When Henry Sieben, my great-grandfather, started ranching in Montana in the 1870s the business was about widgets (in his case, mostly mutton) — the more you made, the better you did.
The vision has changed in our generation. At its core it remains the same — if you don’t have widgets to sell (in our case, mostly cattle), you don’t have a business, and if you don’t have a business that turns a profit once in a while, you don’t keep the ranch. Beyond that, the vision now recognizes where a major part of a ranch’s value lies — its landscape, the plants and trees, deer and fish, elk and antelope, its history and legacy of working ranch families.
It comes as no news that this landscape is under pressure. Population growth, changes in social values and land ownership patterns, pressures of modern life and changing interests among our young people, bode for a different Montana. Among these changes, according to the Department of Interior, are these: kids in this country spend half as much time outdoors as their parents did, and every year another 3 million acres in the U.S. are converted from farms, ranches and open space to development.
A lot of these kids do not have the outdoor interests that their parents had because the opportunities are no longer there. They may not have a place to fish or hunt or hike or camp. They won’t have the opportunity to work or recreate in working landscapes, whether as loggers or cowboys or farmers or hunters, if the resource is no longer available.
Community groups have shown that it takes partners to keep these landscapes in tact so these opportunities don’t go away. The Rocky Mountain Front Advisory Committee and the Blackfoot Challenge are cases in point. They have orchestrated community-wide efforts to implement long-term visions for their local lands. They have involved land trusts like The Nature Conservancy and the Montana Land Reliance, and Federal landowners (Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service, and Bureau of Land Management), and state agencies (Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and the Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks) in cooperative efforts to serve the greater good.
America’s Great Outdoors Initiative provides another forum for local voices at its listening session in Helena on June 2. The Land and Water Conservation Fund is central to this Initiative because it provides the funding to get things done. From where I sit, the LWCF has shown itself to be a good use of federal money. The trick is to get it funded, and that opportunity is now before us. The listening session provides a forum to be heard on this issue.
I’m doing what I can to help keep working landscapes in Montana, working for Montana. I urge you to do the same.
Scott Hibbard is a Helena-area rancher.