Vilsack praises Montana conservation efforts at Blackfoot gathering


by Rob Chaney

OVANDO – The list of projects to talk about was nearly as long as the line of dignitaries waiting to talk at Tuesday's Crown of the Continent celebration at the Rolling Stone Ranch.

Big maps on a pavilion wall displayed land conservation projects on the Rocky Mountain Front, Blackfoot watershed, Swan watershed and Montana Legacy Project. In front of them, Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester chatted with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, President Obama's Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Blackfeet tribal representative Keith Tatsey and a rodeo grandstand's worth of ranchers, loggers, outfitters, conservation group leaders and volunteers.

With so many subjects and so many speakers, it was a little unclear what the whole gathering was about. But as the spring rainshowers came and went, it became apparent the sheer size of Montana's recent land management efforts was a learning opportunity for the rest of the nation.

"There's a growing awareness that it's going to take local leadership and vision like this to drive progress," Vilsack said. "Maybe not to drive but to facilitate. We're seeing it in the Everglades in Florida and in the Maine forestlands and in Arizona there's some of this happening. But it may not be as mature as it's happening here. You've institutionalized the process here."

Some projects, like the Blackfoot Challenge or the Rocky Mountain Front Heritage Act, have been gestating in local communities for decades. Others, like the Montana Legacy Project's buyout of Plum Creek Timber Co. lands, came together in a matter of years. All together, they involve hundreds of thousands of acres coming under new management strategies designed to protect special places and preserve local jobs and communities.


"We start with the 80/20 rule," Ovando rancher David Mannix told the audience. "We start with things we have in common first, and that often covers 80 percent of what we have to talk about. Then we can talk about harder things, like how we've had some real difficulty over the wolf issue."

What all those projects had in common was a foundation of local landowners, land users and agency leaders working together to confront problems, said rancher and logger Denny Iverson. But it's tough to keep people in one place long enough to build trust.

"The first thing we tell agency folks is to find those people in the community who are leaders and get together with them," he said. "You can't put a price on that – to be able to sit at Trixi's (in Ovando) and have a beer with them."

The other major challenge was getting Washington, D.C.'s federal system working on the same page. As Teton County rancher Dusty Crary put it, "The carrot-and-stick approach is OK if the same guy has the carrot and the stick."

But that's often not the case when people are trying to protect public lands. Blackfeet tribal conservation district coordinator Terry Tatsey said many reservation ranchers would like to put conservation easements on their land to protect it from development. But federal Land and Water Conservation Fund easements are perpetual, while federal Bureau of Indian Affairs policy only allows easements in 25-year increments.

Schweitzer said the Obama administration had done much better than its predecessors in breaking down barriers between federal departments. But the problems remain.

"It's like when Ag has an inducement program, and Interior says, ‘No you don't,' " Schweitzer said. "You wonder how far it is between (the departments of) Agriculture and Interior and Energy. Sometimes it seems like it's 9,000 miles."

Vilsack and high-level representatives for Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar were joining Baucus and Tester to hear ideas about how to knock those barriers down at a listening session Tuesday afternoon. Several hundred people came to Jim Stone' s Rolling Stone Ranch for a chance to speak.

"At the USDA, a lot of the processes were designed to provide cover in case something goes wrong," Vilsack said. "You can tell that doesn't move the ball down the field. We need to see how we can increase accountability."