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Sally Jewell

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell chats with Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and rancher Jim Stone near Ovando on Saturday on the success of conservation efforts to preserve the Crown of the Continent ecosystem.

OVANDO – With the Bob Marshall Wilderness serving as the backdrop, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., praised a group of ranchers and their conservation allies on Saturday for doing what, not too many years ago, was unthinkable.

Starting back around 1992, when American Rivers listed the Blackfoot River as one of America’s 10 most endangered waterways, a group of ranchers and conservationists came together to address the problem.

In the years that have followed, the effort has expanded beyond anyone’s expectations to encompass a landscape that spreads larger than the boundaries of some Eastern states.

More than 600,000 acres have been conserved across the so-called Crown of the Continent, an area that encompasses the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex and Glacier National Park.

Added together, it all represents the most intact wildland in North America, and it has emerged as a national model.

“You know what you’ve got here and how special it is,” Jewell said. “You’re setting a pathway forward that’s sustainable, takes into account the challenges we face in our environment, and recognizes what’s at stake.”

While the efforts have been grand in both vision and achievement, much of the success may be traced back to the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a program established by Congress in 1965.

Montana has received $400 million in LWCF funding through the years, Jewell said, and it has helped conserve land while keeping it workable for ranchers and accessible to the public.

President Barack Obama is asking Congress to fully fund the program at $900 million, though Jewell said the funding isn’t guaranteed.

Ranchers urged Jewell to fight for the fund’s renewal. Jewell, in turn, said their voices would be needed at the table.

“Your voices in particular are really important on this,” Jewell said. “The president has put full funding for LWCF in the budget for 2015, but it will require legislation to get it reauthorized and get it across the finish line.”

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The significance of the LWCF may be a story told in the success of the Crown of the Continent initiative. Once separated by fear and misunderstanding, those behind the effort have worked past their fears to establish trust and a symbiotic partnership.

Conservation groups describe the ranchers as heroes and trend setters. Ranchers see the conservation groups as critical allies and necessary partners. Such collaboration was rare not long ago, and the results are getting noticed.

“These partnerships are critical,” said Choteau rancher Dusty Crary. “We couldn’t do it without groups like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and The Nature Conservancy. We’re working and we don’t have the funds to do these things on our own. We need these people.”

Crary jokes that if it took a dollar to get around the world, most Montana ranchers wouldn’t get beyond site. The LWCF has helped them do what they couldn’t do for themselves – expand their operation while keeping the land in production.

That, in turn, also has helped conserve large swaths of land surrounding the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, including the Rocky Mountain Front, the Blackfoot Valley and the Seeley-Swan Valley.

Taken as a whole, the areas encompass 18 million acres of private, state and federal land.

“For the last 18 years, we were all wanting to do the same thing,” Crary said. “But we hadn’t talked to each other, and we hadn’t figured out how to do it. We all see what’s at stake here. We really rolled up our sleeves and came together.”

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The Blackfoot Challenge – one of the many stakeholders behind the Crown of the Continent conservation effort – has helped conserve 235,000 acres throughout the Blackfoot Valley by working with private landowners, public agencies and various land trusts.

The results have kept land in working status and opened up public access to the Blackfoot River. It has led to the completion of needed restoration projects, and it has preserved fish and wildlife habitat.

“The biggest lesson is that we’re not done,” said Richard Jeo, the state director for The Nature Conservancy. “We’ve done a tremendous amount of work, but there’s still much to do. This is a start.”

The efforts on the ground have been building for nearly 40 years, advancing in fits and starts. But the recipe has been simple, adhering to what some on Saturday described as the “80-20 rule,” one that focuses on what people share in common and not what divides them.

Ovando rancher Jim Stone admitted his own fears when looking back. It wasn’t easy watching the Blackfoot Valley move from a past built on timber and mining toward a future built on uncertainty.

But the old ways of doing business aren’t always the best ways, he said. It’s a story Jewell has heard before.

“It’s hard to let go of the ‘from,’ if you don’t know where the ‘to’ is,” Jewell said, describing the challenge efforts like this face in other parts of the country. “All of our jobs is to paint a different picture of the ‘to’ than what people are used to looking for in the rearview mirror. That’s what you’re all doing here.”

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Reporter Martin Kidston can be reached at 523-5260, or at martin.kidston@missoulian.com.

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