ARLEE – If the Z5 Ranch is a Jocko Valley wonderland, excuse Clay Burnett for feeling like the white rabbit, running perennially late for a very important date.

There are so many ideas and so little time to make the family ranch at the end of Coombes Lane an international tourist destination.

Finley Creek dances through the Flathead Indian Reservation ranch his parents, Bonnie and the late Clint Burnett, bought more than 50 years ago.

Horses and cattle graze in the meadows. White tepees stand scattered in back of a sprawling bunkhouse. Irrigation sprinklers spout into a backdrop of majestic mountains, a reminder to Burnett that he has pipe to change. The buzz of his phone was from a bride who’s booked her wedding here next month. There’s a large new barn that needs to be finished by the end of this one, and fencing to be done on what remains a working ranch.

“We’re on phase two of seven phases,” Burnett said Thursday as he showed off the 80-acre spread. He was joined by his new business partner, Trina Felsman, a Salish language instructor he’s known since they were both 5 years old.

The Z5, named for the Burnetts’ Z Hanging 5 brand, was already starting to be inundated with the first of 150 relatives expected for a Fourth of July family reunion.

Burnett, 42, is an Iraq war veteran returned home to make his parents’ business dream a reality. That means a guest ranch replete with the bunkhouse and guest cabins scattered along the creek; authentic Salish and Blackfeet tepees; bunnies, chicks and goats; horseback and helicopter rides; fishing ponds, history talks and nature walks – all within 25 minutes of downtown Missoula.

But the biggest thing first.

On the evening of July 29, Burnett and Felsman will host the Z5’s first chuckwagon dinner experience.

For $47.50, guests can sup on high-end menu items like bison sirloin with huckleberry reduction sauce, locally sourced vegetable and potato side, and grilled toast.

“There might be fry bread eventually,” said Burnett.

Dinner will be followed by a program steeped in a mix of the historic ranch and Salish cultures that define this valley. Think cowboy poetry and Indian drumming and dancing. Arlee’s Matt Brown and Grammy-award nominated guitarist Mike Ward of the country band Shodown will perform, as will local prairie chicken and fancy dancers.

Felsman and her husband Troy, an accomplished Salish historian, will share stories of the culture and history of the area.

"We want everything to be fun but we don't want it to be kitschy or campy," Burnett said. “Everything we do we want to have an educational vein going through it."

Felsman’s Salish ancestors were among those displaced from the Bitterroot Valley in the 1800s. Her family continues to go on traditional tribal pilgrimages to the Medicine Tree in the upper valley and to St. Mary Mission in Stevensville.

On one such visit she was surprised to detect a level of animosity against the descendants of those buried in unmarked graves at the mission.

“What I walked away with from that experience was that we really needed an opportunity to tell our own story,” Felsman said. “That’s about the time I got a call from Clay that they were starting to get these community members together to start building on tourism, tourism in a sense that there are people out there that want to hear our stories.”

The Z5 experience will be based in part on the ranch experience that entails camaraderie and teamwork. “Riding for the brand” is the slogan on the website. But to Burnett it’s just as important to let the Felsmans and others share the Salish stories and traditions the general public rarely hears beyond the annual five-day Arlee Celebration.

“One of the things that I’ve seen all over the world is that if you don’t tell your story, someone else will and it usually won’t be accurate,” Burnett said. “Native Americans generally are more reticent to tell their story, so we want to get our community members more comfortable in realizing they have a unique story to tell.”

It’s a business concept that has gained international traction.

“A couple of years ago we basically did a couple days of speed dialing with a bunch of European tour operators presenting these ideas and they were doing backflips,” said Burnett. “They look all over the West for unique experiences for their guests. The feedback we got was this is totally different from anything that’s out there.”

What makes that so exciting, he added, is “it’s what we are. It’s who we are.”

Burnett is chief executive officer of Z5 Enterprises, LLC. Felsman started Beartrack Adventures, specializing in trail rides and Salish history tours, to form a joint venture with Z5 Enterprises.

Their “team” includes a chief operating officer among some 15 people, most of them volunteers at this point. Burnett is taking time off from studies in the MBA program at the University of Montana to get the venture off the ground but said he has “tons of really great mentorships and connections through that program.”

Glacier Country Western Montana is due out to the ranch next week to shoot promotional footage, and Burnett said he has run his plans past people at Destination Missoula meetings. The entrepreneurial community in Missoula in general and locals such as Donna Mollica of the Hangin’ Art Gallery in Arlee have been supportive.

“I could go on and on with so many people that have been really helpful in getting us situated for growth,” he said.

Growth depends on capital and that’s a stumbling block at this early stage. Burnett has been so busy on the operational side of things he hasn’t spent the time he'd like to go after financing.

“We’ve been bootstrapping everything and selling things off and making it work,” he said.

The barn will be completed this summer and a nifty looking tree cabin is yet to be built. Future phases call for more cabins, an amphitheater on the creek and a large pavilion south of the main house where Burnett and his mother currently live. That’s pegged to be replaced by a multi-story lodge with a gift shop.

The current bunkhouse will be expanded and a saloon is in the works where food can be served indoors year around. Currently guests provide their own. The master plan includes cross-country ski and sleigh ride activities, as well as a haunted hayride and corn maze for Burnett’s favorite holiday, Halloween.

Among the immediate needs before all that expansion is a pricey public septic system. But the vision of an authentic Jocko Valley ranching, rodeo, and reservation experience remains strong.

His travels in the military and for other reasons convinced Burnett that what people are interested in when they visit different cultures is authenticity.

“They want real stories, real history,” he said. “The great thing about this is we can do everything we want to and still be able to remain authentic.

"We feel like we have something special. We’ve got a good buzz. Now if we can put it together.”

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian