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Front Page - Friday, March 15, 2019

Conservation from inside out

Chattanooga botonist builders respect environment

When botanist Clea Klagstad tucked her master’s degree in biology from Austin Peay State University under her arm and set off to find work, she was eager to pair her passion for the environment with gainful employment.

It’s to her credit that the first few job offers she received didn’t scare her off.

“They were like, ‘We’re going to send you alone into the Nevada deserts,’ and, ‘You’ll be backpacking in Alaskan grizzly bear country, but don’t worry – we’ll send a guy with a rifle with you,’” Klagstad recalls.

One prospective employer even promised to teach Klagstad how to avoid landmines.

While Klagstad expected to work outside, given her focus in graduate school on floristics (a branch of botany concerned with the study of plant species present in an area), she’d imagined herself connecting with nature, not running from it.

Klagstad persevered, and today is doing something much safer than hobnobbing with hungry predators: environmental consulting.

While saying one is an “environmental consultant” can inspire uncertain nods at social gatherings, it’s actually simple to explain. In a nutshell, Klagstad helps to ensure developers are in compliance with environmental regulations.

Saying this can turn an uncertain nod into an expression of surprise. Although some in the general public might assume buildings spring skyward and subdivisions stretch across untold acres with no regard for the environment, developers do not alter skylines and modify landscapes in a vacuum; rather, they must work within a carefully monitored regulatory environment.

To make sure they draw within the lines created by agencies like the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, developers rely on Klagstad, who arrives armed with datasheets, notebooks and the physical tools needed to determine the resources a site contains.

Klagstad is adept at boiling her work down to the essentials.

“When I step onto a site, I’m looking for natural resources that are under the jurisdiction of a permitting agency. These can be wetlands and streams or certain rare, or listed, species.’’

“If the soils, vegetation and hydrology meet the criteria, the area is likely to be considered a wetland by our agency partners, and a permit might be necessary to impact it.”

Klagstad’s work can reshape a project. While working for a large international consulting firm to route an oil pipeline through multiple states, she was tasked with protecting a habitat that stretched across several hundred miles.

The data Klagstad gathered steered the pipeline away from sensitive areas. “We had to figure out if there was a portion of the habitat that was less critical,” she explains. “Was it invaded by a bunch of nonnative species? And are there other types of this habitat that are natural and contain a lot of great things?

“So, we figured out all the nice areas and not-so-nice areas and then cut through the not-so-nice areas.”

Klagstad points out the regulatory agencies with which she works are not rigid institutions but are generally willing to collaborate with her clients due to the importance of development.

For example, if Klagstad identifies a rare species, TDEC has processes in place to look at its entire distribution and either move it out of the way or guide the development in a different direction.

Klagstad notes this decision belongs to the regulating agency, not her, as she’s the scientist on the project, not the law.

“I’m the translator of what’s outside. I pick up as much information about a site as I can and then deliver it to the agencies, who ultimately have the power to make that decision,” she explains.

Although the responsibly to protect a sensitive site lies in other hands, Klagstad says the environmental consultant is a vital part of every development, especially in a region with the vast aquatic diversity of Tennessee.

“Developments are permanent,” she says, “and the only person looking at those sites in advance is an environmental consultant.”

As Klagstad talks about her work, her voice resonates with zeal. However, her view of the thin envelope that sustains life on Earth is more practical than romantic.

She credits her graduate adviser, Dr. L. Dwayne Estes, for giving her this mindset.

“He instilled in me things I’d never thought about, like how the honeysuckle along the road shouldn’t be there,” she says. “When you’re driving alongside the Ocoee and you see a princess tree, or fields of wisteria and English ivy, those shouldn’t be there.

“All these invasive species are crowding out the native species, so when you walk into the woods, unless you’re in the middle of Cloudland Canyon, you’re surrounded by invasive species.

“It’s depressing, so if I’m on a hike, I have to shut up so I don’t ruin it for everyone else.”

Klagstad was a young girl growing up in Wisconsin when her father planted the seeds of environmentalism, although neither of them knew it at the time.

While walking along the driveway of their property, her father would point out nearby trees, saying one was a maple, another was an elm and so on. Klagstad, who was only a few years old at the time, wondered how he knew which tree was which.

She also spent countless hours exploring the vast woods behind their house.

When she took a biology class at Middle Tennessee State University to satisfy a core requirement, her teacher, Michael Rutledge, watered those long-dormant seeds by fervently discussing big environmental issues and splitting his class into small groups that discussed possible solutions.

Klagstad was intending to study theater or communications, but Rutledge inspired her to change her major to biology. She then transferred to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which she says has an “exceptional” biology department.

Klagstad’s passion for floristics bloomed at UTC when she took a biogeography class. “Everything follows plants,” she says. “They fascinate me.’’

Klagstad took the next step in her evolution to botanist at Austin Peay, where she spent a year and a half building a partial flora of Cheatham Wildlife Management Area. Her knowledge of vegetation deepened considerably during this relatively brief time (it would have taken five years to build a full flora), allowing her to find about 1,500 individual plants representing 500 species.

After declining offers to dance across deserts and sidestep landmines, Klagstad landed in Montana working for an agency that protects and collects data on listed species. The job was tailor made for an environmental idealist fresh out of academia.

“We’d go on long camping trips looking at patterned fens and bogs,” she recalls, referring to groundwater dependent ecosystems. “I’d walk into a space and see football-sized fields full of rare plants, which is different from what you see here because there’s far more undeveloped space.”

While working in Montana, Klagstad learned much about wetlands and streams. This new knowledge, combined with her growing expertise in floristics and geographic information systems, laid a solid foundation for building a career as an environmental consultant.

That career began in earnest when Klagstad took a consulting job in Ohio with CTL Engineering, which needed her to handle the permitting required for various development projects.

The position brought her to the doorstep of the oil and gas industry, which is commonly perceived to be the enemy of the environment. Although Klagstad was pleased to be employed, she was leery of where her path had led her. “I thought I would hate it,” she says. “But the conservation sector can’t help when you have bills to pay.”

A particularly distressing experience had a transformative impact on Klagstad’s thinking.

“I was part of a team on a big project, and I remember being in a forested area counting macroinvertebrates and enjoying a cute stream and all the bird activity,” she says. “When we returned for a different project, the whole area had been cleared and leveled. It looked nothing like it had.

“I remember looking out from a ledge, this huge pit in my stomach.”

That moment galvanized in Klagstad’s mind the importance of environmental work – even if that work took place from within a system that appeared to be in opposition to protecting natural resources.

So, instead of shrinking from her responsibilities, Klagstad dug deeper, increasing her knowledge and skills so she could better protect natural resources while working with clients.

“I started to learn more about the listed species I might find and developed techniques for making sure the natural resources out there have a decent chance of surviving if I’m on that job,” she says.

A three-year stint with EXP Global, a much larger company than CTL, followed. During this time, an idea took shape in Klagstad’s mind.

She missed the client interaction that came with working for a smaller firm and seeing projects through from beginning to end.

She also wanted to be closer to her family, which was now in Chattanooga, and her boyfriend.

And she wanted to provide a way for her clients to pay less for her work and offer her more input in the design and development process.

When Klagstad added these factors to the vibrant entrepreneurial community in Chattanooga, she knew it was time for her to relocate and step out on her own.

There was just one challenge ahead of Klagstad, and it was more unnerving than she’d ever imaged an encounter with a grizzly bear being. While she had become a fully realized expert in her field, she had no experience as a businesswoman.

So, could she convert her knowledge and skills as a botanist into a successful company?

Getting down to business

Although Klagstad didn’t know the answer to the question she faced, she says if being on her own was going to work, it was going to work in Chattanooga.

After moving to the Scenic City in 2017, Klagstad launched Circadian Consulting LLC, pulling the company’s name from class notes she’d scribbled as a sophomore in college about circadian rhythm.

While launching the business was fairly easy, Klagstad’s lack of a background in business initially made marketing, sales and everything else that comes with running a business tougher than she’d imagined it would be.

“I didn’t expect to have to work so hard on those things,” she remembers. “I thought I was just going to be doing project work.”

Klagstad says Circadian Consulting might have died a quick death if it hadn’t been for the Tennessee Small Business Development Center, which counsels entrepreneurs and small-business startups at its Cherokee Boulevard facility.

After Circadian Consulting moved into the BDC in 2018, Klagstad took advantage of every opportunity to build her business acumen, speaking with BDC advisors who mentored her in accounting, sales, strategic planning and more.

“It was priceless information,” she says. “The BDC has been instrumental in our success.”

Also, with the help of the Tyler Construction Engineers from Nashville and local Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, Klagstad also learned how to work with state and federal governments, municipalities and large companies, including the City of Chattanooga and TDOT.

And she earned various designations that made her eligible to bid on opportunities set aside for certain “disadvantaged businesses,” including the Certified Disadvantaged Business Enterprise, Woman Business Enterprise and Woman-Owned Small Business certifications.

As with her work in the field, Klagstad left no stone unturned in her search for information. In the process, she learned she’s a rare species of businesswoman.

“Very few women own an environmental consulting business,” she says. “No one else is exclusively running an environmental consulting business in Chattanooga, and I’m one of only a handful statewide and possibly nationally.”

Learning about her singular status was one thing for Klagstad; converting it into work was entirely another thing.

The biggest hurdle: sales. Klagstad says she loves making new connections and is thrilled when a new client calls, but she’s wary of making cold calls because she doesn’t want to interrupt anyone’s work.

Yet Klagstad has found cold calls to be the most effective manner of reaching the decisions makers at the companies that might hire Circadian Consulting, so she makes a point of regularly picking up the phone and trying to knock down doors.

“I do find that those decision makers are actually very polite and willing to spare a few minutes,” Klagstad says.

As Klagstad learned how to run Circadian Consulting, she was concerned she might lose touch with the scientist in her. But that hasn’t happened.

She says her hikes with her husband, Dan, help her to stay in touch with the part of her that loves nature, and adds she’s not being obnoxious when she rattles off the names of the various plants she spots, much like her father identified the trees in their driveway when she was young.

And Klagstad has been able to reclaim the idealist in her by working with several nonprofit organizations, including serving as the vice president of programs for the North Chattanooga Council for the Chamber of Commerce, vice president of the Board of Young Professionals at WaterWays (TennesSEA), vice chair of Clean Earth Collective, a member of Southeastern Grasslands Initiative and a volunteer at Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute.

“I volunteer a lot of my time to other organizations because I like what they stand for,” she says.

Klagstad also put together an environmental permitting symposium last September and has been a guest speaker at UTC and The Howard School, where she talked with the students about opportunities in environmental science.

As much as Klagstad enjoys lending her talents to worthy causes, she’s ever aware that she’s a botanist wrapped in the skin of a businesswoman, and that her young company needs tending to, like a fledgling bird.

Circadian Consulting is growing a robust set of wings as Klagstad expands its portfolio of clients. In addition to working on subdivisions and commercial developments in East Brainerd, Ooltewah, and northern and southern Alabama, she’s written proposals for work out west and in the Midwest.

She’s also been impressing the developers who have hired Circadian Consulting to consult on their projects.

Civil engineer Wayne McCoy, president of Miller McCoy, says Klagstad “has a good head on her shoulders and understands schedules and budgets.”

Klagstad worked with Miller McCoy to create a buffer along a stream that cuts through an East Brainerd commercial property on which a Starbucks was built. This was done in an effort to protect and provide a habitat for listed crawfish that live downstream from the coffee shop.

Klagstad and Miller McCoy used native tree and shrub plantings to create a long-lasting 60-foot buffer along the stream.

McCoy remains pleased with the professional relationship he developed with Klagstad. “Clea understands how the world works, and although she could be considered a tree hugger, she also realizes what’s possible and not possible from an economic standpoint,” he adds.

Zachary Wilbanks, owner of Wilbanks Engineering & Environmental Solutions in Jasper, Alabama, has reached out to Circadian Consulting on several occasions to assist with vegetation assessments. Wilbanks says Klagstad’s work has been impeccable.

“Clea has always made me feel like my projects are her most important and has always met my deadlines. Each deliverable was well written and supported by quality data that’s clear and easy to understand,” he says.

Wilbanks adds that Klagstad’s technical and academic skills related to vegetation identification are extraordinary and that she’s easy to work with in the field.

“Clea conducts herself with professionalism and a high degree of integrity,” Wilbanks continues. “She’s also innovative and willing to evolve with the times, as regulations and techniques are always changing.”

Given all the layers Klagstad wears, it can be easy to see only the botanist, businesswoman or volunteer. But she’s also a wife and contented Chattanoogan who’s eager to experience all the city has to offer.

“There are a lot of things I haven’t seen as an adult, so I’m trying to approach the city as a tourist and see everything,” she says.

She’s also trying to improve her rock-climbing skills so she can keep up with her husband, but when discussing this, she sounds as though she’d rather go toe-to-toe with a grizzly.

“Dan is a big sport climber. It’s terrifying but I’m trying to get better,” she says. “You start out at 5.8, which is an easy climb, but as the grades get higher, they seem impossible.”

Klagstad is also content with her place in the world. She’s turned a passion that seized her heart in college into a growing business and found a way to make a positive difference in her community.

“Just under 80 percent of the petroleum we use is produced to drive our cars. We also tend to live in single, detached houses with a yard and garage. If we want grocery stores closer to where we live, we have to build those, too. And what about hospitals, restaurants and hotels?” she asks.

“These are the things our city needs to keep growing, but we also have to consider their impact on the environment.

“That’s what helps me sleep at night. I recognize I’m part of the problem but I’m also trying to do something about it.”