wetlands for $9.1 million.
“Not only did we safeguard important lands and waters, but we did so in a way that won the community’s support,” he says. “Our transaction ensured that sustainable timber harvests would continue to flow from the property; maintained snowmobiling, hunting, and other traditional uses; and kept the vast majority of property tax revenue that these lands generate for local communities.”
Another notable accomplishment was finding a new solution for water-quality challenges in the Finger Lakes. The Nature Conservancy helped restore 4,000 feet of stream corridor near Honeoye Lake, which removed 30 percent of the runoff entering the lake. A similar project is in the works for Canandaigua Lake.
Howe points out that the Central and Western New York chapter of The Nature Conservancy, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, has been able to protect 100,000 acres. Its region is defined loosely as the land from the Thousand Islands to Jamestown and from Buffalo to Binghamton.
For Howe, though, it’s not enough to simply preserve the land from development.
“The Nature Conservancy is the granddaddy of the land trust movement, but our efforts aren’t just about protecting land,” he says. “We also want to encourage people to get outdoors and help them appreciate these regions.
“We’ve got a terrific system of preserves—nearly 30,000 acres of them—that we’ve opened to the public for hiking, fishing, hunting, birding and other recreational uses. Outdoor activities like this are important to our region’s quality of life and to our ability to attract and retain residents and businesses.”
While advocating for nature is his professional life, Howe, 55, also enjoys it during his personal time. He and his wife, Lisa, have two sons, Matt, 13, and Jordan, 11, children who love to explore. The family lives in Brighton.
“We took the kids out to Tucson two years ago and we conquered a 9,100-foot peak called Mount Wrightson,” he says. “It’s a 10-mile hike, five up and five down, and it took us nine hours. The kids were younger at the time, but they did it. It was great.”
He looks forward to more adventures this summer, and encourages locals to visit the Nature Conservancy website to learn about the public places they can explore with their families.
The next challenge
Deb Koen, who was a trustee on the nonprofit’s board of directors for a decade, says Howe has a special way with people.
“He cares greatly about his employees, his board members and members of the Nature Conservancy,” the Rochester woman says. “He’s an active, enthusiastic guy who jumps in wholeheartedly on whatever he’s doing. I was always impressed with his knowledge and enthusiasm. That proved to be my experience with him the entire time.”
After more than two decades working for the same employer, Howe still enjoys coming to work each day.
“I love the challenge of running what is essentially a small business,” he says, of the multimillion-dollar operation he oversees. “The mission and people are really what drive me every day. We’re getting some great traction with our efforts to protect our land and water for future generations. The mission of the Nature Conservancy—to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends—is very compelling to me.”
Title: Executive director, Central and Western New York Chapter, the Nature Conservancy
Education: B.S., natural resources, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1986; master’s in public policy, University of Michigan, 1993
Family: Wife, Lisa; two sons, Matt, 13, and Jordan, 11
Hobbies: Riding motorcycles, playing the banjo
Quote: “John Sawhill, former chief executive officer of the Nature Conservancy, once said, ‘A society is defined not only by what it creates, but what it refuses to destroy.’”
Travis Anderson is a Rochester-area freelance writer.