Mike Clark headshot

Mike Clark, the former head of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, will receive an honorary doctorate from MSU.

Mike Clark, former executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition who is a respected environmental leader and social activist, will receive an honorary doctorate degree during Montana State University’s fall commencement, officials announced earlier this month.

MSU’s fall commencement is scheduled for Saturday, Dec. 14, at the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Clark will receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters.

“We are delighted to honor Mike Clark with the highest commendation that MSU confers,” said MSU President Waded Cruzado. “He is a shining example of what it means to serve a state, a region, a nation and a world, and we are all better off because of his efforts.”

Clark, 74, grew up in Appalachia on an isolated mountain farm in western North Carolina. He was among the first in his family to attend college and graduated from Berea College in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in English.

His early career included work as a photojournalist for a weekly newspaper in eastern Kentucky, the Mountain Eagle. He also worked as an educator and organizer – and, later, president – at Highlander Center, a Tennessee school for activists dealing with civil rights, labor, anti-poverty, human rights concerns and environmental issues.

In the early 1980s, he accepted a position in Helena as founding executive director of the Northern Lights Institute, a regional research center operating in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. In the middle of that decade, he moved to Colorado to work as an independent consultant to numerous grassroots organizations and private foundations throughout the West.

Later, he headed to Washington, D.C., where he served as president of the Environmental Policy Institute, a professional environmental lobbying firm. In the late 1980s, he was named president of the global environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth U.S. Several other positions in Washington, D.C., followed, and then, in 1994, he accepted a position as executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

Clark said he had fallen in love with Montana when he first came to the state in the 1980s, and so he jumped at the job with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

During his first six years at the helm of the environmental advocacy group, the organization’s budget more than doubled, and the coalition expanded its capacity to work on issues affecting both private and public lands within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Perhaps one of Clark’s most notable accomplishments as head of the organization was successful opposition in 1996 to a proposed gold mine in the mountains near Cooke City, a project that environmentalists feared would harm nearby rivers and streams and irrevocably damage Yellowstone National Park.

Clark stepped down as leader of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition in 2001 to pursue other projects in the region, including an effort to preserve ranch lands, work on water management through Trout Unlimited and private consulting projects. In 2009 and 2014, he fulfilled four- and five-month appointments as interim executive director of Greenpeace USA, and he returned, from 2009 to 2013, for a second stint as executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. Clark currently works as a consultant and on several book projects.

In 2017, Clark donated to the MSU Library’s Special Collections and Archives more than 50 years’ worth of his notes, letters, photographs and documents pertaining to his career as an activist and environmental leader, starting with his photographs from the first Selma-to-Montgomery march in 1965.

Individuals who nominated Clark for the honorary doctorate or provided letters supporting the nomination say the recognition is well-deserved.

“Mike Clark has given his life to the most noble and effective human and environmental efforts,” wrote Suzanne Held and David Henderson, both faculty members in the College of Education, Health and Human Development. They added that Clark lives the land-grant mission of service to community.

Alison Harmon, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Development, wrote that Clark’s actions in Montana have supported sustaining the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, one of the “most unique” ecosystems in the world.

“The community of Bozeman, fortunate to have Yellowstone National Park in its backyard, owes a debt of gratitude to a person who has dedicated a large part of his life to protecting the integrity of this place as wildlife habitat, critical global ecosystem and environment for living, recreating and studying its distinctive features,” she wrote. Harmon noted that Clark’s work has also provided support for the multitude of small businesses in Montana and the region that depend on sustaining the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem to attract visitors and tourism dollars.

Cathy Whitlock, MSU Earth sciences professor and Montana University System Regents Professor, wrote that Clark has “worked across the political spectrum to achieve shared conservation goals.”

“Mike understands the value of science and research in informing conservation, and over his career, he has championed research on fires, wildlife, climate change and invasive species through his leadership of important NGOs,” Whitlock wrote.

Jodi Hilty, president and chief scientist of the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, noted that Clark was able, where needed, to elevate issues critical to Montana and other Western states to the national level, while working with local Montana communities and individuals to solve issues.

“Not many individuals have the capacity or network to work at such different scales, especially not simultaneously, but Mike understands how to weave these together for maximum impact on what are ultimately place-based issues,” Hilty wrote.

“It takes a visionary of incredible dedication to be able to advance conservation in so many different ways,” Hilty continued. “In the case of Mike, he is not only a dedicated visionary but an extraordinary leader in that he is humble, trustworthy and incredibly likable.”