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Remembering a true hero of public lands

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Alex Diekmann and I were the same age, living on the same street, raising kids that went to the same schools. No dear friend gave me more grief for being a writing hermit and I loved him for it. He died from a rare form of cancer Feb. 1 and would’ve turned 53 on Feb. 10.

In the highest public sense, at least in the way we like to exalt ourselves as being good neighbors, engaged citizens, patriotic Americans, and joint stakeholders concerned for the future of our country and the world our kids inherit, what does “in perpetuity” mean?

Alex delighted in providing answers by taking you to places on maps, reminding that you-me-we hold title to the deed.

Diekmann was lesser known to folks beyond Bozeman. But the work he did as an unrivaled dealmaker with the Trust for Public Land in Greater Yellowstone and the northern Rockies was extraordinary.

As his wife, Lisa, says, passion for his job was only slightly less than the protective ardor he held for his boys, Logan and Liam.

Diekmann graduated from Yale University where he was a nationally ranked varsity swimmer, and went on to earn Master of Business Administration from UCLA. Along the way, he worked on Wall Street and brokered commercial real estate in Seattle. He could’ve easily become a cocky fast-lane hotshot; instead, he discovered that public land protection was far more personally rewarding.

Ten years ago, I was hiking with Alex and his then 8-year-old son Logan, through a rugged valley south of Big Sky called the Taylor Fork in the Madison Mountains.

The drainage functions as an irreplaceable ancient passageway for wildlife in southwest Montana, especially as huge numbers of elk move east to west seasonally between the Gallatin Range and Madison Valley. A few days prior to our arrival, the state had counted 11 grizzlies and later documented wolf packs.

Someday soon, the Taylor Fork could become home to a resident herd of wild bison migrating from Yellowstone.

“Isn’t this place great,” Alex said. “We’re standing at the spot where it all comes together.”

“Who owns this land, Dad?” Logan asked.

“You do,” Alex said. “We do. We all do.”

That day I was researching a story about a complicated series of private land purchases and exchanges with the Forest Service which Alex was instrumental in executing. The deals consolidated the Taylor Fork into public ownership, preventing it from being checkerboarded with development.

We vowed that we would return to the Taylor Fork with Logan and Liam when Alex’s boys became our age. The Taylor Fork alone would’ve been career defining, but it was just Alex’s start in making really big things happen. As important as that remarkable drainage is as a crossroads, it was Diekmann who to all of us represented our confluence.

Dick Dolan, TPL’s regional director, says Alex in 16 years oversaw 55 projects as chief manager that cumulatively preserved more than 100,000 public acres.

Rancher Jeff Laszlo, who collaborated with Diekmann in protecting O’Dell Creek on the family’s Granger Ranches, an important wetland and trout-spawning tributary to the Madison River, says the multiple deals Alex forged there solidified the Madison Valley as a miracle of open space protection in the West.

Flyfisherman and conservationist Craig Mathews says Alex’s deeds may be unsung but he ranks among the greatest public land protectors ever in our region.

Whitefish, Mont. Mayor John Muhlfeld cites Diekmann’s recent involvement in working with Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. to protect his town’s source of drinking water in Haskell Basin near Glacier National Park.

Alan Front, one of Diekmann’s former TPL colleagues and a national authority on the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, said Alex, by force of personality, financial savvy and charming persuasion, got land deals completed that no one else could.

His fans included the late U.S. Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming, who worked with Diekmann to safeguard Devil’s Canyon Ranch on the western flanks of Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains, and former U.S. Sen. Conrad Burns of Montana.

“So often you read about intractable environmental problems,” Alex said as we wandered the Taylor Fork a decade ago. “But what’s happening with protection of wildlife corridors in the greater Yellowstone region is about finding win-win solutions. We still have a lot of work to do, but I’m optimistic. You have to be optimistic if you want to accomplish anything worthwhile.”

Diekmann the conservationist wasn’t seeking immortality or accolades for his efforts; he believed in public lands and the public having access to them in perpetuity. He invited us to know and act upon the power of thinking beyond generations for the public good. He showed us what selfless perpetuity means.

Montana journalist Todd Wilkinson has been writing his column, “The New West,” for the Jackson Hole News & Guide for nearly 30 years. Going forward, “The New West” will also appear weekly in the printed or online versions of Explore Big Sky. Look for it here.

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