Seeing the Human in the Ecosystem — Alumni Profile, Pedro Marques ’99

As Executive Director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee, Pedro Marques ’99 is building coalitions — and getting his hands dirty — to coax the Montana river valley back to life. 

Seeing the Human in the Ecosystem  — Alumni Profile, Pedro Marques ’99
Marques’ organization works to restore a landscape that was decimated by mining over the past century. Photo courtesy of Pedro Marques.

Pedro Marques ’99 was sitting in a religion class when it finally clicked: He had never felt connected to a specific place.

He had his family in Brazil, of course, and lived a picturesque childhood in suburban D.C., but he felt detached from their landscapes. Nothing like the readings in then-Professor Alec Irwin’s class on the ethics of place, in any case.

His voice still carrying the strong tones of idealism that I imagine it had at 20 years old, Marques gushed about the authors Irwin assigned,  who talked “about their relationship to that natural place, and how it formed their worldview, their morality, their, you know, their perspective…”

At the risk of downplaying the immigrant’s gratitude for having grown up with a sense of social belonging, Marques seemed to have his heart set on an earthier embeddedness. He got a taste of it in college, he told me, hiking through the Pioneer Valley. After graduating, he wandered out West, “listening to the signs” of which landscapes might “want” him.

Southwestern Montana, where Marques has now worked for over 15 years, must have sounded inviting — and, luckily, it wasn’t a siren song.

Marques now serves as the executive director of the Big Hole Watershed Committee (BHWC), a conservation nonprofit that stewards the neglected and conflict-ridden valley at the head of the Upper Missouri River. His work centers on building coalitions between the many different stakeholders in the watershed and securing the funding they need to do their work.

These days, Marques works from a home office, intermittently interrupted by his two kids and two-and-a-half hours away from the Big Hole River Valley. It seems isolating, and antithetical to his college-day yearnings, but Marques loves it. “I always joke that I sort of traded in my hiking boots for a comfy office chair,” he told me.

Though behind him, Marques is adamant that his many windswept and mucky years of fieldwork were and continue to be essential to his perspective on his work. I asked him for his best example of a sort of “back in my day, we walked uphill to school both ways” story and, when he replied, it actually wasn’t too far off from the idiom.

Before Marques led the BHWC, he was with a consulting firm managing restoration projects near Anaconda, a portion of the watershed ecosystem that was desolated by heavy metal fallout from industrial activities upriver — what’s called a “Superfund site” among conservationists. It had been decided, before Marques got involved, that the best way to restore this land was to replant the barren mountainsides with trees and shrubs.

“I basically inherited anywhere between 30 to 60,000 plants that would have to go get put in the ground. Like, within a couple weeks,” he recalled. The “walk uphill” in this case, was a 45-minute trek up a near-vertical mountainside, often in “ideal hypothermia weather” — 38 degrees and wet. Marques supervised and worked alongside a crew of local hires who often came unprepared for the “rain slash snow,” so Marques would cut up trash bags for them as makeshift ponchos; as their boots collected mud, the saplings they lugged around seemed heavier and heavier.

Marques spent years, shivering and soggy, on what he actually told me was an absurdly “stupid idea.” “That said,” he told me from his Missoula home, “I can say that I did that.”

Marques shoveling gravel on a mountainside.
The BHWC replants areas that were flattened by smelting fumes. Photo courtesy of Pedro Marques.

Marques’ family moved from Brazil to the D.C. area when he was three years old. His father worked as a journalist in the city, corresponding for a Brazilian newspaper. Almost as soon as Marques taught himself to speak English in his kindergarten class — at home, he told me, it was strictly Portuguese — he developed an awareness of current events. Which is to say: Marques can’t remember a time when he wasn’t politically conscious.

“My dad left Brazil in a situation where there was a military dictatorship and friends of his in journalism were not allowed to write and do their job,” the younger Marques said, explaining that his father always had big dreams for his firstborn son. At that time (unlike today, he noted), a “decent job” was enough for Marques’ parents to immigrate and raise a family in the suburbs. Marques always did well in school, and boosted by the rigorous expectations of his writer father and editor mother — who worked as a translator — an elite school like Amherst was the logical next step.

Marques eventually settled on a political science major as the natural intersection of his writing skills and his precocious worldliness, but not before he had shopped around and developed affinities for other disciplines.

“I found myself in class [with] … a visceral feeling that I can still sort of touch today,” Marques said. “I loved seeing the connections … between my anthropology class and what I learned in political science, and how it connects to some philosophies of religion.” In a turn of phrase that would make the Amherst communications office proud, Marques said that this was the “secret sauce to any success that I have professionally [today].”

Anthropology, in particular, was and still is one of Marques’ strongest interdisciplinary tethers.

The board of the BHWC consists of ranchers, conservationists, fishing guides, and landowners, all of whom have different stakes in the Big Hole ecosystem. To get any project done, Marques says, the board needs to find common ground. Marques told me this sort of consensus building is easier than many believe, because ultimately, everyone at the table shares an attachment to the land.

Ranchers, for example, are environmental scientists in their own right. Marques explained how ranches have to experiment with the land on a daily basis, to build a natural relationship that not only allows their cattle to thrive in the short term, but sustains their resources — and livelihood — in the long term.

In this way, Marques sees his work as fundamentally different from the strategies of the ivory-tower environmentalists in the Democratic party. “They would be so much better served if they actually tried to connect and understand rural America and the conservation values of ranching,” Marques told me. The misconception, he explained, is that rural areas are anti-government — excepting a few “fringe groups,” “They’re anti stupidity of government.”  

Marques insists that we need to make a space at the conservationist table for those who rely on the land for their livelihoods — not just because we need their support, but because they have valuable knowledge to share.

On both the material and political level, then, “you can’t get further to the ground than I am now,” Marques told me.

This is not to say that Marques doesn’t value the high-level contributions made by governments and NGOs like the World Bank, but it’s an ambivalent type of appreciation. “The World Bank is a pyramid-shaped institution created in the 1950s, and it’s never adapted its overall hierarchy,” Marques said. While projects require local sponsorship and deliver material benefits to their target communities, the organization amasses a support base that “can’t say no” to investment decisions by hiring up local stakeholders.

Marques is speaking from experience: He worked at the World Bank for two years before he found his footing in nonprofit work. “I saw how it will never accomplish its mission,” Marques said, “because its mission should be to put itself out of business.”

The BHWC has been able to “fix” so much of the decimated ecosystem precisely because they recognize and build trust with its human members.

“There’s 100 miles of river system that has degradation from mining, and the site I was in charge of fixing is at the Continental Divide at the very top,” Marques said. “Emissions from the [metal] smelter stack fell on the landscape, killed all of the vegetation. And then when  there’s no vegetation to hold the landscape together, it just starts eroding away.”

Restoration actions range from heavy-equipment operations to hand-constructed “beaver dams,” Marques told me. In either case, the projects are designed to find the broken links in the ecosystem and repair them, so that they can coax the valley back to life.

And this is where Marques’ college dream — to “belong to a landscape” — was finally fulfilled. As the projects unfold, Marques witnesses the land changing. The domino effect is nearly imperceptible, if you don’t know where to look.

First, “the beaver dam fills up with sediment, then we build another one. Then that one fills with sediment, and then we build another one, and then the next thing you know, there’s aspen trees that need water that are growing in places where there used to just be … really dry grasses.” He went on, “We fertilize and put mycorrhizae on bare upland slopes, and the next you know, two years later, where there use to be … barely blades of grass, now there’s the buzzing of pollinators and bees and insects, taking advantage of these plants that haven’t flowered in 100 years.”

As Marques spoke, his eyes lit up, and I thought I could almost see the landscape reflected in them.

Marques wading in a riverbed.
The ranchers, fishermen, and landowners on Marques’ board have a shared interest in promoting biodiversity and preventing erosion, because their livelihoods all depend on the strength of their ecosystem. Photo courtesy of Pedro Marques.

No matter what stage you’re at in your career, Marques wants you to take the time to let the landscape sing to you, if you have the privilege.

For Marques, he first heard it on a “major” road trip with classmate Graham Howland during his sophomore year at Amherst; the pair went out west, to Glacier National Park and Yellowstone. Along the way, they passed through Missoula.

Some days, Marques still makes the trek from the city out to Big Hole: “Granted, there’s no traffic, and it’s flippin’ beautiful the whole way,” he laughed. Perhaps he’s become so entangled with the land that it doesn’t matter whether he’s in the field, on the road, or at home in Missoula — his spiritual grounding is just as strong.

It’s remarkable that Marques went from feeling like he didn’t belong to any land, to seeing his life imprint upon his landscape every day, in new aspen tree growth off the riverbank or on a mountainside dappled by shrubs. I’d like to think that, maybe, this sense of embeddedness is Big Hole’s hard-won, joyful way of saying thank you.