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Mark Blaiser

'I was a dirtbag at one point'

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The evening was calm and peaceful. Mark Blaiser dipped his paddle through the still water of the Kawishiwi River near the border of Minnesota and Canada. The 25-year-old sat silently in his canoe and watched a moose and her calf splash into the river and swim across. The moment struck Blaiser as profound.

"That sort of stuff gets into your soul," he said. "It gets embedded in you."

Now, at 41, Blaiser is the new executive director of Idaho Rivers United, a nonprofit devoted to protecting, conserving and restoring the state's rivers, streams and riparian areas. This year, IRU celebrates its 25th anniversary.

What brought you to Boise?

Well, my wife and I finally had a kid. We started thinking about where we wanted to raise him and Boise kept coming up. A position opened up in my wife's department, so we made the jump last July.

Why did you decide to work with a nonprofit that deals with rivers? Why not children or animals?

Where I grew up in Wisconsin was less than a mile from the St. Croix River, and that was one of the original Wild and Scenic rivers. I grew up in a canoe. My dad taught us how to fly fish on lakes growing up, but once I moved to Montana and started fly fishing on those rivers, I was hooked for life. I spent a summer in Alaska, too, so I got to see the wild salmon runs. They're healthy, sustainable, magical. It's something that would be really cool to have back in Idaho.

Idaho Rivers United has a graying membership. What do you do to reach the younger generation and get them to become members?

I think we have a lot of opportunity on social media and by being at events where that demographic of 20- to 45-year-olds is at.

Part of the challenge is you're reaching out to self-proclaimed "dirtbag" boaters who have nothing in their wallets and trying to convince them that, "Yes, you could buy a six pack of beer, but why don't you donate to this river organization instead?"

The way I look at it is, that dirtbag boater might be the CEO of AIRE Rafts someday. Look at it long-term. I was a dirtbag at one point. ... It's not about money, it's about engagement. It's about getting those folks who love a river involved. Nobody wants to be treated like an ATM machine.

Tell me more about about being a "dirtbag."

Right when I graduated from undergrad, I went on a solo backpacking trip along the Boundary Waters, right on the border of Minnesota and Canada. I went for seven or eight days without even seeing another person out there.

In my late 30s, I became a NOLS [National Outdoor Leadership School] instructor. Then we had our son and that changed everything.

This is IRU's 25th year. Where do you see the organization going in the next 25 years?

Right now we're working on what I'm calling Vision 20/20. It just worked out that our next five-year strategic plan is 2016-2020. We want to keep making sure we're doing great work on the Wild and Scenic River protection, then looking at future opportunities.

The way the politics are, it's more of a defense right now, making sure we protect what's existing, but the political landscape changes, so when that happens, we want to be ready to start advocating for the next possibility. And we need to look at water conservation for Idaho's rivers. That's key in the long-term.

What's you river craft of choice?

My craft of choice has always been a canoe, but the next purchase will be a raft for the family.

So your garage is not yet brimming with river gear?

Not yet. We've got a stand up paddleboard—mostly for me, I've got the fly rods and the waders.

Is this your dream job, or is it an opportunity that just popped up and you never thought of yourself there until you saw it?

I was the executive director of an environmental nonprofit before called the Minnesota Waste Wise Foundation. Our goal was getting businesses and organizations to conserve natural resources and energy. When this position popped up, it seemed like a natural fit.

You're younger than I expected. You're replacing someone who is well into his 50s.

I guess I just have that babyface. I think back when I was executive director of Minnesota Waste Wise Foundation, I was young, but I was able to cut my teeth there and learn how to engage and empower a team. How to let them have a voice and then as an organization, have a collective voice.

Being part of an environmental conservation organization isn't as easy here as it was Minnesota. It's a conservative state, but I would say everybody here—conservative, liberal, whatever—political differences aside, loves a river. Or loves to fish. That, to me, is what's exciting.