NINEMILE VALLEY - Winter was coming on. It said so on the calendar, in the biting air and in Ralph Thisted's bones.

But Wednesday was another glorious day to be up the Ninemile Valley, where Thisted has lived since 1938.

November sunshine danced off patchwork groves of larch that clung to needles not quite golden any more. It bathed the meadow where Ralph and brother Bruce watched and videotaped six wolf pups cavorting in 1990, before their story went worldwide with writer Rick Bass' book, "The Ninemile Wolves," and a documentary on BBC.

Only fractions of the old Thisted cattle ranch belong to Thisteds any more. Most of it, some 2,000 acres, was sold 20 years ago to Paul and Rose Qualley, she an actress from North Carolina known on the silver screen as Andie MacDowell.

Ralph, who turned 86 on Saturday, lives down the road at Josephine Creek with Betty, his wife of 14 years. Bruce, a year younger and a lifelong bachelor, moved from the ranch house the brothers long shared into Frenchtown a few years ago, then to an independent living residence in Missoula.

But the care and worry with which they swaddled their land, and the encouragement for others to do the same, remain a lasting tribute in this valley.

"They're pretty well known in some circles," said Sarah Richey. "These are two guys who have an incredible stewardship ethic, and they've helped spread that ethic in the Ninemile community."

A rural landscape scientist for Missoula County, Richey has done a lot of the legwork for a new award created by the county. In the next couple of weeks, commissioners Jean Curtiss, Bill Carey and Michele Landquist will come to the Ninemile and present Ralph and Bruce Thisted with the inaugural Missoula County Stewardship Award.

Bruce tends to shy away from public attention and his nephew, Bill Chandler, is expected to accept the plaque on Bruce's behalf.

The county received 10 nominations for the first award, and there wasn't a clunker in the bunch, according to John Rimel, who was on the selection committee.

"There are so many landowners and residents throughout Missoula County practicing exceptional land stewardship," Curtiss agreed. "We're excited to start formally recognizing them and thanking them for their efforts, which gives us the opportunity to learn from them as well."

The lessons from the Thisteds are many. They run the gamut from timber and weed management to watershed restoration and co-habitating with wildlife and neighbors. And they date back to the summer of 1938, after Ralph's sixth-grade year, when Fred and Claudia Thisted moved a family that included the brothers' half-siblings Ruth (Chandler) and the late Bud Hall to the Ninemile for the water.

"We came from the Great Falls area, my folks did. We had a ranch 40 miles out of Great Falls (near Raynesford), and the way I understand it, it was during a drought period in the late '30s," Ralph said. "I guess the story was, my mother said that's enough of that - the drought, I mean. So anyway, that's why we moved here. There was a lot of irrigation water."

A couple of strokes have left Ralph with double vision in one eye, and he's worn a patch over it these past couple of years to offset double-vision. His depth perception suffers, and he works to maintain balance, but he can still pick his way through the woods and over trails he and Bruce have trod, ridden and driven since before World War II.

Fred and Claudia Thisted raised sheep here first.

"Talking to Uncle Bruce, he said they didn't get rid of them soon enough," Bill Chandler said. "He didn't like the sheep, and right after they got here the bears found where they had the sheep corralled up and did a lot of damage. That's when they shifted to cows."

Fred Thisted took active interest in agricultural issues, holding statewide positions on the soil conservation and Farm Bureau boards in the 1940s through the 1960s.

Stewardship of the land wasn't a phrase bandied around in those days. Even now, Richey said it was no simple matter for the Open Lands Citizens Advisory Committee to come up with a definition that would have an enduring shelf life.

The final draft reads: "Stewardship is the practice of carefully managing the way we live on the land in order to ensure that natural systems are maintained or enhanced not only for ourselves but for those who come after us."

The Thisted take?

"Well," Ralph said, picking his own words thoughtfully, "you had to take a certain amount of care of a place in order to make a living, I guess. That's the whole basis of it."

And so the Thisteds dug in. It was Betty who did the research and documentation for the stewardship award nomination. To create hayfields and pasture, she said, they removed tree stumps left over from the Anaconda Company's decade-long logging enterprise in the Ninemile starting in 1916, which denuded the valley floor.

They took care not to overgraze the land, and logged only selectively. They protected the streambanks from mining and livestock pressures, and are even now actively working with Trout Unlimited to reclaim stretches of Ninemile Creek and its tributaries from the vestiges of gold mining operations.

Their land management style was not hands-off, but rather "hands-on with kid gloves," said Missoula conservationist Robin Tawney, when Ralph was presented with Five Valleys Land Trust's Don Aldrich conservation award in 2002.

In her years in the Ninemile, Andie MacDowell became a close friend and confidante of the Thisteds and lent her voice on behalf of the wolves and against a plan to punch the Yellowstone pipeline through the valley. She and then-husband Paul placed some 2,000 acres of the old Thisted Ranch under a conservation easement in 1994, the largest of eight such easements in the Ninemile that protect 3,800 acres.

Betty characterized Ralph as "kind of a surrogate father" to MacDowell, and he took up the actress and model on offers to visit the movie sets of "Groundhog Day" in Chicago and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" in England. The Thisteds have remained close to the actress, who sold her Montana homes and 450 acres in 1998 and moved back to North Carolina to be close to her sisters and aging father.

If Ralph has an overriding reputation in the conservation field, it's as a weed warrior.

"He was very much into weeds. He saw invasive plants as a threat to the native plant community," said Jerry Marks, Missoula County extension agent.

Marks remembers Ralph taking on the Forest Service when a timber cut was proposed some two decades ago.

"He was very concerned they would be bringing in weeds, and the Lolo (National Forest) at the time didn't have a weed control program," Marks said. "Ralph led the charge to say, ‘Unless you work in some kind of program to deal with noxious weeds, we are going to oppose any activity up there.'

"I think that opened up the door for the Forest Service to say this issue must be more important than we realized."

In the same way, the Thisteds drew attention to the weed-harboring potential of the sand and gravel Missoula County used on its roads. But they didn't do any of it alone.

"Ralph would be one - and he actually did quite a bit of this - to go door to door to talk to people up there on invasive plants," Marks said.

Rimel worked with Ralph in Citizens for a Weed Free Future, the group that initially pushed through a mill levy to get dedicated funding for weed control. Ralph was president and vice president of the Valleys Preservation Council when it rallied to successfully fight a plan to burrow the Yellowstone pipeline through the valley in the mid- to late 1990s.

"Ralph isn't a table thumper or a jump-up-and-down fellow. He's very soft spoken," said Rimel. "But you know, he gets his point across and he's willing to be the person who does it first and other people look at it and say, ‘Yeah.' "

Ralph and Bruce helped nurture a stewardship ethic that "seemed to become a legacy in the Ninemile," Rimel added.

"I think they've probably been instrumental in sort of guiding a new generation of folks who moved out of town to learn what it means to live on a larger piece of property and care for it, and to sort of think outside of their own personal space."

Consensus-building wasn't an easy task after wolves returned to the Ninemile in 1989. A mating pair denned on the Thisted ranch, and the Thisteds immediately embraced them. When the resulting litter was orphaned, they and wolf biologist Mike Jimenez kept the pups alive by securing road-killed deer and elk.

The story, which preceded the federal reintroduction of wolves to the Northern Rockies later in the 1990s, attracted widespread media attention and the wrath of some of the Thisteds' fellow ranchers and neighbors. But Ralph remained a vocal champion of the wolf, insisting it has a right to regain its place in the Ninemile ecosystem.

It's partly for practical reasons.

"We had 800 deer in the hayfield every day until the wolves came back," Ralph said last week. "They didn't kill them all off, but the deer were more alert and they didn't spend a lot of time in the field. That's a lot of game to be feeding every day."

The kitchen of the tastefully appointed home on Josephine Creek that Ralph shares with Betty is trimmed in blue pine salvaged from a forest fire that scorched the Thisteds' remaining property on the Burnt Fork in 2000. A centerpiece table in the living room is made of a charred "cookie" of a giant larch that fell victim to flames that came within yards of a restored homestead cabin that dates back to before 1913.

Those were scary times.

"I knew things were heating up when Ralph wouldn't go to a weed meeting," Betty told a reporter that August.

Among the other keepsakes on the wall is the family's brand that Fred Thisted registered with the Montana Department of Livestock years ago. Their cattle and horses are long gone, but the brand, which must be renewed every 10 years, has been kept in the family.

The brand is read "Heart-Slash-T."

"That says it all," said Betty Thisted. "It's all about heart."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman @missoulian.com.


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