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University of Montana marks 100 "This is Montana" columns as it seeks to touch whole state

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Badlands of North Jordan from "This is Montana"

The University of Montana is commemorating the 100th column of "This is Montana," a series about the state delivered free of charge to more than 80 high schools and newspapers since 2013.

Rick Graetz, who launched the outreach effort from UM as a way to help the flagship connect with people across the state, said the columns have resonated with readers far and wide. Kayde Kaiser also helped the project get off the ground as a geography graduate student at the time.

"People love 'em. They read 'em," Graetz said Friday.

Written by faculty, graduate students and others, the columns cover a variety of topics, from a series on the Missouri River to a levy that supports higher education.

"They're all popular," Graetz said.

In two parts, the centennial column celebrates the beauty of Flathead Lake, even framed by a smoke haze, and the sweeps of prairie. "Nowhere on the North American continent do river breaks, island ranges, buttes and badlands come together like they do in Montana's piece of the Great Plains."

It also gives a sense of the expanse of the landscape. "Drive from Troy on the Idaho line in the northwestern corner of the state to Alzada in the far southeast and your iron chariot will up its odometer 800 miles."

Graetz, a photographer who also was a lecturer in the UM Geography Department, started the program to help fulfill the state institution's obligation to share its wealth of knowledge and research with the taxpayers who pay the bill.

"We're in Missoula," Graetz said of the University of Montana. "But you know what? Our home is also Fairview and Plentywood and Jordan and Ashland."

As such, he said everything UM does should be a service to Montana.

In 2015, graduate student Dana Scott launched "An Uncommon Website — This is Montana" as part of the program, expanding its offerings beyond the columns. The site includes "teaching photos" educators can use in the classroom, "Montana short notes" described as "a primer to unique Montana facts," and editions of UM's Crown of the Continent and Greater Yellowstone Magazine.

Bill Vander Weele, editor of the Sidney Herald, said 90 percent of the time, his newspaper runs the column, and readers compliment the paper for its dedication to "This is Montana." He said people in the region have enjoyed not only reading about the beauty of the state, they have liked hearing from Graetz directly when he presented as the guest speaker in the past for a local Chamber of Commerce banquet.

"He covers all the state. It's not just western Montana or the mountains. He covers the entire state," Vander Weele said.

Vander Weele said it's remarkable the column is in its 100th issue, and he said Graetz should continue the good work for the next hundred.

Indeed, Graetz has plenty of ideas in mind, and he shared some of the themes readers will find in the next hundred works about the Treasure State.

Economist Larry Swanson will produce a series about the Montana economy and the way it has evolved, Graetz said. Other topics include the American Prairie Reserve, the Yellowstone River, and the Flathead Lake Biological Station, a research center of UM.

Graetz said the project is driven by students and remains led by them. He also said the column started with strong support from former UM President Royce Engstrom, and it continues with the support of President Seth Bodnar, who understands the need for the flagship to reach across the state.

"The university has an obligation, and that's what this place is doing," Graetz said.

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