HAMILTON – Gavin Ricklefs knew early on that he wanted to be part of the world of conservation.
Growing up on the west coast in Washington state, he found plenty of opportunity to explore the natural world on remote ocean beaches, along wild rivers and on snow-covered peaks.
“I was able to get outside and cultivate a love for natural places early in my life,” Ricklefs said. “I had the good fortune to grow up in a place that fosters an appreciation of the natural world.”
He earned his bachelor’s degree in the rural southeastern Washington community of Walla Walla, where agriculture is a vital part of the local economy. He spent time overseas seeing how other countries address their natural resources.
That yearning for being part of an organization focused on conservation continued to grow.
Ricklefs moved to Hamilton after his wife took a position with the Rocky Mountain Laboratory.
“That’s what got us here,” he said. “Professionally, I always knew that I wanted to work in the conservation field, where I would have a chance to make difference in a positive and long-lasting way.”
He went back to school at the University of Montana and earned a law degree. While building a private practice in Hamilton, he began volunteering at a budding organization called the Bitter Root Land Trust.
As a volunteer one day, Ricklefs found himself putting together the job description the land trust’s board would use to find a new executive director.
As he read over the duties for the position, Ricklefs found himself thinking this is exactly what he wanted
And so he applied for the job. Six years ago, Ricklefs took over the reins of the Bitter Root Land Trust.
“It’s been an amazing six years,” said longtime trust member John Ormiston. “We went from a day-to-day operation to the point we’re now year-to-year in terms of finances.”
When Ricklefs took over operation of the land trust, Ormiston said the trust was in debt and struggling. Today, it has a permanent stewardship fund that’s approaching $130,000.
“He’s made outstanding contacts in the community and elevated the professionalism of the land trust a whole bunch,” Ormiston said. “We were a professional organization before, but not nearly as well known. He’s taken it to a whole new level.”
Perhaps most importantly, Ricklefs has been able to gain the trust of landowners considering a conservation easement.
“That’s huge in this valley,” Ormiston said. “The relationship that land trusts establish with landowners is the whole essence of a conservation easement. It’s a voluntary process. There’s no way to force a conservation easement on anyone.”
Ricklefs points to a number of mentors, including the trust’s founder, Steve Powell, who helped him move the organization to the next level.
“I was fortunate to have such great mentors,” Ricklefs said. “Some of them had grown up here and came from families who have lived here for generations. Others had been here 20 or 30 years, but knew this was the place they wanted to stay.”
That commonality of place that’s shared among almost everyone who calls the Bitterroot Valley home is something that Ricklefs works hard never to forget.
“It’s important to cut out all the noise and identify those things that we can all agree on,” he said. “To stay focused on the positive and the shared values that we all have. If you can identify those and be poised to act, you can make a difference and provide something positive for the community.”
Ricklefs said that he’s proud that he and others at the Bitter Root Land Trust have that ability to listen and identify the values that all people share and agree upon.
“There is a lot of shared agreement in this community,” he said. “It’s why we all are here. It doesn’t matter if you’re a fourth-generation rancher or farmer or someone, like me, who has been here for 14 years. This is the place we choose to live.
“There is a common thread amongst us all on why we are all still here,” Ricklefs said. “We need to talk about them and celebrate them.”
Now in its 16th year, the Bitter Root Land Trust has reached a place where it has a waiting list of people interested in working with it.
That’s happened because of trust.
“We all know that word of mouth is so important in a small community,” he said. “This is a called a land trust for a reason. There’s an enormous amount of trust that goes into the work we do.”
“Landowners are making really big decisions for themselves, their families, the land and their communities for now and in the future,” Ricklefs said. “Credibility, belief in your community and the ability to always follow through with the things you promise are really our keys to success. I believe those are things that this land trust has done very well.”