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In Character: Diane Snyder of U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities

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Friday, June 01, 2007
s_DianeSnyder0607 Diane Snyder, vice president, U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities


Wrangling opportunity

Diane Snyder’s life work is to make prosperity possible in rural communities.

By Christina Williams

Striding through the fields of her family’s ranch just outside Joseph, Diane Daggett Snyder tells the story of Boag, the horse she was given at 13 soon after her mother died, the one she trained, the one she rode to victory in the rodeo court, even though her father cautioned her not to get her hopes up.

Boag is gone but the connection that 45-year-old Snyder has to the far northeastern corner of Oregon is as strong as it was when she was a teenager growing up in the shadow of the Wallowa Mountains, working with a spirited quaterhorse of indeterminate breeding. But her dedication to taking what she’s given and making something amazing happen — both with Boag and with the nonprofit Wallowa Resources — has landed her a new job.

In February, Snyder was hired as the vice president of the U.S. Endowment for Forestry and Communities, a new nonprofit corporation backed by a $200 million endowment that will fund programs of sustainability and community development in historically timber-reliant communities across the country.

Carlton Dunn, a sustainable forestry veteran who is based in Greenville, S.C., and heads the endowment as its CEO, sought Snyder out for the job and asked her to apply, attracted by her practical experience. “She has done on the ground what we’re going to be doing with other communities,” Dunn says. “I wanted someone who has been in the trenches.”

Snyder’s trenches were dug at the corner of First and North streets in Enterprise where she built Wallowa Resources from nothing to an organization with eight employees and an annual budget of $1.3 million. Its art and science education programs fill in for an ailing school system, its noxious weeds program educates ranchers about landscape-ravaging plants, its watershed program is making Joseph Creek safe for fish. And it is putting local private contractors to work whenever possible, employing nearly 2% of the nonfarm payroll for Wallowa County.

For the new job, Snyder moved into an office in the Wallowa County Chamber building a mile away. It’s a sweet setup. One window affords a view of the Seven Devils Mountains in Idaho and the other one looks out toward the Wallowas. She spends her days on the phone and on e-mail, the ’40s music station on her satellite radio tinkling in the background, coordinating with Dunn and a board of directors to get the endowment ready to start putting money to work.

The U.S. Endowment will focus on funding projects that mitigate the effects of climate change and global competition. Snyder is excited by the challenge. “My life’s passion is to help people in rural places thrive,” Snyder says. “With this job I can broaden my impact without sacrificing my role.”

Her role has been an evolutionary one. Snyder went to college in La Grande and as a young woman spent four years  working for the Oregon House of Representatives. She met a cowboy and moved to Moses Lake, Wash., but returned to Wallowa County in 1988, going back to the ranch where she grew up, putting a single-wide trailer on the site of the house that had burned down four years earlier.

A single mom working for Wallowa County, Snyder had a front-row seat to watch the timber industry implode in the ’90s, taking 20% of the county’s highest- paying jobs with it. “The fear here was tremendous,” Snyder says.

Under the guidance of the Portland-based nonprofit Sustainable Northwest, a dozen or so members of the community started meeting in the back room of the bakery in downtown Enterprise, talking about ways to take control of managing local natural resources, about ways to salvage jobs and about ways to keep their community from unraveling. When the group applied for a grant to organize as Wallowa Resources in 1997, they asked Snyder to take the helm.  

Snyder worked hard in those early years to establish Wallowa Resources’ identity in a community that had a deep distrust of nonprofits, equating them with the environmental groups that forced so many changes on them. “One of my friends ran into someone at Safeway who asked her, ‘Has Diane gone green on us?’” Snyder recalls. “I had to articulate the ties of ecosystem health to social and economic health.”   

Meanwhile, Snyder continued to work on her home life: raising her boys, adding to her herd of cattle and saving enough money to upgrade to a larger manufactured home at the ranch.

Meet her now and you might not guess that Snyder’s favorite winter sport is birthing calves. In addition to cherishing her rancher identity, she likes manicured nails and elaborate jewelry. “I’ve got a bling thing,” she jokes, shaking her head to make her dangling silver earrings chime softly.

Her new job has afforded her a new luxury: a gently used, smooth-driving Cadillac with cushy leather seats. She worried about what people might think, her driving around in such a fancy car, but 21-year-old Sterling, the oldest of her three long-legged boys, assured her: “You’ve earned it, Mom.”

But there is some bitterness that laces her excitement for this new chapter in her life. After years spent helping her community survive while Wallowa County changed drastically around them, the shift finally hit home. Taking advantage of the rising land prices that have complicated the economics of ranching in Eastern Oregon, Snyder’s stepmother plans to sell the family ranch at a premium. Snyder faces moving off the land where she grew up.  

Standing at the top of a slope above the house — the one she used to climb for exercise when she was pregnant with her boys — she looks toward the Wallowas and thinks about her next move. She concedes that maybe when the endowment starts making grants and she needs to go help other communities pull themselves up, she’ll have to live somewhere with a handier airport. “But I’ll always have a place here,” she says, nodding to the steep peaks. “This is home.”

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