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Changing larch trees light up the Swan Valley this week as fall fully sets in. The valley, bordered by the Mission Mountains on the west and the Bob Marshall Wilderness on the east, is an essential piece in the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative, celebrating two decades of work this week.

For an entity that claims no power or authority, the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative has a lot of accomplishments to celebrate this week.

What started in 1993 as a network of ecologists and a rough outline on a map has transformed into one of the world’s biggest proponents of large-landscape conservation. And while it doesn’t have a party planned for its Tuesday anniversary, it also doesn’t have any plans to stop work.

“Y2Y was never the one-stop place, the ‘Give us your resources and the globe will be saved’ organization,” said co-founder Harvey Locke from his office in Banff, Alberta. “It’s a vision, a landscape and an organization. Mainly it’s a community of people who share an interest in protecting this spectacular landscape.”

The numbers alone are worth an anniversary celebration. When the initial group of researchers, activists and land managers got together in Kananaskis, Alberta, they focused on the ecological potential of the northern Rocky Mountains – roughly 300 million acres stretching between central Wyoming and the Arctic Circle. At the start of the initiative in 1993, about 12 percent (36 million acres) of the Yellowstone to Yukon area was protected as a national park, refuge or other conservation designation.

By 2013, that figure had grown to 66.6 million acres under public protection and another 100.3 million acres covered by other conservation designations, or 52 percent of that 300 million-acre total. That includes things like the 400,000 acres on either side of the U.S.-Canadian border along the Flathead River protected from energy and mineral development in 2010, and the 2009 expansion of the Nahanni National Park Reserve to 7.4 million acres in Canada – now the largest core habitat preservation in the Y2Y zone.

“The Y2Y was really the first worldwide organization to look at big landscapes and how long corridors need to be connected,” said Richard Hauer, director of the University of Montana’s Institute on Ecosystems. “That’s what makes systems like the Crown of the Continent and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem remain viable.”

Y2Y doesn’t buy property like a land trust or fund research. Hauer said its main function is to network other organizations interested in preserving the Rocky Mountain ecosystem so those efforts can cooperate. Hauer doesn’t have membership in or volunteer with Y2Y, but has teamed up with other researchers he met through the organization’s network.

“It has nothing to do with kicking people off the landscape,” Hauer said. “It’s not about to take guns out of people’s hands – hunting is part of it. It looks at the cultural heritage that we’ve received from the landscape and find ways to pass it on to future generations. If you don’t have connectivity, you lose genetic strength of populations. That affects the fisherman, the hunter, the wildlife watchers, and the scenery.”

Locke said over the past two decades, Y2Y partners have been looking beyond national parks as tools to preserve landscapes. Things like the wildlife over- and underpasses in Banff and the Flathead Reservation are one example, where transportation agencies became players in helping grizzly bears and moose maintain genetic connectivity.

The Montana Legacy Project where Plum Creek Timber Co. sold thousands of acres of timber lands to public and private agencies for conservation was another, Locke said. Canadian companies have performed similar transfers that benefited both industry and conservation.

“We used to think Yellowstone National Park protected these things, and Glacier National Park protected those things,” Locke said. “Then we realized they’d become islands of isolation over time. Once we get people thinking about that, they can find ways to achieve that. We see common problems across the border. Y2Y can’t claim credit for that happening, but once it’s in the air, and people think about the issues, it starts to happen.”

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Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

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Natural Resources & Environment Reporter

Natural Resources Reporter for The Missoulian.