Lou Lunte arrived nearly an hour early to his first Nature Conservancy board meeting more than 30 years ago. That was his way.
Former Idaho state Senator Laird Noh was also there early, so the two started talking. Noh was a prominent sheep rancher. Lunte was the newly hired preserve manager at Silver Creek.
Noh’s first question to Lunte was how he felt about grizzly bears. Lunte dodged it, politely worried about the track the conversation could take. But then he listened as Noh articulately discussed his reading of the literature and discussions he’d had.
“It opened my eyes to how to be thoughtful, to learn and listen,” Lunte said. “There was a balance between grizzly bears and people’s livelihood.”
A couple years later, Lunte met a Texas couple at their ranch near Hells Canyon. They sat down to talk, and it became clear their views as Texas conservatives probably differed in many key ways from his own, but then the conversation turned to the little Idaho ground squirrel. The ground squirrel is endemic to Idaho, and one of the biggest populations was on their ranch. The couple knew everything they could about the creature, and wanted to protect it wherever possible.
“Once again, we found common ground,” he said.
The couple became good friends with Lunte, and ended up donating easements protecting big stretches of a scenic river.
It’s hundreds if not thousands of those kinds of conversations that have decorated Lunte’s distinguished career with The Nature Conservancy in Idaho. And it’s those relationships that helped him understand that the best way to accomplish big acts for nature is to make sure not only that everyone is at the table, but also that everyone has a stake in the outcome.
“It’s amazing if you give opportunity a chance with people, what it can turn into,” he said.
Lunte started his 31-year career with TNC Idaho because he wanted to spend more time outside while advocating for open spaces. In March, more than three decades later, he stepped down as the chapter’s deputy director for similar reasons.
Consider almost any recent Idaho land conservation success story—the Rinker Rock Creek Ranch, Thousand Springs, Hells Canyon—and you’ll see Lunte’s work. He and his wife started as caretakers of Silver Creek Preserve, doing everything from fixing fences and monitoring water quality to building the manager’s house and greeting visitors. Over the next three decades he continued with TNC Idaho, carefully building coalitions of disparate voices.
Take the Owyhee Canyon Lands. For decades, the 5 million acres languished in conflicts between public land ranching and those opposed to it. TNC Idaho bought a ranch in the area, and Lunte needed to check it out.
“I still remember my first trip out to the 45 Ranch,” Lunte said. “It was an open, beautiful landscape, but I remember getting to the rim and looking down at the river and the ranch and thinking, ‘what an oasis for people and wildlife.’”
He began visiting with other area ranchers, building a community and listening to their concerns. TNC Idaho was asked to join a group helping to stem the conflict and work toward a positive solution.
What resulted, more than 20 years later, was the first wilderness designation in Idaho in decades, 300 miles of wild and scenic river corridors, and an end to a Wilderness Study Area limbo that released many of the remaining acres back to the public for multiple use.
Projects like these take persistence and collaboration. They take a vision of the future where land can be used and also conserved. They take building relationships and trust. Those are Lunte’s specialties.
“He knows every landscape in this state,” said Matt Miller, TNC’s director of science communications who spent 11 years working with Lunte. “He’s comfortable sitting down with ranchers and timber industry executives. He wants to hear where everyone is coming from and works with them to meet conservation goals everyone can be happy with.”
Lunte’s passion for on-the-ground work and relationships is why, for the last 12 years, he chose to continue as deputy director instead of seeking out the top job. It’s also the knowledge that if he just kept working, just kept talking to people and creating and nurturing friendships, he would eventually see projects to their end.
Box Canyon illustrates that better than most. The area is part of Thousand Springs and was once slated for yet another fish hatchery.
It’s a mile-long canyon with a stream that emerges from the ground and dumps unending fresh water into the Snake River. Eagles nest there. Native sculpin call the stream home, and birds seek refuge. Water had already been pumped from one portion. The proposal would essentially dry the rest.
A lawsuit stopped hatchery construction, and TNC Idaho worked for years with the landowner, the state and Idaho Power to find a solution. A purchase was nearly complete when the state told Lunte that TNC owed $1 million to finish the transaction. The Idaho Chapter didn’t have that kind of money. Lunte was destitute. But then someone called the small Hailey office asking to meet. It was Kathy Troutner, a former TNC board volunteer who had worked to protect Box Canyon years earlier.
When Lunte sat down for coffee, she handed him a check for $1 million.
“It was so TNC could protect this place she cared so much about,” he said. “Sometimes amazing things happen.”
Box Canyon soon became Earl M. Hardy State Park, and that stream still rushes up from the ground and flows into the Snake.
Years later, Lunte’s daughter’s friend came over and the two girls chatted about a recent weekend outing to Box Canyon. Lou felt grateful that other generations of Idahoans were able to appreciate the place that he and so many others worked to protect.
Even as Lunte steps down from his role and looks ahead with mixed feelings, he will maintain that focus on relationships and conserving the natural world. He recently accepted a new position as Silver Creek Preserve manager, the same postion that launched his career with TNC so many years ago.
“We’re describing it as wanting to go full circle,” he said. “We want to finish our careers together, a little closer to the land.”