The Door County Land Trust welcomed their new executive director Tom Clay on Sept. 19 and, in his first week on the job, he has already noticed big differences from his 30 years of experience in land conservation back in Illinois.
“It being campaign season, I picked up a brochure in my door,” said Clay. “The first thing I noticed was that land protection and public use of land and hunting were something that the politician was even talking about. In Illinois, you never see that.”
Clay served as executive director of the Illinois Audubon Society (IAS), which evolved into a land conservation group rather than simply bird enthusiasts, for 10 years. Before that, he worked for nearly 20 years with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County.
“After I announced I was going to go do it, I did not have one person ask me, ‘What’s Door County?’ Everyone knows. I’ve been involved in great conservation work in Illinois on a statewide basis but what an opportunity to work in a place like this.”
While working in land conservation is nothing new for Clay, the passion and public support for natural resource protection found in Door County is foreign to him.
“It used to make me crazy how [the Illinois DNR] wouldn’t talk about their conservation successes,” said Clay. “They were always afraid that it would be a backlash that we were spending state resources on conservation and natural resources. In Illinois, I struggled with that, especially dealing with public agencies. They just didn’t want to talk about it. When I got up here, the first thing I noticed is that people love to talk about it, they love to talk about the natural resources here, the opportunities to get out and to go hunting and fishing and hiking. It’s a different world, thank goodness, too.”
Clay has already started participating in land trust events in the county as he stands quietly in the back, listening and learning how the group already works.
“This new guy needs to learn who we are and what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” said Clay. “I’m going into this job right now with trying to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and my ears open to see how we’re operating.”
At the IAS, Clay was one of just two full-time employees in statewide conservation efforts based out of Springfield. He admitted that acquiring and permanently protecting new land was the easy part. Stewarding that land and managing continued conservation efforts was the challenge. It was his small staff at the IAS that required him to build partnerships with small-town residents and the group’s 2,300 members to ensure protection of the land when Clay didn’t have his own boots on the ground.
Now, with an office of nine full-time employees and one part-time employee, he looks forward to having the time to expand the conservation experience beyond simply buying land and clearing invasive species. But he still seeks to bring his experience in building partnerships to the Door County Land Trust.
“My big strength is that I believe that conservation partners are a necessity and the thing that frustrates me is when we have different organizations that are kind of working in a vacuum when our passion is all the same and, in a lot of cases, our goals are the same,” said Clay. “So I think one of the things I would bring to this is the spirit of inclusion when it comes to conservation partners.”
In terms of work on the properties that the land trust already protects, Clay found that invasive species are at the heart of the effort.
“Our organizations are all based on native habitat for native wildlife and understanding that the greater the diversity of plant life means the greatest diversity of wildlife and a huge problem that we all face are the exotic species issues that we have when it comes to habitat,” said Clay. “I left those problems in Illinois and I’ve discovered them when I came to Door County. You never clap your hands and walk away from this land saying, ‘OK, it’s all set.’ It’s never done.”