GREENOUGH – Bill Potter, 95, watched from his trusty four-wheeler Thursday while his wife demonstrated one of his creations at a designated landing on their E Bar L Guest Ranch.
It was a small grapple attached to the back of a conventional farm tractor, something Potter designed more than 30 years ago to wrangle logs from Point A to Point B with minimum disturbance to the soil.
He sold the patent, and the back-end grapple is a widely used commercial product these days. Betty Potter operated it with a steady, accomplished hand. After all, she loaded 11 trucks with the thing last winter.
As she shut down the tractor and climbed off, Bill turned to a small group of onlookers that included Missoula County’s three commissioners.
“Got any ideas?” he wondered earnestly.
“I don’t know how many pieces of equipment he’s invented over the years to adapt small farm machinery to work in the woods,” said Hank Goetz, a retired forester and former long-time manager of the nearby Lubrecht Experimental Forest.
It’s that ongoing thirst to find a better way to manage his land that had commissioners and others singing Potter’s praises Thursday. They dropped in to the secluded guest ranch above the confluence of the Clearwater and Blackfoot rivers to present the couple with the second Missoula County Land Stewardship Award.
“Thank you for understanding the complicated web of life that’s out there,” said Commissioner Michele Landquist, with a nod out the front window of the Potter’s humble home.
Pat O’Herren, the county’s Rural Initiatives director, cited Bill Potter’s “remarkable ability to teach people how to care for the land.”
“We really admire what you’ve done here,” said Maria Mantas of the Nature Conservancy. “We think of it as an example for others in the valley, and it’s just been a real pleasure to work with you.”
Some 14 years ago the Potters and the Nature Conservancy agreed on what Mantas described as a unique conservation easement on the 4,000-acre ranch. Not only did it protect it from development after the Potters are gone, but the agreement promoted long-term forest stewardship and provided an annual harvest of timber in perpetuity – something no other such easement did or does, Mantas said.
You can’t tell it by looking, but there has been a century of hard living on the E Bar L. Bill Potter’s grandfather and father, both named Orrin William, acquired the ranch in 1912, five years before Bill was born. Once here, he never left.
An intensely private couple whose ranch has a guest list that fairly sings of royalty, the Potters were cited for their relationships with fellow ranchers, Lubrecht Forest, conservation groups and the woods products industry.
“They just do a great job on the ground of actively managing their forest, long term,” said Gordy Sanders of Pyramid Mountain Lumber in Seeley Lake, who nominated the Potters for the award along with Goetz and neighboring rancher Land Lindbergh.
The new award was initiated last year to recognize those in Missoula County who demonstrate outstanding land stewardship practices and share their expertise and ethics so that others can learn from their work.
The inaugural award in 2011 went to long-time Ninemile ranchers Ralph and Bruce Thisted.
Goetz led, and the Potters accompanied, Thursday’s small party to the heart of a recent timber cut. Goetz pointed out examples of Bill Potter’s longstanding philosophy of “uneven age management.”
“You can see trees going all the way from the small ones, intermediate size, medium size, and then some big honkers,” Goetz said. “Bill has chosen to use that approach because the ground here is used in support of the guest ranch, and also in support of the horses that carry the guests around.”
In other words, it’s a beautiful place to ride.
Also present were gray stumps that showed evidence of the crosscut saws used for the first commercial logging in the Blackfoot in 1885.
Bill Potter has been part of other pioneering projects. In the 1970s he and adjacent managers and landowners, including Goetz and Lindbergh, created the first walk-in hunting area in western Montana, allowing public hunting access on private land. The idea morphed into the present Block Management System administered by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
At the same time the partnership chiseled out a Blackfoot River recreation management plan, providing public access to a 35-mile stretch of the waterway. It remains in effect today.
Potter’s forestry stewardship was tested in the late 1970s and early 1980s in the face of a severe infestation of mountain pine beetles. His answer was to purchase the first mechanical feller-buncher in western Montana, a tree chipper, and a small rubber-tired skidder that could move large trees longer distances.
He worked with agencies and timber companies to develop markets for the small, blue-stained ponderosas that the beetles left for dead. With Stone Container, Potter experimented to find the feasibility of producing hog fuel and pulp chips in the woods.
“In summary,” the award nomination stated, “Bill addressed the challenges of cyclical beetle infestation with innovation and determination, and has succeeded in removing most of the beetle-killed and dying trees from his forestland.”
Potter established permanent log landings and skid trails, and invented a number of attachments like the grapple that converted farm implements to timber management equipment. Lindbergh noted that, unlike many ranchers who occasionally thin their land, Bill Potter and more specifically Betty these days, use the equipment regularly, in keeping with the terms of the conservation easement.
Goetz directed the touring party’s attention across the demonstration cut, where a gnarled and broken snag stood. Potter, he said, likes to leave such distinguished gents of the forest for wildlife purposes.
“If you take all of them out you take an animal with ’em,” Potter said.
O’Herren calls the Potters “salt-of-the-earth people.”
“They have a deep understanding of their community’s needs, the needs of their family, and the necessity of caring for the land that sustains both,” he said. “They’re people that we would all love to have as neighbors, and Missoula County is blessed to have such exemplary land stewards caring for our people and for future generations.”