Which brings us to our last question. What do you make of the idea that title to all federal land in the west should revert to the states?

It’s a huge distraction from the real issue, which is how can we improve the quality of management on our federal forests and range lands? The American people own these lands, not our federal or state agencies. The focus needs to be on improved stewardship on the ground. Moreover, the lawsuits have to stop. If we want healthy forests and range lands, we have to manage proactively, which means adults need to sit at the same table and make it work. It’s that simple. Suing each other and allowing unqualified federal judges manage our forests and range lands isn’t working.”

David Allen
President and Chief Executive Officer
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
Missoula, Montana

David Allen is president and chief executive officer of the Missoula-based Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. He spent more than 30 years in sports marketing, so he might seem like an unusual choice to head an organization dedicated to conserving elk and elk habitat. But as he explains in this interview, many notables in professional sports and entertainment have an abiding interest in elk. During his long career in sports marketing, Mr. Allen represented – among others- NASCAR legend, Dale Earnhardt, who was killed in a final lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500. He also served as media director for the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association, and before that, director of special events for Wrangler Jeans. He is a South Dakota native and studied journalism at the University of Wyoming. As chief executive of RMEF, he relies heavily on the scientific insights of foremost elk biologist, Dr. Larry Irwin, who is the foundation’s Co-chairman, and Blake Henning, the organization’s Vice President of Lands and Conservation.

Evergreen: Mr. Allen, you seem like an unusual choice to head an organization dedicated to conserving elk and elk habitat. What led you here?

Allen: The same thing that brought all of us here. A passion for elk and conserving elk habitat. I was a member of the board of directors of the Elk Foundation and the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation for many years, so I knew quite a bit about the elk foundation. The opportunity arose and I took it. Rarely does anyone get the chance to work with 11,000 volunteers, but that’s what we have here at RMEF, and it’s a great pleasure to work with them.

Evergreen: What is there for an old NASCAR guy to do around here?

Allen: As you might imagine, a certain amount of marketing and fundraising expertise is needed in an organization like this one. Overall business management expertise is a must in today’s non-profit world, especially in the big outfits like the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Evergreen: We suppose it helps that you have a Rolodex that a lot of people would kill for.

Allen: It helps.

Evergreen: Most of your members are avid hunters. How about you?

Allen: 52 years. But to expand on your earlier question, there is no doubt that my presence here is a real departure from the days when its founders, Charlie Decker and Bob Munson, were just getting started. We’ve brought the organization back to the focus and roots it had when Bob and Charlie created it, but we run it as you would a large foundation today.

Evergreen: That would have been 1984. My recollection is that Decker was a logger and Munson sold real estate, both around Troy, Montana.

Allen: That’s correct.

Evergreen: How many members do you have now?

Allen: About 220,000. With their support, we’ve been able to conserve about 6.7 million acres of elk habitat. We’re also big advocates for public access.

Evergreen: We’ve followed the activities of the elk foundation for many years, and know that it has historically shied away from political controversy. RMEF even steered clear of endorsing the 2003 Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which was championed by all of the big national hook and gun outfits, yet here you are today, expressing great concern over the millions of acres of dead and dying timber in the west’s national forests. What’s changed?

Allen: I wasn’t working here in 2003, so I don’t know much about what management was thinking, but I can tell you that, as an organization pledged to elk management and elk habitat, we’re very concerned about the loss of habitat you reference, and we’re very supportive of activities that protect both forests and the habitat they provide for all species.

Evergreen: For a long time, there was great concern for the loss of thermal cover – meaning sufficient timber overhead to shelter elk from weather extremes. Is this still the case?

Allen: Elk biologists we work with are concerned about thermal cover but more concerned about the loss of security cover and high quality forage.

Evergreen: Security cover being places where elk can hide?

Allen: Yes, mainly from wolves and other predators. Security cover must also be considered when it comes to elk having places to hide from hunters.

Evergreen: The Elk Foundation has been surprisingly outspoken about the impact wolf packs are having on elk herds.

Allen: Elk are on the wolf menu. As their populations have increased, elk populations have decreased. In some areas. There is some evident that there aren’t nearly as many elk in the high country as there were 20 years ago. They’ve moved to lower elevations and on to ranches where they have some protection from wolves.

Evergreen: Yet there remains a lot of romance around the government sponsored reintroduction of wolves, sort of the charismatic mega-fauna idea.

Allen: That’s true, but we don’t live in the 1600s. We live in the here and now.  Frankly, I would not have taken this job had the Elk Foundation’s board of directors had been unwilling to stand up for elk in the wolf controversy. Saying things like “we neither support nor oppose the reintroduction” meant that we didn’t stand for anything. Our rural culture is shrinking. We can’t afford to fight among ourselves. All of our kids are losing in the long run, and it’s our fault.

Evergreen: We frequently hear expressions of your latter point. But tell us more about the forage question you raised?

Allen: Research demonstrates the critical importance of a high quality summer-fall diet for elk. Elk don’t find much of what they need in their diets in overstocked dead and dying forests.

Evergreen: Where are you directing your efforts in elk conservation?

Allen: The defining issue for the foundation today is better management of federal lands in the West. Doing nothing, as some advocate, dooms elk populations on public land. Elk population numbers are solid, well over one million, but much of this is on private land because it is well managed. This isn’t the case in our national forests, where nutrition is poor and wildfires are destroying the landscape.

Evergreen: Is the elk foundation involved in any of the stakeholder collaboratives that are involved in forest restoration projects on national forests?

Allen: We don’t have the staff to do it everywhere, but we certainly endorse efforts to get more active management on the ground. We have had a lot of involvement in Idaho’s Clearwater Collaborative.

Evergreen: Where is your overall focus today?

Allen: We annually award more than $1 million to state and federal land management agencies engaged in habitat restoration work. We fund noxious weed treatments, prescribed burns where they can be safely applied and thinnings designed to improve forage conditions.

Evergreen: What’s the main concern for elk in overstocked forests?

Allen: The loss of early seral habitat – the open spaces, meadows, aspen groves and sage brush flats where the elk diet flourishes in the presence of adequate sunlight and moisture.

Evergreen: Meaning that you favor more timber harvesting than has been occurring over the last decade or so.

Allen: That’s true, though I would couch our concern more in terms of removing the true firs that were not present before we started fighting big wildfires in the west. What’s needed is a mix of successional stages that include significant supplies of early seral forage for elk, plus the hiding cover present in the older forests we are losing to insects, diseases and big wildfires.

Evergreen: In a phrase, active management that favors intermountain mixed conifer dry site forests that hold all age classes over large landscapes.

Allen: That’s what our elk biologists believe, and it’s what most avid hunters would tell you, too.

Evergreen: How do you get along with the Forest Service?

Allen: The Forest Service and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation have both come a long way in recent years in terms of our understanding of the forest health crisis facing us in national forests. We’re more proactive, more engaged on the ground and more willing to step into controversy to make certain that our elk conservation work goes forward. It’s a great time to be engaged. We don’t always see eye to eye with the Forest Service and other agencies.

Evergreen: One thing is certain. Since you became the organization’s President and CEO, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation has become more vocal about what it thinks and believes than it once was.

Allen: That’s a fair statement.

Evergreen: Which brings us to our last question. What do you make of the idea that title to all federal land in the west should revert to the respective states?

Allen: It’s a huge distraction from the real issue, which is how can we improve the quality of management on our federal forests and rangelands? The American people own these lands, not our federal or state agencies. The focus needs to be on improved stewardship on the ground. Moreover, the lawsuits have to stop. If we want healthy forests and rangelands, we have to manage proactively, which means adults need to sit at the same table and make it work. It’s that simple. Suing each other and allowing unqualified federal judges manage our forests and rangelands isn’t working.