Marian Gelb was named policy coordinator for the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation in July, a career move that more narrowly defines her focus on conservation issues after serving five years as the executive director of the Iowa Environmental Council. The Des Moines native and her family moved back here from Washington, D.C. in 1992, after she “won the flip” in deciding with her husband, Sam, on where to relocate. Although her recent career has focused on policy and environmental issues, Gelb started out in commercial banking and ultimately helped launch a “quick and nimble” bank that focused on the entrepreneurial sector in the Washington area.

Why were you in Washington, D.C.?

I had moved to the area basically to go to school. And as life had it, I ended up meeting my husband, getting married and having two kids. I had gone to school and had the opportunity to do commercial lending, which I thought was just fascinating because you get to talk to so many people with so many creative ideas, but after our second daughter was born, we started assessing where we wanted to be. My base was in Des Moines. My husband was from Vincennes, Ind. Basically, I won the flip. With the differences in cost of living, I had the opportunity to stay home and raise my kids.

You didn’t want to return to banking?

I got to come back here and do the mom thing and be involved in all the PTA stuff and do a little political organizing along the way around sales tax campaigns. In 2000, I got involved with the Des Moines Park and Recreation Board, which I’ve been a member of ever since. Through contacts I made there, as well as an interest in the environment - I think it comes from my mother gardening - I got involved with some folks, really Tom Hadden and Growing Green Communities. I started doing some part-time work out of my house for Growing Green Communities on conservation development, design and low-impact development.

When I was ready to go back to work full time - my kids were old enough - and I had worked in policy (at the Legislative Fiscal Bureau and for Sen. Alan Dixon in Washington, D.C.), I had the opportunity in 2007 to apply for the job (with the Iowa Environmental Council). I spent five good years working as the executive director. I did take about a one-year sabbatical(after leaving the council in 2012). 

When I did want to get back into the working world, I looked at a lot of different things, especially in insurance and falling back on my banking. But I realized that I’m somebody who needs to work for a cause, that I wouldn’t have been very fulfilled. So when this opportunity came up, it was the perfect fit for me.

What do you do as policy coordinator? Does that mean you’re a lobbyist?

You could call it lobbying, but lobbying is just a portion of what this position does. We’re very interested in following federally what happens with the farm bill. Tax issues are big for this organization because we want to encourage donations of land or we want to encourage conservation easements and what are the tax benefits of those. . . . We’re all about protecting the land, and that includes for habitat purposes and biodiversity. Obviously an offshoot of that is better water quality. 

Are you optimistic about efforts to improve water quality?

Policy work is an exercise in persistence, without a doubt. Policy is slow; change is incremental. We have had minor success, and part of that is the funding issue. We just don’t have the resources that some of those organizations that tend to be on the other side of these issues do.

What are your priorities?

The difference between working here and at the Iowa Environmental Council is that the scope of the policy is much more narrow here. The Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation is a land trust and we’re charged with protecting land. At the Environmental Council, we looked at all environmental policy. 

The conservation funding issues are huge, whether it’s state or federal. The Iowa Water and Land Legacy funding is a priority for this organization, because it will support conservation in the long run throughout the state. Tax issues are important, because they encourage land donations or conservation easements.

I think trying to educate people about the changes in the land use trends is an important way that should help them see what is happening on the landscape and how that impacts their life.