What work do you do?

As the executive director of the Turner Endangered Species Fund, I work to ensure the persistence of imperiled species and their habitats, with an emphasis on private land. More generally, I work to advance the science of restoration ecology and ensure that an increasing number of people live more simply, graciously, and with foresight. Restoration and imperiled species serve as very effective vehicles for arguing in favor of such a lifestyle.

How does it relate to the environment?

My work relates to the environment in a beneficial way since many of the imperiled species that we focus on contribute to the integrity of a particular biotic setting. By restoring black-footed ferrets, for example, we are restoring integrity to the native grassland where the restoration project is being conducted.

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What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?

On a daily basis I dream, research, create, write, and serve as “traffic cop” for the Turner Endangered Species Fund. I also serve as an environmental advisor to Ted Turner and members of his family as they pursue for-profit activities and philanthropic endeavors.

What long and winding road led you to your current position?

I began working in wildlife conservation in 1978. Throughout my career I have been involved in significant projects that attracted much national and international media. Over the years, Ted Turner became aware of my work and apparently took a keen interest in the projects and my management style. In 1995, shortly after we initiated the Yellowstone wolf restoration project (for which I served as the first project leader), Ted and Jane Fonda visited the park to witness the wolf project first-hand. That visit led to discussions between Ted and me (and members of his family) that spanned 18 months and catalyzed our decision to launch the Turner Endangered Species Fund in June 1997. The fund is a nonprofit, private operational charity dedicated to conserving nature by ensuring the persistence of imperiled species and their habitats, with an emphasis on private land. Since inception the fund has been involved in numerous restoration projects, including reintroduction efforts for plants, birds, fishes, and mammals. More details about the fund are available at our website.

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How many emails are currently in your inbox?

There are 44 emails in my inbox for the Turner Endangered Species Fund and 12 emails in my inbox for my political campaign. Each day I receive about 30 emails that are relevant to the fund and about 6 relevant to my campaign. I expect that the daily load of email related to my political campaign will increase as the general election draws near (November 2 — remember to vote!).

With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?

I interact regularly with staff and senior administrators from conservation NGOs, and state and federal fish and wildlife agencies. Less frequently, I interact with elected officials (and their staff) and staff and senior administrators from grant-making institutions.

Who’s the biggest pain in the ass you have to deal with?

The biggest pain in my ass is the “mob mentality” that often arises when like-minded people congregate.

Who’s nicer than you would expect?

The folks that were pains in my ass when they were part of the “mob” mentioned above.

Where were you born? Where do you live now?

I was born in Charleston, Ill., in 1958. I now live in Bozeman, Mont., with my wife Linda, who is a Ph.D. student in the Ecology Department at Montana State University, our three children (Grace, 14; Drake, 9; and Samuel, 8), and our knuckle-headed Labrador retriever (Mick).

What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?

An important coming-of-age moment occurred when I was a junior at the University of Illinois and I realized that I was not talented enough to play professional baseball. That realization prompted me to focus on my next great passion — field biology. The rest is history.

What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?

The worst moment was when a natal den collapsed and killed red wolf pups that we were preparing to release into the wild. Despite our best efforts we were unable to retrieve the pups before they suffocated.

What’s been the best?

There have been many “best moments” in my career. For example, I had a “best moment” while conducting research into grizzly-bear behavior and habitat use in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, when I realized that I was walking across ground that had probably never experienced a human footprint. Throughout my career I have been intimately involved in significant wildlife restoration “firsts,” all of which are truly “best moments,” including: releasing the first red wolf as part of the first-ever attempt to restore a species that had been declared extinct in the wild, documenting the first red wolf pup born in the wild in the southeastern U.S., releasing the first gray wolf in an attempt to restore the species to Yellowstone National Park, documenting with Doug Smith the first den used in over 60 years by a gray wolf in Yellowstone, and developing with Ted Turner the first significant private effort to conserve biological diversity by ensuring the persistence of imperiled species and their habitats.

What’s on your desk right now?

Currently there are 14 discrete, neat piles of literature, related mostly to conservation of imperiled species. Thirteen piles serve as the information base for the Turner Endangered Species Fund. The final pile, which is growing in size, serves as the information base for my campaign to gain election as the state representative for Montana’s House District 63.

What environmental offense has pissed you off the most?

I was most pissed off by President Bush’s insistence that the best thing U.S. citizens could do in response to the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, was resume normal spending habits with a nearly singular reliance on fossil fuels and petroleum-based products. For a country defined by super-consumers, such insistence by the president represented at best an unacceptably simplistic view of the world and at worst a missed opportunity of gargantuan proportions to challenge each of us to examine our relationship with one another, other countries, the natural world, and our nearly complete disregard (as a nation) for the importance of developing reliable, affordable sources of renewable energy.

Who is your environmental hero?

Anyone who fights for a healthy planet against great odds.

Who is your environmental nightmare?

Anyone who espouses the notion that contemporary economies powered by fossil-fueled energy can continue to grow without restraint, and indefinitely. Ed Abbey observed that such growth is the “ideology of the cancer cell.”

What’s your environmental vice?

In the summer I water my lawn too often. Even though my yard is not large, my watering habit makes me a bit uneasy as drought creeps closer to downtown Bozeman. After my children are no longer interested in endless games of wiffle-ball, football, and other pursuits best played on nice turf, my wife and I would like to replace our lawn with native grasses, forbs, and countless aspen.

How do you get around?

About half the year I drive my 1992 Toyota pickup the three miles or so from my house to my office. The other half I ride my bike or walk. My wife is more hard-core. She rides her bike to work (about two miles to campus) year-round, regardless of weather. This is quite an accomplishment in Bozeman, which typically experiences a cold and snowy winter. She wipes out about six times each winter. Studded tires have not been much help — they are predisposed to go flat.

What are you reading these days?

I just finished The Radical Center by Ted Halstead and Michael Lind, and have nearly finished A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. The next book in my reading queue is Theodore Rex, by Edmund Morris.

What’s your favorite meal?

Bison meatloaf and mashed potatoes and gravy. While we rarely purchase meat from the local food co-op, we are fortunate to be able to fish, hunt deer and elk, and purchase grass-fed bison from Ted’s Flying D Ranch just southwest of Bozeman. We have found it difficult to obtain better tasting and healthier meat than locally raised, grass-fed bison from the “D.”

Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?

No, and I monitor my news intake very selectively. I have noticed that significant news events take time to develop; daily reporting seems to rarely provide new insight. My news sources are NPR, The News Hour With Jim Lehrer, and my local paper, the Bozeman Chronicle.

Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?

My passion for working to ensure that humankind properly values native landscapes and the species and ecological processes they support.

What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?

Each area where I have worked (e.g., boreal forests in northern Minnesota and Michigan, arctic tundra in Alaska, temperate rainforest in Australia, pine forests and pocosin wetlands in the southeastern U.S., the Rocky Mountain West) is a favorite place of mine. That said, recently I have grown quite fond of my porch swing.

If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?

I would order that measures of economic activity must properly account for all the costs of production and distribution, thus revealing negative externalities that heretofore have been ignored or silently but purposefully passed to future generations. Negative externalities are activities that generate harm without compensation. As Stanford ecologist Gretchen Daly explains: “A negative externality occurs when Americans drive gas guzzlers. This activity contributes to air pollution, potential climate change, and the risk of the U.S. government being drawn into foreign conflicts over oil. Yet even though these negative consequences affect large numbers of people, the drivers — since U.S. gas is cheap and relatively untaxed — don’t pay the costs.”

An accounting system like the one I would institute by fiat would include a consistent and comprehensive assessment of the impact of economic activity on native landscapes and the myriad environmental services they provide. This, in turn, would significantly improve future prospects for such landscapes and the species they support, including humans, because what is measured is improved.

Who do you think (not hope) is going to be president in November?

I think George Bush will win, simply because he is able and willing to outspend John Kerry two to one. I predict that cash will remain the king of politics as long as our political system is defined by only two parties. The significant changes that are required to make our great nation even greater will not come about until we have at least a viable third party.

Politics is not a passing fancy for me, but rather an increasingly important focus. When I was a young field biologist leading efforts to restore red wolves, I was impressed by a faded and well-rubbed sticker on a dog-eared briefcase owned by a fellow biologist that read: “Biology is Politics.”

As my career matured, I repeatedly verified this observation. By the time I was chosen to lead the Yellowstone wolf restoration project, my interest in the nexus between conservation and politics had become keen. During the summer of 1995 I spent an hour in private discussion with President Clinton as I escorted him (and a sizeable entourage) to the Rose Creek pen to feed nine wolves that we were preparing for release. After we had finished, the president and Mrs. Clinton met with local environmental leaders. For an hour they spoke of fascinating conservation issues that were mostly unknown to me. I realized then that a great big world of issues was passing me by because my head had been stuffed up a wolf’s butt for quite a long while. At that moment I knew that I needed a functional connection to a larger suite of issues.

In 1997, I acted on that need by joining forces with Ted Turner to initiate the Turner Endangered Species Fund. In January 2004, I again acted on that need by announcing my candidacy for the representative seat for Montana’s House District 63, an area that stretches along the eastern and southern flanks of Bozeman. The district is defined by issues and sensibilities that favor a moderate Democrat like myself.

I desire to serve because the world is run by those who show up, and it is time for me to show up as a candidate. I am intrigued with the issues that confront District 63 and Montana in general. Some issues, like coal-bed methane development, will favor my training as a scientist long involved in controversial and seemingly intractable natural resource issues. Other matters, like tax reform, will require that I grow intellectually. Still others, like wolf management, should afford me the opportunity to immediately contribute in a substantive manner.

As I consider participating in politics, I grow excited about an extended exploration of the many aspects of the increasingly important connection between the environment, the economy, and security. My training as a scientist should provide a unique opportunity for me to contribute to discussions about this connection that previously has been mostly considered by attorneys, economists, businesspeople, and career politicians. It is a certainty that the transition to a greener and more sustainable economy will be hastened if folks who are trained in the natural sciences can gain election to our decision-making bodies.

As a potential representative I am excited about working to ensure that the Montana legislature supports: 1) high-quality public education; 2) good access to public land; 3) initiatives that promote the health and integrity of our rivers, streams, and lakes; 4) measures that provide affordable and reliable energy; 5) measures to promote development of an eco-economy; and 6) measures that promote economic health through the development and success of the local businesses that line the downtowns of Montana’s towns and cities.

I believe that our common bonds as citizens and neighbors take precedence over political affiliations. I will press this belief every day that I serve. If elected, I pledge that I will not be party to petty partisanship. I am not interested in serving to simply advance one political party over another. I do not care where good ideas come from, and I do not much care who gets credit. I do care about solving problems with common-sense, bipartisan, and forward-looking solutions.

I know that I need much help to win. Since governance is a new endeavor for me, I need ideas about how best to serve a constituency. Additionally, I need financial support. Anyone interested in learning more about my campaign and/or offering support should contact me at mikephillips@montana.net.

Would you label yourself an environmentalist.

I do consider myself an environmentalist, and I do not understand why anyone whose survival depends on clean water, clean air, and healthy food would not consider themselves an environmentalist. For me, an environmentalist is anyone who actively creates and exploits opportunities to preserve, conserve, and improve the natural environment for humankind and nearly all other sentient organisms.

The baggage that comes with the label is due to the tendency of some special interest groups to define environmentalism and environmentalists very narrowly, to include only radical activities that often appear to have little potential for effecting good. The baggage that attends “environmentalist” is clear evidence of our failure to prevent those who do not give a damn about nature to steal and misrepresent this important word to achieve insidious and selfish ends.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?

I’m pleased that the movement has been able to thwart efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act.

What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?

The movement has not been able to hold elected officials adequately accountable for their actions. The movement could improve by insisting that our leaders, at all levels of government, answer the questions that are asked, rather than letting the leaders answer the questions that they wish were asked.

What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?

When I was 18 (1976), my favorite band was probably the Allman Brothers. Now, my taste in music varies greatly and I am quite certain that I do not have a favorite band or musician. A list of current favorites would include Bob Marley, Aaron Copeland, Eric Clapton, Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, and most Christmas music.

What’s your favorite TV show? Movie?

I watch television infrequently. That said, on an opportunistic basis I enjoy reruns of Seinfeld, and Linda and I make a point of watching Saturday Night Live. I like watching significant sporting events that are decided by a top player making a top-notch play in the final seconds of overtime. As I have gotten older, I have grown less interested in the winner than the nature of the game. This predilection prompted me to include the following quote from a Swahili warrior song in the book that Doug Smith and I wrote (The Wolves of Yellowstone): “Life has meaning only in the struggle. Triumph or defeat is in the hands of the gods. So let us celebrate the struggle.”

My taste in movies varies greatly, and I do not have a favorite film. I tend to be most attracted to films that are based on actual events. That said, I was captivated by the Lord of the Rings trilogy. I was most impressed with The Fog of War, and have spent much time contemplating Robert McNamara’s lessons. More casually, I enjoyed Seabiscuit and Hidalgo.

Mac or PC?

PC, with just enough knowledge to get a particular job done. I rarely surf the web and rely on my dog-eared copy of Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary rather than spell check.

What are you happy about right now?

I am happy about many things that relate to my personal life. My family is healthy and growing in honorable ways. My chess game is picking up, which is satisfying because I like searching for connections that can be exploited to achieve a desired end.

If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?

I would have every InterActivist reader live more simply (and graciously).