Alex Diekmann was to the conservation world what a conductor is to a concerto, and the coda to his sterling career will continue to play out in Whitefish and across Montana in perpetuity.
Diekmann, a senior project manager for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, died Feb. 1 after a courageous battle with cancer. He was 52, and leaves behind his wife, Lisa, and their two sons, Liam and Logan.
But his legacy as a guardian of Montana’s open spaces will live on in a world without end, and as his friends, family and colleagues come to grips with the loss, they remember a man who conducted his work quietly, but with unrivaled passion.
In Whitefish, Diekmann was the mastermind behind the sprawling conservation easements to protect the city’s municipal water supply while preserving recreational access to a 3,000-acre tract of land in Haskill Basin and more than 15,000 acres north of Whitefish Lake.
In brokering the Haskill deal, which is set to close this month, Diekmann brought together scores of stakeholders with varied interests and instilled in them a common goal.
Prior to his death, Diekmann described the complementary conservation projects in and around Whitefish “truly remarkable,” and as the pieces fell into place his friends and colleagues observed a progression of complexity in the deals he negotiated.
“He was the glue,” said Dick Dolan, the Northern Rockies director of the Trust for Public Land. “I likened him to a choreographer. There is so much that goes into these deals behind the scenes. It is so intricate and complicated and there are so many hiccups that can derail a project. And Alex was so talented at bringing everyone together to find a solution and keep everyone on track.”
The Haskill Basin project is unfolding on land owned by F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co., which is also the source of 75 percent of the city’s water supply, and the easements provide the final safeguard from the threats of development.
Dolan continued: “Haskill may be the best example of how complex it can be to make these projects a reality. Not only do you have the usual elements – the scenic viewshed, the prized recreation opportunities, the wildlife habitat and pristine water quality – but you have the city’s direct interest in its drinking water. That really made it unique. That brought in this whole other layer of complexity. But you had all these people who had the resources to get it done, and they did. And Alex was at the center of that. It is no small feat.”
Statistically, the magnitude of Diekmann’s land legacy is staggering.
Between 2001 and 2015, he completed 55 land protection efforts across the Northern Rockies – from maintaining access to the famed Three-Dollar Bridge, a prized fishing hole in the Madison Valley, to the stunning Sawtooth Mountains of central Idaho. His efforts total more than 100,000 acres of farms and ranches, restored spring creeks, timberlands open to fishermen and sportsmen, and even an historic homestead within the confines of Glacier National Park.
Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld said the local projects never would have come to fruition without Diekmann’s vision, his extraordinary talent at connecting people and bringing together diverse interests – landowners, elected officials, government agencies, nonprofits – and his enormous passion for the outdoors, which he navigated as a runner, Nordic skier, fisherman, and mountaineer.
“The best way we can commemorate Alex and the work he did for Whitefish is for all of us to live our lives to the fullest. Get out with your friends and families and enjoy the wild places that Alex helped protect, and pause from time to time to remember Alex and the wonderful gift he gave the Whitefish community and the north Flathead Valley,” Muhlfeld said. “Alex’s legacy will remain forever across the landscapes he helped conserve, from the Madison River Valley, to Haskill Basin, to the north end of Whitefish Lake.”
Muhlfeld, a hydrologist and president of the River Design Group, which specializes in river, stream and wetland restoration projects, first met Diekmann in 2010 while working on a conservation project in the Madison Valley, which paved the way for the restoration of one of Montana’s largest drained wetland complexes, the O’Dell Creek headwaters.
Jeff Laszlo and his family are the fifth-generation owners of the Granger Ranches just outside Ennis, and the principal participating landowner in the O’Dell Creek project. He worked closely with Diekmann to secure the easements and set the O’Dell Creek Headwaters Project into motion. The ambitious restoration project has since transformed miles of drainage ditches back to the stream’s original meandering path, and has transformed O’Dell Creek. Once a clogged artery of the Madison River, it now pumps clean, spring-fed water through its channels.
Once the deal was done, Diekmann continued to facilitate the restoration project and offer guidance, developing a close personal friendship with Laszlo and Muhlfeld along the way.
“One of the rare qualities that set Alex apart was that when our deal was done, he remained fully engaged. He stayed involved because he loved the project. He loved what he did and he loved seeing great things happen. And he wanted to be part of making more great things happen,” Laszlo said.
At a Whitefish City Council meeting on Feb. 1, the date of Diekmann’s death, the council passed the final resolutions approving the Haskill Basin project, and Muhlfeld called for a moment of silence to honor Diekmann.
“Please keep Alex forever in your thoughts when your footsteps carry you through the lands he helped us protect,” Muhlfeld said.