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Director of Five Valleys Land Trust steps down after 10 years

Grant Kier, executive director of the Five Valleys Land Trust, is stepping aside after 10 years at the organization’s helm. He’ll be replaced this month by Amber Sherrill. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

In the decade that Grant Kier has served as director of Five Valleys Land Trust, the organization has grown its community partnerships and protected 40,000 acres of open space and public access across western Montana.

It’s been a good 10 years by all accounts, but the time has come for Kier to step aside and transfer leadership to Amber Sherrill, the organization’s past board president.

Kier announced his intention to relinquish his leadership role this week.

“I think it’s really healthy for anyone who’s leading an organization to be sensitive to when the right time is for departure,” Kier said Thursday morning. “I’ve worked really hard with the board here to build a great team and a great portfolio of projects with a lot of community support.”

Kier, a Colorado native with ties to Boulder and Durango, left the Bitterroot Land Trust in 2007 to join Five Valleys. Over his tenure, the organization doubled in size and successfully united diverse groups under the common interest of land conservation and the protection of public access.

While it’s easy to point to a patch of ground and see success, Kier said, achieving long-term conservation goals requires collaboration. It’s there where he may leave his greatest impact.

“To me, the most exciting accomplishment we’ve made is the people we’ve brought together,” said Kier. “Some of the accomplishments I’m most proud of are the events I show up for. When I look into the group of people who are there, they represent everything that we are in western Montana – the ranchers, the loggers, the teachers, doctors and students. It’s a rich, diverse group.”

When Kier arrived at Five Valleys, development in the Missoula Valley was at its peak. Perhaps because of it, county voters overwhelmingly approved a $10 million open space bond the year before. The recession was still unseen and the race was on to protect the region’s valuable natural resources.

Back then, Kier said, his charge from the organization’s board of directors was to accelerate conservation. The recession helped bring that opportunity.

“We were able to take advantage of a lull in the development pressure and be really effective during that period to get ahead of things and make sure we were protecting really important places,” Kier said. “We’ve also come a long way in appreciating where it’s right to support development, and we’ve worked toward those ends by being a good collaborative partner in how the community grows.”

As Kier steps aside to consider his next move, Five Valleys is closing out a number of conservation successes, both in the Missoula Valley and beyond.

The southern portion of the Mt. Dean Stone open space project extends to Miller Creek. The conservation effort represents an ambitious multi-year process. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Locally, it’s working toward a multi-year plan to protect portions of Mount Dean Stone, a prominent Missoula Valley vantage that represents one of the more complicated deals Five Valleys has undertaken.

That effort took several steps forward in 2016 when Five Valleys acquired 83 acres of land marking Dean Stone’s northern face. The city later purchased the property, known as the South Hills Spur, for $575,000 (nearly half of its $1.2 million value) using funds from the 2006 Open Space Bond.

But the effort to protect the larger Dean Stone complex is still advancing. As many as 14 complicated land deals will be required to close the project, along with $1 million to purchase the remaining 2,500 acres on the mountain’s southern flank.

Along the way, Five Valleys also has conserved several agricultural parcels, including 75 acres in the west valley once eyed for a 16-lot subdivision. More recently, it helped conserve 168 acres at the Oxbow Cattle Co.

Projects are also underway to protect conservation ranchland in Flint Creek, and wildlife habitat in the upper Blackfoot and southern Mission valleys.

“We’ve doubled the amount of acres that have been protected from the time I started to today, and that’s compared to a 35-year history before that,” Kier said. “We’ve done a good job accelerating what we’ve done, and we’ve diversified the communities we serve around Missoula.”

As Kier prepares to depart, Sherrill is ready to step in, saying the seamless transition will enable the organization to maintain its forward momentum. Kier agreed, calling Sherrill a mentor and a friend.

After all, he said, Sherrill had a hand in bringing him into Five Valleys.

“She’s been an incredible mentor to me and she’s always been really engaged in the community, and she’s as passionate about this organization as anyone I know,” Kier said. “She’s one of the smartest women I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with and she’ll be an incredible asset to the organization.”

Kier added, “We’ve got great talent here and I think it’s a really healthy time for me to look at new things and the organization at its future, and bringing new leadership into the group.”