Jenny Zaso: New leader brings lifelong conservation ethic to Five Valleys Land Trust

Jenny Zaso takes the helm at Five Valleys Land Trust in mid-November, eager “to help connect people to the land in an emotional and deep way, to perpetuate a desire and effort to protect the land.” (Dave Stalling/Missoula Current)

Jenny Zaso’s connection to the land and its conservation began as a child growing up on a dairy farm in western New York.

The pastures were conservation lands managed by a local land trust, providing for her family and its dairy herd but also for the community and its interest in preserving open, agricultural ground.

Fast forward a few decades and the newly hired executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust has added a resume rich in strategic planning, organizational development, fundraising and leadership skills, as well as deep knowledge of land conservation.

Now the development and outreach director for Missoula’s Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, Zaso will start her tenure leading Five Valleys Land Trust in mid-November.

She also has worked for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation in Idaho, the Audubon Society in New York, and a land trust called the Monadnock Conservancy in New Hampshire.

“I’m super excited to get back to nonprofit conservation work,” Zaso said Wednesday. “I hope to bring some stability and growth to the organization. It’s been through some tumultuous times, and hasn’t had a permanent executive director for a while.”

Greg Tollefson, who has worked for Five Valleys for more than 25 years — including stints as executive director and conservation director — served as its interim director for the past five months.  

“I know the staff is ready to embrace Jenny’s leadership as ongoing projects are completed, new priorities and projects are identified and our long-term vision continues to evolve,” Tollefson said. “She clearly has all the tools to successfully steer the organization into the future as it continues working to help protect the natural values, working landscape, and public access opportunities treasured by all of us who live in western Montana. We have high hopes for her success.”

The Missoula-based nonprofit debuted in 1972 as Five Valleys River Park Association, formed by local residents who were concerned about the pace of residential and commercial development and its impact on open space.

From the start, the organization’s mission has been “to protect for future generations western Montana’s natural legacy – our river corridors, wildlife habitat, agricultural lands, and community open spaces” in the Bitterroot, Blackfoot, upper Clark Fork, lower Clark Fork and the Mission-Jocko valleys.

Forty-seven years later, Five Valleys has conserved more than 70,000 acres across western Montana.

Accomplishments include: creating the riverfront park system in Missoula; promoting the passage of Montana’s first public open space bond in 1980; helping the city of Missoula acquire Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel; protecting eight miles of Clark Fork River frontage in Alberton Gorge; helping conserve 856 acres as part of the Blackfoot-Clearwater land exchange; protecting land in the Rattlesnake Valley and along Rock Creek, as well as segments of the Clark Fork such as Kelly Island and Jacobs Island.

Five Valleys also works with landowners to protect wildlife habitat and agricultural lands through conservation easements.

Much work remains on the organization’s to-do list.

“There’s still a lot of development going on, and a lot of land to protect,” said Zaso. “We get a lot of people knocking on our door, and it’s easy to get pulled in various directions. Through strategic planning – identifying and working on top priorities – I want to become more narrow and deep in our mission, focus on priorities, and become more efficient and effective.”

Zaso said she also wants to bring the concept of “community conservation” to Five Valleys. “It’s a new part of the land trust movement,” she said, “to help connect people to the land in an emotional and deep way, to perpetuate a desire and effort to protect the land.” 

Kathy McAllister, president of the Five Valleys board of directors, called Zaso a “good fit” for the organization. 

“She has a lot of organizational skills,” McAllister said. “We look forward to her leadership as our great staff and our wonderful community continue working together to meet the challenges of protecting the natural values that enrich our lives.”

McAllister also praised Tollefson for his hard work and dedication.

“He was a lifesaver,” she said. “He did a great job of filling in when we needed him, and we wouldn’t be where we are without him.” 

As for Tollefson’s next move: “I’ve tried to retire several times now,” he said. “I’m looking forward to celebrating this wonderful, beautiful place we live in many ways.”