PENINSULA WOMAN: D’Hemecourt helps save natural spaces from development

PORT ANGELES — The teenage Michele d’Hemecourt thought of herself as a bookworm, not an outdoorswoman. Afraid of slugs, she had never gone camping.

And so this daughter of a doctor who’d spent much of her childhood in Potomac, Md., went off to major in English at Emmanuel College, then a women’s Catholic school in Boston.

Then during the summer between her first and second year there, everything changed.

D’Hemecourt got a job at an animal shelter, and “it was the happiest summer of my life,” she remembers. This was dirty work, but she loved being around animals all day.

So by the time she got back to school, she was eyeing veterinary medicine and went to talk with an adviser about switching to a biology track.

As she looked further into the options on that track, d’Hemecourt found something else entirely, something that felt exactly right.

She changed her major from English to ecology and studied abroad in Kenya, which enchanted her.

“The stars there are so bright. Everything is green,” she recalled, adding she still has her marked-up field guide to East African birds.

Next stop was Duke University in Durham, N.C., where she earned a master’s in environmental management; that led to a yearlong fellowship with the Colorado Conservation Trust.

In Grand Junction, d’Hemecourt worked on conservation easements — legal pacts that guarantee a parcel of land will never be turned into a subdivision or strip mall while leaving the land in the owner’s hands.

Toward the end of her year in Colorado, she met Greg Good, another Conservation Trust fellow. Among the many things they had in common: a passion for protecting precious lands, be they small farms or big wilderness.

D’Heme-court pursued her passion in Salisbury, N.C., via two jobs from 2005 through 2008: cofounder of the Bread Riot, a natural foods cooperative, and land protection director of the Land Trust for Central North Carolina.

Good stayed in Colorado, and he and d’Hemecourt began a long-distance relationship that would last two years.

In April 2008, Good flew farther out west to interview for the newly created position of executive director of the nonprofit North Olympic Land Trust. D’Hemecourt came with him, curious about the Peninsula, and while Good was being vetted, she went for a run on the Olympic Discovery Trail — and fell madly for the place.

On the trail outside Port Angeles, with the Olympic Mountains above, “I was just in heaven,” she said.

And it wasn’t only the visible splendor.

“The coffee and the chocolate taste better here,” d’Hemecourt said.

“The seafood is sweeter” than on the East Coast.

Good got the job in June 2008, and five months later D’Hemecourt landed a pair of positions that would allow her to move West: manager of the Port Angeles Farmers Market, officially 25 hours per week but actually many more, and habitat planner for the North Olympic Peninsula Lead Entity for salmon restoration in Clallam County, another 20 hours per week.

Hectic, yes, but D’Hemecourt readily shares her top two ways of de-stressing and re-energizing.

“I run and eat chocolate,” she said.

There’s more of the former than the latter. D’Hemecourt ran her third Boston Marathon with her younger brother Chuck this year; in February she and her father did the Mardi Gras Marathon in and out of New Orleans. And now she’s training for the Oct. 17 Nike Women’s Marathon in San Francisco.

D’Hemecourt loves her 26.2-mile races for many reasons. They give her the chance to see a stunning place, to spend time with the family members she doesn’t see much of the rest of the year and to break through what she used to think were her limitations.

Back in June 2008, d’Hemecourt ran her first North Olympic Discovery Marathon from Sequim to Port Angeles — shadowed by doubt for much of the race.

“I had hardly trained,” she said, since she’d been helping Good with his move. At several points during the race, she thought, “I’ve got to stop and walk . . . where’s medical help? I’m just going to stop.”

D’Hemecourt did not stop. She ran the whole way.

Finishing marathons, she said, gives her a confidence, a fuel, that propel her through many a challenging situation at work.

These days, d’Hemecourt, 30, calls on her core strength when writing grant proposals and working with local landowners as the North Olympic Land Trust’s conservation director.

This month, she reached a landmark in trust history, closing on the its first outright purchase of property in Clallam County. The land to be protected in perpetuity includes 21 acres on the Pysht River, bought for $125,000 in state grant monies d’Hemecourt secured. At the same time, she’s working on the acquisition of 37 acres on the Big River and 4.5 acres on Siebert Creek — all of which are part of the trust’s long-term vision of saving wildlife habitat.

D’Hemecourt puts such deals together, working with state funders, private property owners, attorneys, surveyors and, of course with Good, the executive director of the land trust.

This wasn’t part of their plan. Alison Lutz was the trust’s longtime conservation director, leading the way as the organization preserved hundreds of acres of land across the county.

But last summer, Lutz announced she was moving to Oregon, where her husband Darek Staab had landed a new job.

Meantime, d’Hemecourt, though she had the background for the post, didn’t submit her resume right away.

“Greg said it’s a shame, but of course she can’t apply,” recalled Robbie Mantooth, a land trust board member.

But the board agreed that “we should hire the best-qualified person,” Mantooth added.

Once d’Hemecourt applied, “it just came down to the fact she was extremely qualified,” said John Willits, another board member. “Everything we needed done, she’d already done in other places,” from Colorado to North Carolina.

D’Hemecourt’s projects range from drafting conservation agreements for small parcels to helping shape the land trust’s long-range plan. Some 500 acres were preserved by the trust last year, Mantooth said, adding that d’Hemecourt and Good are on track to match that in 2010.

For the many meetings d’Hemecourt must attend, she taps into another skill: baking. Her specialty is a granola-cookie recipe from Food & Wine magazine with oats, dark chocolate, apricots and “any nut you have.”

Cooking, as it turns out, is one of d’Hemecourt’s other passions; for fresh inspiration she looks to whatever is in season at the Port Angeles Farmers’ Market. A penchant for local produce has led her to lots of delectable soup recipes, and to baked goods that go over big at home and at work.

“Cookies,” d’Hemecourt believes, “build trust.”

And working side by side with Good is, in a word, ideal.

“Nonprofits absorb your whole life,” she said, so it’s an enormous benefit that she and her partner share the same focus, the same labor of love.

Then d’Hemecourt paused, remembering their first trip to the Peninsula. “How lucky,” she thought at the time, “to be able to work to protect this landscape.”

Working together at the North Olympic Land Trust, she said, “is the culmination of a lot of dreams.”

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