For many years, the West was a free-for-all for miners, ranchers and new settlers, which left the hills gutted and the natural habitat splintered. Carl Palmer has interwoven his passion for both education and the environment in a lucrative venture to restore these ravaged properties to their original state.
Raised in Coral Gables, Fla., Palmer remembers feeling troubled watching his neighborhood buzzing with building activity, as open land turned into subdivisions. His family vacationed frequently in Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., where he spent time gardening with his mother and sisters. He also worked for a nursery, which he attributes as grounding him in the natural world.
Palmer attended The Hotchkiss School in Connecticut, where he developed an appreciation for open space and the balance of nature in the built environment. He attended Brown University for a bachelor’s degree in environmental and architectural studies. He said he always had a plan to “do something that would make a difference.”
After graduation, Palmer drove to Teton Science Schools in Jackson Hole, Wyo., to drop off his girlfriend, Carrie, who was looking into a graduate program. He says he spent only a few days among the academics and environmentalists before realizing he, too, wanted the experience. Palmer’s girlfriend became his wife, and the two spent the next two years with the program — learning ecology, history and leadership. They took courses in snow science, natural history and education philosophy, which they then applied to programs they established for local fifth-grade students.
“It was a seminal experience to deeply learn about a place through experiential education and then be able to share that with students and peers,” said Palmer, who serves on the boards of Teton Science Schools and the Vermilion Sea Institute.
During their second year in Wyoming, the couple helped on the business side with grant writing, fundraising, event planning and community relations.
Next, Palmer took a position as the executive director of Utah’s Ogden Nature Center, which offers a variety of public classes and workshops, including art, photography, birding, wildlife, outdoor recreation, conservation, sustainability and summer camps. During his four years at the helm, Palmer says he gained a strong leadership base and led a successful endowment campaign for the nonprofit organization.
In 2002, the Palmers headed to Palo Alto to attend Stanford University — Carl to pursue a a master’s degree in business administration and Carrie a Ph.D. in marine biology.
Before starting the program, Palmer spent a summer in Bozeman, Mont., working with John Tomlin, a venture capitalist looking to vet ideas on how to use market-based tools to address environmental issues. While there, Palmer learned to research, discuss and think like an investor. After the social entrepreneurship track, Palmer tested his own ideas during his program at Stanford.
“I wanted to create something of value — that was profitable and mission driven,” he said.
Beartooth Capital was Palmer’s solution. Co-founded in 2005 by Palmer and Robert Keith, a Stanford classmate, Beartooth Capital is a pioneering investment management firm whose mission is to invest in important ranchland to generate strong investment returns in a manner that restores and protects the West — its lands, resources, environment and communities.
“I saw an opportunity to create value at the intersection of finance, conservation and community,” Palmer said. “Our conservation mission establishes critical competitive advantages, including enhanced deal flow and major funding for restoration and land protection.”
Beartooth Capital buys rundown land in Western states (primarily Colorado, Idaho and Montana), revamps them to a more ecologically friendly and valuable state, and sells them to private owners. Working with local land management agencies, conservation groups and city officials, Beartooth has restored wetlands, rebuilt creeks and made numerous properties both valuable and vibrant with the addition of fishing, birding and wildlife.
Palmer acknowledges the company’s investors are a unique subset of the population.
“We often attract sportsmen, ranchers, conservationists or those who just love the West and want to see it preserved,” he said.