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Barack Obama, Dusty Crary
President Barack Obama speaks in the East Room of the White House, Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2011, in Washington, about America's Great Outdoors initiative. Behind Obama at left is Dusty Crary, from Rocky Mountain Front Advisory Committe. AP photo by Carolyn Kaster

Choteau-area rancher Dusty Crary stood beside President Barack Obama this week at the White House, watching over the president’s shoulder as he unveiled the America’s Great Outdoors Initiative.

Denny Iverson, a rancher along the Blackfoot River and member of the Blackfoot Challenge, had a front-row seat to the event too, as one of the people from throughout the nation who provided the roadmap that laid out the path to the initiative.

“It was a great honor for Montana to have someone up on the stage,” Iverson said Thursday. “It could have been any one of us with the Crown of the Continent work, but we were glad to go. It was a lot of fun.”

Work on the initiative started with a meeting last June at Jim Stone’s Blackfoot River ranch, which kicked off a series of 51 “listening tours” by government officials aimed at helping them figure out better ways to preserve the landscape and get people outdoors.

“It’s about practical, commonsense ideas from the American people on how our natural, cultural and historic resources can help us be a more competitive, stronger and healthier nation,” Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar said. “Together, we are adapting our conservation strategies to meet the challenges of today and empowering communities to protect and preserve our working lands and natural landscapes for generations to come.”

At the White House on Wednesday, Obama signed the memorandum that outlines general goals the administration hopes to pursue in the next few years. Those include encouraging outdoor recreation by Americans; forming coalitions with states, local governments and the private sector; connecting wildlife migration corridors; and encouraging sustainable use of private land. More than 100,000 people offered suggestions on the initiative.

Obama has charged four people within his administration, including Salazar, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa P. Jackson and Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to lead the initiative.

Iverson said the initiative reflects what they told Vilsack and other government representatives at the Stone ranch gathering. It was there that high-ranking members of the administration were introduced to Montana’s Crown of the Continent effort, in which private landowners partnered with public agencies and conservation groups to protect and preserve large swaths of undeveloped land in the Blackfoot River corridor, the Rocky Mountain Front and the Seeley-Swan Valley. It’s a model others are trying to follow elsewhere in the country.

“It kind of reaffirms what we have been trying to tell Washington for a long time, that these kind of deals need to start at the ground level, at the community level, then get them the support to do the work on the ground,” Iverson said. “We told them to not just throw a program out there and see where in the country it will fit, but to make the program flexible so it can fit.”

He also was pleased to see the inclusion of a variety of federal agencies involved in the initiative.

“We need to build relationships and partnerships, which is what we’ve been doing in Montana,” Iverson said. “Maybe one agency might have the money and another has the right folks to get the work done, so let’s blur the lines and get the work done. That’s the key.”

The initiative also calls for fully funding the Land and Water Conservation Fund each year. But the $900 million chronically underfunded National Park Service program, which was established in 1965 to provide money for national parks, forests and wildlife areas, was on the cutting block Thursday. The House of Representatives is now considering cutting LWCF by anywhere from 82 to 90 percent.

The conservation fund has aided projects across Montana including Memorial Park in Helena, the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds, the Downtown Skate Park in Billings, the Giant Springs Park in Great Falls, and the Charles Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Overall, Montana has received about $344 million during the past four decades.

Iverson said he’ll be surprised if the measure is fully funded, since it only has happened twice. Still, he’s holding out hope.

“The more money we see from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the more possibilities we have for working with private landowners doing conservation easements, and it also allows for the possible purchase of land for protection,” Iverson said.

Crary is still in D.C. and couldn’t be reached for comment Thursday. But in a press release from The Nature Conservancy, Crary said he’s waiting to see how the details of any plan will unfold, but thinks it’s a decent start.

“Bottom line is that everybody needs to be part of this to make it work,” Crary said. “After all, the first word in this deal is America’s, so that means everybody should feel welcome to get on board.”

Other parts of the initiative call for revamping the Conservation Service Corps to better engage young Americans in public lands and water restoration, extending the deduction for conservation easement donations on private lands beyond 2011, and creating more urban parks and river trails to encourage outdoor recreation.

For Iverson, this week’s trip was the first time he had been to the nation’s capital, and said both he and Crary were thrilled to rub shoulders with members of the Obama administration, as well as other people who are doing the on-the-ground work like their organizations.

“It was cool to hook up with a few of those folks who were there (at the Stone Ranch) almost year ago,” Iverson said. “We got to make a lot of good connections with folks across the country with like minds.”

The full report and additional information is available at www.americasgreatoutdoors.gov.

Reporter Eve Byron: 447-4076 or eve.byron@helenair.com

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