Elliot Marks caps 27-year career with The Nature Conservancy on July 10, 2004.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 3/18/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9775
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On July 10, 2004, it is announced that Elliot Marks (b.1945) -- longtime Washington state and Northwest regional director of The Nature Conservancy -- would be stepping down after 27 years of leading that organization's operations in the region. Marks, a highly experienced veteran of environmental and ecology politics, had served as a legislative assistant and natural resources aide to Governor Daniel J. Evans (b. 1925) from 1973 to 1977 before leaving for Portland, Oregon to take the job of Northwest representative of the Conservancy. In 1979, Marks opens a new office for the Conservancy in Seattle, and also becomes its Washington state director. Ten years later, in 1989, he will head up the creation of the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition (WWRC) and help establish the pioneering Trust Land Transfer Program. In 1999 Marks will take over as the Conservancy's Northwest division vice-president. After leaving that post in 2004, he will serve in the office of Governor Chris Gregoire (b. 1947) as her top adviser on natural-resource issues, then moves on to serve as special assistant to the director of the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. He currently (2011) does private consulting work and remains deeply involved in environmental and conservation issues.

Something for the Ages

Elliot Marks was a freshly minted graduate of Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley (where he also earned a master's degree in divinity) when he took on the job as legislative assistant, and later natural-resources aide, to Washington Governor Daniel J. Evans. From early on, Marks was saddled with a daunting task -- attempting to negotiate with various private timber companies to preserve from logging a considerable portion of Pacific Coast shoreline. The visionary leadership of Evans and his chief of staff, Jim Dolliver, coupled with Marks's skillful efforts, ultimately led to a significant expansion of the Olympic National Park, bringing within its boundaries the historic Lake Ozette area and nearby Shi Shi Beach.

This initial taste of success was addicting: "It hooked me," Marks enthused to The Seattle Times, noting the satisfaction to be gained from accomplishing something for the ages. "When you get it done, it will be there forever ... . It is the sense of nature that brings us closer to godliness. It is immoral for a generation to leave the planet in worse shape" (Martin). 

A Legacy of Protected Land

In 1977 Marks hired on with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), which is based in Arlington, Virginia, and is the world’s largest and best-financed conservation organization. He started at the Portland, Oregon office as Northwest representative, then opened a Conservancy office in Washington state in 1979 and served as its first director. He became the Conservancy's Northwest Division vice-president in 1999, overseeing programs in Washington, Idaho, Oregon, Hawaii, Nevada, and Alaska. Under his guidance, the Conservancy was able to successfully place 400,000 acres of Pacific Northwest land under protected status.

Among the most significant and gratifying achievements for Marks was the creation in 1988 of a unique Trust Land Transfer Program. The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) manages most of Washington's state-owned land, and almost all of it was held in trust and dedicated under the state constitution to produce income for school construction. The state land commissioner's duty with regard to this land is to maximize that income, and this is most often done through the sale of timber rights. Over the years this had resulted in vast areas being logged off. The state's trust lands include areas that are environmentally sensitive, unique, or recreationally important, and resistance to logging began to grow in local communities and among environmentalists and conservationists. The conflict between the commissioner's constitutional obligation to produce income  for schools and the desire to protect natural lands led to frequent disputes and litigation.

Land Trust Transfer Program

When Brian Boyle replaced Bert Cole as state land commissioner in 1980, the agency became more flexible in its approach to trust-land management. Marks had recruited key legislators from both political parties and both legislative houses to serve on the Conservancy board, and this bipartisanship proved invaluable. He was able to bring together board members Dan McDonald, a Republican senator, and Democrat House member Jennifer Belcher (a future land commissioner) with Bob Rose from Commissioner Boyle's office. Together they devised a unique solution, embodied it in proposed legislation, and lobbied it through the House and Senate. Thus was created the Trust Land Transfer Program.

The program works as follows: Each biennium the legislature appropriates a great deal of money in the capital budget for school construction, over and above any income that is generated by the Department of Natural Resources from the trust land it manages. Under the Trust Land Transfer program, some of that legislative appropriation is channeled through the school trust to compensate for the timber value (usually about 90 percent of total market value) that would have otherwise been auctioned for harvest. Those lands are removed from the trust and rededicated as state parks, natural resource conservation areas, natural area preserves, or other protected status. To make up for the future loss of income from these newly protected lands, the legislature agreed to allocate additional money equal to the remaining 10 percent of total fair market value of the removed lands. This enable the state to purchase replacement land that had already been logged off, but which is or will be reforested to produce income through future timber sales.
Between 1989 and 2010 the program removed 103,000 acres of important school trust lands from Department of Natural Resources' income-production inventory, at a cost of $733 million, and has put them into various categories of protected status.  No other state has done anything even remotely like this, and it has been a resounding success.

Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition

In 1989 Marks helped create and then served as first president of another important environmental organization, the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition. Marks was able to persuade former governor Dan Evans, a Republican, and future governor Mike Lowry, a Democrat, to serve as co-chairs, demonstrating the coalition's broad bipartisan support. Armed with the backing of the Conservancy’s Washington chapter board and a major grant from the Bullitt Foundation, Marks brought together more than 270 organizations, including conservationists, outdoors and wilderness enthusiasts, farmers, timber companies, realtors, and other business interests. This diverse group was to work together to support major state funding for the acquisition and development of state and local parks, natural areas, fish and wildlife habitat, water-access sites, and other outdoor recreation assets.

With an initial goal of seeking a $450-million bond issue to begin implementing the findings of a needs assessment sponsored by the Bullitt Foundation, the coalition eventually agreed to a proposal from then-Governor Booth Gardner (b. 1936) to sponsor its legislation and propose funding in the 1990 supplemental capital budget, which led to an initial appropriation of $53 million. During its first two decades of activity, the coalition "secured $620 million in state money for a thousand projects across Washington" that protected more than 350,000 acres and "leveraged more than $405 million in local and private money" (Connelly).

Moving On to Continue On

In 2004, Marks left his leadership position with the Nature Conservancy after nearly three decades of remarkable success, saying "I feel it has been a huge privilege to do anything that long, but I didn’t want to spend my whole life there" (Martin). But with his deep and long-lasting commitment to environmental protection and preservation, it came as little surprise that within six months he had signed on as Governor Christine Gregoire’s top advisor on natural-resource issues. In this post, which he held from 2005 to 2007, Marks advised the governor on matters related to fish and wildlife, parks and recreation, forestry, endangered species, ocean policy, conservation and restoration of Puget Sound and Hood Canal, invasive species, tribal issues, proposed legislation, roadless area protection, and related issues.

After a brief stint as special assistant to the director of the Washington State parks and Recreation Commission, Marks in 2008 opened an office as a consultant in environmental and conservation matters. Among his first clients was the Cascade Land Conservancy, and he has also provided guidance to the state parks commission and to green-technology start-up companies.


Washington Wildlife and Recreation Coalition website accessed on March 17, 2011 (http://wildliferecreation.org/aboutus/whoweare/board); Jonathan Martin, “Nature Conservancy Exec Quits the Agency, but Not the Work,” The Seattle Times, July 10, 2004 (http://community.seattletimes.nwsource.com/); Jeffrey P. Mayor, “New Members Expected to Redirect Fish-Wildlife Commission,” News Tribune via redOrbit website accssed on March 15, 2011(http://www.redorbit.com/news/science/138361/new_members_ expected_to_redirect_fishwildlife_commission/index.html); Joel Connelly, “Open spaces, play spaces unite old foes,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 4, 2009 (http://www.seattlepi.com); Elliot Marks emails to John Caldbick, June 1 through June 7, 2010, in possession of John Caldbick, Seattle, Washington.
Note: This essay was considerably expanded on June 8, 2011.

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