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Faces of Conservation

Someone to Know: Tom Cook

The new chair of Michigan’s board of trustees does more than give lip service to conservation. From leading top executives in understanding the connection between our economy and ecology to hiking 460 miles across the UP in 2006, Tom Cook talks the talk and walks the walk.

You lead a local family foundation and sit on Council of Michigan Foundations’ board. What role do you think foundations play in the conservation priorities of Michigan?

Tom Cook:

Like many family and community foundations, the Cook Family Foundation is a place-based funder, and nothing defines our place more than the Shiawassee River. When I look across Michigan, the identity, even the name, of many communities is found in prominent natural features: a lake, haven, or rapids. Preserving these places protects not only important natural resources, but also enhances the quality of life in a community. And, an attractive community with access to recreational features like rivers and trails increasingly is becoming an economic asset. I’m proud to say that many foundations in Michigan have come to not only understand the environment-economy connection, but have made investments in conservation specifically to enhance economic development. Much of the early and significant work on sustainability has been supported by several Michigan foundations, both large and small.

What sets the Conservancy apart from other environmental groups?

Tom Cook:

I support and work with several environmental groups, including Friends of the Shiawassee River, which I helped start in 1996. The Conservancy provides the science, policy development, and large-scale strategies which help local partners be more successful in their efforts.

How do trustees help the Conservancy achieve its goals?

Tom Cook:

Working in a small community has enabled me to see the direct impact one person can have if they make a significant and sustained commitment to a cause. My volunteer work with the Conservancy has shown me a person’s contribution to a large organization is just as important. Our trustee volunteers make four important contributions. They all: 1) are great ambassadors and help spread the word about the Conservancy’s work; 2) apply their considerable expertise and diverse perspectives to problem-solving for the Chapter; 3) help make introductions and connections for Conservancy staff so we can build strong partnerships with the private, public, and non-profit sectors; and 4) are faithful donors and our best fundraisers.

What first got you engaged as a board member?

Tom Cook:

The Cook Family Foundation worked with The Nature Conservancy on a multi-year project on the Shiawassee River and I had the privilege to work with some very talented Conservancy staff. I also went on field trips with board members to the Les Cheneaux area and to see the Kirtland’s warbler. The professionalism of the staff and the passion of the board members made me want to get more engaged.

What’s changed from how we do business at the Conservancy since you’ve been a board member?

Tom Cook:

In the last few years, the Conservancy has moved from preserving sites to whole landscapes and watersheds. Now we’re thinking about ecosystems that comprise the Great Lakes and how we can use policy, market forces and land acquisitions to ensure the health of those systems. At my first board meetings, we spent a lot of time reviewing land purchases. Now, we get a written report on acquisitions and we use the considerable skills and experience of our board members to identify new policy and funding opportunities, set long-term strategy, and problem-solve. What hasn’t changed is the cutting-edge science that underlies our work.

What do you hope to accomplish as a board chair?

Tom Cook:

With the board, I hope to support the staff in their important work in the Great Lakes. With volunteers and members, I want to build greater awareness and appreciation of Michigan’s natural assets. The Nature Conservancy has a great story, and we need to share it with more friends, colleagues, and neighbors.

With all the challenges facing Michigan, why have you chosen to prioritize conservation?

Tom Cook:

I think we have learned in recent years that we need to build an economy that is sustainable over time. When I look at Michigan’s economic assets, I see our environment and our people as two things we can build on for the long term, and the two support one another. A healthy environment not only protects the quality of life for those who live here now, but our natural resources and associated recreational opportunities are what attract and retain the knowledge workers who are the backbone of the new economy. In addition, a sustainable economy in Michigan will depend on the quality and quantity of our water resources, productive agricultural lands, and a sustained yield of wood products and other natural resources. The Great Lakes, our scenic coastal areas, and our working forests and farmlands are the key to Michigan’s economic future.

You are probably the first chairman of the board to walk the length of the UP! What triggered you to hike 460 miles?

Tom Cook:

I wanted to see more of the UP, try out the developing North Country Trail, visit the Conservancy preserves, and share the experience with friends and family. I was astounded by the support I received and the kindness of the Conservancy staff and others folks in the UP. The scale of the landscape that the Conservancy preserved through the Big Deal can only be appreciated when you take weeks to see it end to end. Spending days at a time alone in the North Woods and on the Lake Superior restored in me the spiritual connection I have always gotten from being in the wild for an extended period of time.

The Nature Conservancy owns 33 preserves totaling 43,831 acres across the state, only a fraction of the 364,788 acres protected over the years. You recently set a personal goal to visit as many preserves as you can this year. Why?

Tom Cook:

Although I have taken several trips with my family to amazing places in Utah and the Caribbean, we have come to appreciate the accessibility of the wonderful places in our own backyard. Michigan’s natural treasures rival those of any in the world, and my wife Anna Owens and I enjoy discovering them in our camper van, on bikes, and on early morning birding trips. While the Conservancy’s permanent preserves represent only a portion of the land that the organization has protected, visiting them provides a nice way to sample some of Michigan’s great places. We have not yet developed an itinerary, but we do plan on joining some organized field trips, taking a long trip to the UP, as well as being spontaneous. We would love an invitation from other the Conservancy members willing to be a guide to any preserve for which they have a special affection. I am writing a blog on our journey so that others can share in our discoveries.

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