Kate Sheridan’s penchant for open water swimming has earned her a certain rapport with Flathead Lake that few others share — she understands the lake’s marine trail, its shorelines and islands and its purity and personality.
And as the new executive director of the Flathead Lakers, Sheridan now has the opportunity to play watchdog over the Flathead watershed she has developed a fondness for over the years.
“It’s exciting to move into this role after having built this sort of intimacy with the lake with my swimming,” Sheridan said.
Formed in 1958, the Flathead Lakers have been active for more than 60 years. The nonprofit’s mission is to protect clean water, healthy ecosystems and lasting quality of life in the Flathead watershed. Sheridan said she looks forward to sustaining the positive reputation built by organization leaders throughout those years and expanding upon the group’s accomplishments.
“In a lot of ways we [Flathead Lakers] are really respected and we are on really solid ground, but I think we could be doing even more, especially in the face of things like climate change,” Sheridan said. “As an organization that has had a presence here for so long, I believe we have a lot of power if we choose to continue accepting it. We could make a real impact.”
Sheridan, 34, describes her personal management style as being more of a listener and said she doesn’t believe leaders “always have to be the loudest people in the room.” She took over for longtime former Executive Director Robin Steinkraus, who held her position for more than two decades.
Sheridan, an Oregon native, moved to Polson six years after graduating from the University of Montana with a graduate degree in environmental studies in 2013. She worked on multiple political campaigns prior to taking on her new role, adding communications and public-relations skills to her environmental repertoire.
When asked why Sheridan feels drawn to environmental stewardship, she said her family and upbringing in Oregon had a large influence on her career choice.
“Well, my parents met on a Sierra Club hike,” she said with a laugh. “They were always outdoors and they encouraged us to do the same. Most of our vacations involved hiking, backpacking or camping.”
Mark Johnston, Sheridan’s neighbor and swim coach, said he believes she is a perfect fit for the role of executive director. Johnston played an instrumental role in encouraging her to apply, according to Sheridan.
“It takes an enormous amount of passion and enthusiasm to make something intangible, like water cleanliness, tangible to the rest of society,” Johnston said. “It’s the time we all spend in the lake and the time spent enjoying it that makes it tangible, and Kate has that.”
One of Sheridan’s primary goals for the nonprofit is to engage younger generations in the conservation practices of the Flathead watershed. While many current members have been around since the organization’s inception — which Sheridan describes as “remarkable” — she notes it is vital that their children and grandchildren follow suit.
“As I enter into this role I want to ensure that we are bringing in younger generations,” Sheridan said.
Johnston, who served on the board for the Flathead Lakers for several years as well, said the nonprofit could be an avenue for keeping bright, young adults in the area.
“There is a bit of a youth vacuum happening because so many young and passionate people need to seek opportunities elsewhere,” Johnston said. “I’m glad the Lakers would invest in someone in their mid-30s. It’s nice that there’s kind of some building blocks going on so others might come into the area and those who were born and raised here might actually stay.”
Aside from focusing on engaging younger generations, Sheridan said she hopes to further strengthen the nonprofit’s role in facing issues such as aquatic invasive species. She also said there always will be a push to increase membership to increase financially stability and allow the nonprofit to continue to serve its mission.
“There are so many people who live right here on the lake that I think would make great members,” Sheridan said. “I mean I’ll swim to them if I have to in order to get their attention.”
Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org