#99 Partnering With Government to Leverage your Private Funds, with Meta Loftsgaarden Forest Supervisor for the Mt. Hood National Forest and former Director of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board

Oct 18, 2022

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We are joined by Meta Loftsgaarden who shares her experience leveraging public funding with private donations to make the world a better place. In addition to the amazing work Meta does right now with the Mount Hood National Forest, the work that Meta did previously with the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board is a great example of why partnerships between public and private investors is essential to ensure resources stay in the community. 


Episode Highlights:

  • The nuts and bolts of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. 
  • The key opportunities to give effective grants in partnership with public agencies. 
  • How donors can leverage public funding. 


Meta Loftsgaarden Bio:

Meta Loftsgaarden has been Forest Supervisor for the Mt. Hood National Forest since October 2021. Her career experience includes numerous leadership positions supporting local economies, communities, and science-based restoration and conservation. Before joining the Forest Service, Loftsgaarden was Executive Director for a state agency - the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB). This unique agency invested $150 million per biennium in native fish and wildlife habitat and water quality projects throughout Oregon. She was also Governor Brown's lead for the state's 100-Year Water Vision. Loftsgaarden previously worked for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service on partnership and policy issues including farmland protection, working forestland easements, and strategic conservation. In Montana, she promoted economic and natural resource policies as the head of the state’s agriculture Marketing and Business Development Bureau and as the Governor’s deputy communications director. Loftsgaarden has a Master of Public Administration from Portland State University and a Bachelor of Science from Montana State University. 


Links referenced in this interview

Mount Hood National Forest - https://www.fs.usda.gov/mthood

Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board (OWEB) https://www.oregon.gov/oweb/pages/index.aspx 


If you enjoyed this episode, listen to these as well:

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# 88 Navigating Transitions Via a Nonprofit Working on Climate Change, with Elizabeth Bast, Executive Director Oil Change International

#46 An Entrepreneurial Philanthropist Takes Action on Climate Change with Tim Miller, Executive Director, PECI


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Full Transcript:

Meta, I am so happy you're on my podcast. This is going to be so much fun, and the reason I wanted to have you on this podcast is that you run an organization called Oregon Watershed Enhancement. The Board gave away millions and millions of dollars in public funds to support watershed councils and a whole host of very interesting projects, and I think it's a great example of how public funds are put into a system that also does grant-making.

You also partnered with nonprofits and private philanthropic donors. We all had special initiatives so that we could all make our money go further. So, I thought you'd have some really valuable words of wisdom for us donors to think about if we want to partner with public agencies. And we're going to talk about the unique structure of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. Meta you also know that you've transitioned in your job career and you're now working for the Forest Service. And so, I'm eager to talk to you as well about how philanthropists can partner and support public agencies on the federal level as well, and not only the state.

So, we have lots to unpack today, but before we do that, can we talk a little bit about who you are and your journey, and like, what brought you to do all these cool things that you do in York?

Sure, and it's great to be with you today. Sybil, this is a fun conversation. I've been excited about this for a while, so my background is pretty varied. I grew up in Montana, and I still call myself a Montana girl, although Oregon is my home now, and from a pretty young age, I was dumb. I am interested in conservation, in working with farmers and ranchers and forest landowners, whether they are public agencies or private, and helping to figure out how we take care of this place that we get an opportunity to steward, whatever that place may be. And I've always had a pretty big passion for the places where I live, and so I had an opportunity at a pretty young age actually, as a high school student I joined a federal agency called the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and that was our entire mission: to focus on helping people who own and manage lands to take care of those lands for future generations. And it was a wonderful opportunity and a great fit. And what I found out in that job is that I am pretty passionate and the place where I live, the Pacific Northwest is a home for me. 

So, I had an opportunity to switch and work for a state cattle organization in Montana. They called it the Montana Stock Growers Association, and I got to carry on that passion that I had around conservation, working now for a private nonprofit, both helping with communications and helping them to understand and to celebrate what many of their members were doing to conserve and protect private lands.

I had a chance to work in politics for a while in Montana, and that was fun. And then I came out here to Oregon again, working in conservation, and when an opportunity came up to both serve on the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and then I joined the agency's staff, I felt like all of the work I've been doing throughout all of my life culminated in that position.

The Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board is a unique agency in that it's an agency designed to operate like a foundation with public lottery dollars. I think it's a model that makes a lot of sense and I hope that other states have the opportunity to pick it up in the future. So, I spent nine years on staff with that agency, as you said, investing grant dollars on the ground, and then and then I had an opportunity to get even more connected with the place and move to the forest, where ServiceNow manages the Mount Hood National Forest, which is a pretty unique landscape and a landscape that has lots of conservation and other opportunities. So that's what landed.

And right in our backyards, right? We're, we're neighbors, pretty much. It was so funny before this podcast, there was an airplane that flew over your house and then flew over mine. We have to wait a minute.

I also love talking to my interviewees about this, about their history, because I didn't realize all the interesting things you did in Montana before you came to Oregon. That's fantastic. The other thing I just want to say is hats off to you because you are a breast cancer survivor and you just kept going. You know, I mean, I'm sure it was challenging during COVID and everything else, and you're just one of my heroes in terms of how you go through life with such a positive attitude toward everything. So, thanks for all that. Thanks for being my inspiration.

Oh, thank you. It's been a journey.

OK, so let's talk about the nuts and bolts of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. How much did you give away every biennium, which is every 2 years? How did that funding first get established in Oregon and how did you go about prioritizing the grants that you, as a public agency, give away are all right?

Well, I'll start with the history because I think this is a pretty unique agency in state government. So, back in the 90s, the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board was a concept that was brought about by a set of environmental groups who were meeting with a set of agriculture groups, and they were just having some pretty big challenges trying to get together on what conservation looked like on the landscape, and so some innovative ranchers and environmentalists, and you know what we need to get together on the ground, we need to look at what these lands need from each of our perspectives and figure out how we can come to some kind of common approach. 

And so, they just went out to the ranches. They would camp overnight, they would spend time together, and would walk fence lines. They would talk about cattle, they would talk about birds, they would talk about fish, and wildlife. And out of that, they realized that they had a lot more in common than their differences and decided to take a voluntary approach and figure out ways that they could invest money in the work that these ranchers wanted to do to take care of fish and wildlife habitat. 

So, a huge kudos to them because their vision and inspiration in the 80s and the 90s set the stage for what became a ballot initiative to take 7 ½ percent of Oregon's lottery revenues and invest them in fish and wildlife habitat projects in the state. That was passed for a short period. It had a sunset but became so incredibly popular in the years that it moved forward that funding was made permanent in 2010.

So now the state of Oregon has a permanent 7 ½ % lottery investment. Go for fishing and wildlife habitats. As a grant, it was designated that one agency would be in charge of that, and that is the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. So, you have an organization whose sole purpose is to provide grant funds on the ground to protect, enhance, and conserve landscapes.

The great thing about that funding is that it doesn't just have to be invested in private lands. So, it's invested where the need is greatest, and that could be private lands, that could be state lands, that could be federal lands. However, the grants need to go to local communities.

So, the federal government cannot apply for a grant on federal lands, but a local watershed council or soil and water conservation district can if that's where the habitat need is the highest. In terms of investments, it has grown a lot over time. Lottery revenues have grown in the state, and so when I came on board, I had to think back. I think it was probably about 80 to $85 million for the biennium.

That has grown to well over $100 million for the biennium, and the agency has been recognized for its granting ability, it is now granting on behalf of some other work, especially related to fire recovery in the state and the large wildfires that we had in 2020 and 2021. 

The agency has expanded into additional conservation work routes related to fire recovery. They also now run the Oregon Agriculture Heritage Program, which does work around protecting farm and ranch lands in the state through conservation easements. So, it's expanded It's been fun to watch that agency grow, and great to see the investments.

Yeah, how do You get those grants out the door, and what are some of the challenges there?

So, one of the things that we've found important when I worked for a website and the culture of the agency is to have folks out in regional offices around the state who are connected with local watershed councils, local soil and water conservation districts, and other conservation nonprofit who understand the conservation needs in their community. When the agency started, there were just an incredible number of needs across the state, and so grants are distributed across watersheds throughout all of Oregon. And over time, we realized that if we could make some focused investments and provide some extra dollars in a specific area, we could meet the conservation needs in that area in a very different way. 

And so, the agency now has several ways it can invest. It invests through what it calls an "open solicitation program," where local organizations devise what are the priorities through conversations with their boards and conversations in their community. That grant program is incredibly strong and continues, and the agency established what was called the Focus Investment Partnership grant program, which provides funding for organizations that have a solid strategic plan. Have a really strong organizational structure and have a good way to implement projects on the ground. So, they've got a geographic area and they are focused on that area.

The board sets some habitat priorities, but they're pretty broad, and they look for local organizations to identify how to make those priorities able to be implemented successfully on the ground. That's been going on for several years, and I don't have the current number of those focused investments, but there are quite a few of them.

The other great thing was that the agency recognized that not every organization has that strategic plan in place already and that partnership in place. So, the agency also now provides grants to help people develop those strategies to help organizations come together in partnership so that they're ready not just for our funding but for the other funders that are out there listening, the goal of OWEB is to help organizations get structured so that they're more competitive for all different types of funding, whether that's federal dollars, state dollars, or foundation dollars. We believe that having that strategy in place is helpful for every funding source.

Meta, I wanted to talk to you about the challenges. You know, I was on the OWEB board for a little while, and that was right when you were trying to figure out those focused and investment partnerships in the beginning. One of the challenges I wanted to talk to you about is that I work with private philanthropic institutions, and I was so interested and impressed with how challenging it can be to give money away in a public setting. So, when you were starting to try to focus, there were so many folks who were saying, "Wait a minute, you're focusing, but I'm worried about resources leaving my community.” 

And they were rightful, you know, their rightful concerns and so, but as a private philanthropist, you don't necessarily have that much public process. So, I felt like one of the challenges, but also one of the wonderful aspects of giving money away in Grants, was through a public lens, you do hear from the community in a way that maybe we as private philanthropists don't. And so, if we're partnering with you, we can benefit from that sort of democratic process. 

At the same time, you're left holding the bag in terms of trying to make sure that you're bringing input in from all the different sectors and interests. Can you talk to me a little bit about that?

And I'm really glad you raised that because it hadn't crossed my mind in the way that you framed it. And I think you're exactly right. My passion, as I talked about, and my history has mostly been in public agencies. And one of the things I've liked about working for the various agencies is that they've all had a genuine interest in engaging the public and local communities.

When I worked for the Natural Resources Conservation Service, they worked for hand in hand with watershed councils and soul water conservation districts. They have a locally led process, and so it was kind of infused into my culture that that was the way public agencies need to do business. When you go out into the community, you are going to come up with the best answers. When you take the best available science when you take the knowledge that these agencies have, and when you bring in that local community expertise around the place, you're going to come up with the best solutions.

But, as you noted, Sybil when you were at the table. In those conversations, they were not easy.

People have really strong ownership in Rev as a granting agency. It invests in nearly every watershed in the state. So, people were concerned that money was going to be taken from them and then invested in other areas. What we found over time is some of those grantees who had money through a focused investment were already getting money through the open solicitation process, so it's still those same organizations in those same communities applying for the same grants.

And many times, to be honest, they were outcompeting some of the local open solicitation grantees. So, over time, we discovered that it's what I'd call a both/and, rather than either/or. So, we continue to have great open solicitation investments and we've taken those organizations that have a solid strategy and strategic plans and moved them into this focused investment, but that money is still going right back into that community, whether it's sage grouse in Eastern Oregon, whether it’s working on the Clackamas where you and I both live. Those grants were applied to an open solicitation, anyway.

What we get with those focused investments is the opportunity to tell a story about what a major investment can do over time. And again, for other investors, you've got a place to leverage simple, really big dollars. And so, we've been able to bring in others who have an interest, whether that's federal, state, or private, to leverage those dollars back and forth. What we get from open solicitation is the ability to invest in every community in the state.

So, I think those two investments go hand in hand.

Yeah, you decided to be clear, you decided to do some focus investments, but you didn't stop doing open solicitation where you gave grants across the state as well, which seems like it was a very important piece of what you did. Let's move over to these kinds of initiatives that you worked on while you were at OWEB with private philanthropy. I'm thinking of the Willamette Partnership they will limit initiative There's an organization also called Limit Partnership, which is a great group, but the Willamette initiative that you worked on with Meyer and others? We talk about that a little bit because that, I think, is a great example of private donors partnering with public donors to make the world a little bit better.

And I want to give big credit to Kimberly and Pam Wiley and the others who had some great initiative upfront to come up with this concept. It was, along with some investments in the Deschutes and down in Klamath, that were kind of the birthplace of this concept of focus investments. There was an incredible conversation that went on between Meyer and the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board when I was on the board and not on staff that had a lot of background work that went into saying, "Listen, we've got a special place. It is an incredibly special place.” From a regulatory perspective, there have been some changes that are improving the health of this river system and putting it on the right trajectory. And there's a lot we can do voluntarily. So, my employer formed a partnership, and one of the things they recognized fairly early on was this. This is one of those places.

Hey Meta, Meta, I want to be clear that folks understand it's Meyer Memorial Trust, which, because it's not there, I have listeners from all over. In place So that's great. Thank you.

And we'll have information in our show notes for anyone interested in digging deeper into some of the organizations we're talking about. So, when we say Meyer, we're talking about Meyer Memorial Trust, which is a private philanthropic institution in Oregon.

Thank you, Sybil, for that reminder. I often forget our local colloquialisms about different organizations. So yes, Meyer Memorial Trust and our agency had some phenomenal conversations. One of the things they realized is that the need for the Willamette was clear and was identified through a lot of work that our state universities and others had done. To say, here's what we need to do work on the Willamette and the size and scale of what is needed. What was to be done was beyond the capabilities of many local organizations. I really could step up to do so. 

So, what minor memorial Trust did was invest in the capacity of the local organizations in a way that our agency couldn't with the statutes that it had at the time. That has shifted since then, but that was critical, and so Myers made the investment that they made. To move those organizations along, so when all webs of what we call implementation dollars or dollars on the ground to do restoration when those dollars were available, the organizations were ready and able and willing to invest.

So, in a unique partnership, we also ended up bringing Bonneville Power Administration into that work. And so, it ended up being this great 3-way partnership between a federal entity (Bonneville Power Administration), a state agency, and a private nonprofit that ended up winning the International Thiess River Prize for the work that was done and for the collaboration.

So, huge credit to the local organizations. We were able to make those investments work, and it's been an incredible success. 

I was so eager to talk to you about all this because it is such a great example of public-private partnerships. I did want to hover over one point you made about capacity. So that's something I see a lot I see a lot of folks come to my clients and ask for funding for capacity so that they can then be on the ground and be ready to take the millions of dollars that are often available from public sources. And if they weren't ready with smaller grants from philanthropy, they would never have been able to even access those millions of dollars. So, I appreciate you bringing it up. All right, thank you for all that advice. Let's move over now to your Forest Service job and what you're doing with Mount Hood and Mount Hood National Forest and just any thoughts you have.

I know you've just recently started there, but still, there must be some thoughts you have because you have so much history with grant-making and everything now that you've moved over to a federal agency. What are some things that donors should think about in terms of if they ever want to partner with federal agencies around big issues?

I know you are dealing with things like wildfire resilience and other very important issues that people are thinking about all around the world.

This is a really good question, Sybil, and one that I've been pondering. I've been on board with this agency's perspective, with this agency in this position for just under a year, I can say that for another seven days and then I will have been on board for a year, and I will know what I'm finding from the federal perspective, particularly as an agency that manages the land, partnerships are critically important, and they look very different coming from this end. So, what you'll often find with a federal agency that manages land is that they are land-rich but not always funding-rich. 

And so, when I was at a website, we had a bunch of investments. I'll use the Sandy River basin as an example. There were a bunch of state investments that were up in the Sandy River on National Forest System lands. Amazing investments And I think a philanthropic group or a state agency could look and say, "Well, this and that, you know, the Forest Service owns that land. 

Why aren't they? Why aren't they paying for this themselves? And the amount of money that's needed to do this conservation work that those federal agencies just don't necessarily have? And so, when we think about partnerships and when we think about what people are bringing to the table, the thing that I see from a federal perspective is that we can bring phenomenal expertise to the table. We have biologists; we have silviculture. We have people who understand and know this land and walk it every single day. We have local organizations that see where those habitat-tripping points are that we can address and fix them. And then when we can bring in state and private investments, that all gets leveraged together, and we've got a chance to work on a scale, that is pretty amazing, and the Mount Hood National Forest alone is 1.2 million acres. Great potential habitat, and great recreational opportunities. And when we can bring that land and that expertise to the table and match that up with philanthropic dollars and state dollars, we can achieve some pretty, pretty amazing things that we as a federal agency just wouldn't be able to do on our own.

I loved that and it Meta, well, right while you were talking about the inspiring ideas from Mount Hood, a bird started singing behind you. I hope my listeners get to hear that.

It was very pretty. I loved it. Meta, this has been great do you have any other final words of wisdom for us in terms of what you'd like donors to think about, to be more effective, I’ve, and to work well with public agencies before we go?

I'm eager to hear

I'm glad you asked that question. And it comes back, Sybil, to one of the pieces that you raised. I was just a couple minutes ago talking about how a private philanthropic organization could invest in the capacity of an organization and then we, as a state agency, are investing in the project on the ground.

And I think what's critically important, whether we are public investors or private investors, is that we look. We look at our investments as a whole package and work with each other intentionally about who can make which investment and how those investments come together to achieve the end goal of a project on the ground.

So, I think about, for example, a damn being removed to extend fish habitat into an area where fish haven't been able to get to before. Everybody wants to invest in that last piece where the dam is being removed. But the investments that led to that, the capacity of the organization, the design of that project, all of those things took different investors, and we can all take credit for the solution and the success that happened at the end of the day

What great final words of wisdom made, and I'm just looking forward to collaborating with you more in the future and you know, just best of luck to you with all your good stuff.

Thanks, Sybil.

It's been great chatting with you.