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Spotlight on Bob Backman

December 6, 2016
Bob Backman

Bob Backman, a member of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships (RSDP) Statewide Coordinating Committee (SCC) and Northwest RSDP Board of Directors, has had an interesting life. I (Elizabeth) always enjoy listening to people’s stories when I interview them, and I was amazed by the variety of things Backman has done.

Backman started his work life at a TV station while going to high school, and after college he helped develop educational videotapes for a college consortium. Later, he established four departments while working in the healthcare industry, strengthened the River Keepers as Executive Director where he continues to serve as a volunteer, and opened his own feed store business with his wife, Lynda. However, what really struck me was how Backman emphasized that everyone can be part of the change they want to see. The desire to help the people around him and empower others to do the same has shaped Backman’s career. We are grateful to have his insights—and commitment to service—at RSDP.

Working with RSDP

Backman has always been interested in renewable energy and local foods, so the Northwest RSDP board has been a perfect platform for him to both learn more about those areas as well as help spread the word about ongoing projects. “[One] thing I really appreciate is that I’m able to learn about so many great new projects,” Backman said. “For instance, recently we had a CERTs (Clean Energy Resource Teams) meeting in Bemidji. I knew very little about electric cars, [but] now I understand much more and am able to talk to others about this as a viable future.”

group of board members and staff lined up in rows with President Kaler in the center
Bob Backman (back row, 6th from left) with the RSDP Statewide Coordinating Committee in November 2016.

Similarly, Backman has also been especially interested in the local foods side of RSDP. He was part of a group that started a community garden in Moorhead in conjunction with a homeless shelter, and it is looking to connect with other area gardens and Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program Education (SNAP-Ed).

On his role as a member of RSDP’s Statewide Coordinating Committee (SCC), Backman reflected, “One thing that’s really nice is to be able to see the entire state. … We try and make sure everybody knows what’s going on so we can learn from each other and avoid duplication. It also gives us an opportunity to help affect policies and procedures on a state level that hopefully benefit everybody.” The SCC facilitates cross-regional communication, learning and collaboration throughout RSDP, with representatives from each regional board; RSDP staff; the colleges of Extension, Design and Food, Agricultural and Natural Resource Sciences (CFANS); and the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture (MISA). Backman serves on the SCC’s Executive Committee, which comprises RSDP community-based leaders and staff who provide overall programmatic and operational guidance.

Bob Backman with Governor Hoeven and two other men standing together on a covered pontoon board going down the Red River.
Bob Backman hosting then North Dakota Governor Hoeven and staff on a trip providing background on Red River Valley water issues.

Overall, Backman said one of the most rewarding parts of his RSDP experience is working with a great team, from regional and state staff to board members. “Even if it’s just growing one carrot, it’s great to see that seed start and see the project completed. I’m concerned about the future, so it really is satisfying to know you’ve been involved in a project that will impact the lives of people who aren’t even alive yet.”

Giving back to the community

Outside of RSDP, Backman has always been involved with his community. After working for many years in the healthcare sector, Backman worked for 16 years as the Executive Director of River Keepers, a nonprofit devoted to advocating the sustainable use of the Red River for current and future generations. Using his experience from marketing in the healthcare sector, Backman was able to grow the organization. Among many other accomplishments, Backman established a sister river relationship with Eco-TIRAS, an environmental association that is cleaning up the Dniester River in Moldova, Europe. The two groups conducted site visits and shared ideas. “I did it to show people that all water is connected, so things that happen in Moldova or South America or wherever affects what we drink here in Minnesota,” he said.

Bob Backman and another man paddling in an aluminum canoe on water.
Canoeing as part of a River Keepers project to develop a recreational plan for the Otter Tail River.

One of Backman’s fondest River Keepers memories is its educational programs. Every year the organization brings hundreds of fourth-graders to the River Keepers water festival to give them a hands-on educational experience about the importance of our rivers and water. One day Backman was talking about River Keepers to a group of college students when a young lady explained she already knew about them. It turned out that she had met Backman when she was a fourth-grader. She didn’t remember her classes from that year, but she remembered what she learned at the water festival. It’s experiences like that, Backman said, that remind him why what we do is important.

Although Backman has retired as River Keepers Executive Director, he still is an active volunteer. He and other River Keepers give educational programs, put up wood duck nest boxes and clean riverfronts. He also volunteers for a local community garden, his church, a homeless shelter and a local Kiwanis club, in addition to his service to RSDP. Somehow, Backman also found time to assist his wife in operating a feed store business for 10 years. They focused on birdseed, giving dozens of classes to interested community members about how to live together with urban birds and other animals.

Inspiring others

Bob Backman in front of Big Sugarbush Lake State Wildlife Management sign.
Backman led efforts to raise money to buy an island in Big Sugarbush Lake for DNR protection.

“Bob's personal commitment to sustainability is inspiring. He takes a personal interest in creating opportunities for young people and making a lasting difference in communities,” Kingery said. “He brings forth the best efforts of others.”

On the flip side, this wouldn’t have been possible without others. Backman emphasized that “I’m just an ordinary guy. I’ve surrounded myself with a supportive family, and great friends, mentors and coworkers. They have all taught me so much.”

In addition, he enjoys reading, feeding the local birds, cutting wood and spending plenty of time with his family. Bob and Lynda are both retired, which allows them time to enjoy their house in the woods, get involved with the community and of course spend time with their grandchildren. The Backmans have two children and three grandchildren, all of whom live nearby, and they love taking the families out on hiking trips and other outings.

When asked how he manages to do so many things for the community as well as with family, Backman simply explained, “Anyone can do this stuff. You just need to get up and start doing it. And that’s what I like seeing—personally what you and I do will not change the world, but if everybody does it we’re going to have global change.”

Bob Backman and Chuck Fritz sitting a presentation table with presentation slide on screen behind them.
Backman and Chuck Fritz of the International Water Institute in Moldova connecting with representatives of Eco-TIRAS.

Elizabeth Braatz, December 2016

Elizabeth Braatz graduated in spring 2017 from the College of Food, Agricultural, and Natural Resources Sciences (CFANS) with a degree in Environmental Sciences, Policy and Management. She worked with RSDP as a Student Writer/Communications Assistant during her junior and senior years.

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