Landowners and Government: The Secret to a Successful Relationship

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:11/30/2011

This is a continuation of our post about Jim Stone of the Blackfoot Challenge in Montana, and his broader effort to bring together private landowners across the country.

The Blackfoot Challenge got its name when landowners decided to try to form an organization to improve things on the ground through consensus.  They looked at a map and saw about 40% of the land was corporate or private, and about 60% was federal.  They knew it would be a “challenge” to work with all those different partners.  

The 80-20 Rule

“To this day,” says Jim Stone, “every month we talk about issues.  The landowners have an 80-20 rule.  We try to work on that 80% of issues we can agree on.  Our human nature is to dwell on the 20% people can’t agree on.  However, we focus on things we can get done.  

“Don’t throw down the gauntlet.  That’s what’s really made the Challenge successful.  We bring all sides together, so when someone walks out of a meeting he or she might still have the same opinions, but at least they can take home more information.  We don’t take positions.  The minute we pick sides, we’ve branded ourselves.  We’re strictly about improving the communities and the resource.”

The success of the Blackfoot Challenge can be summarized in Jim’s simple statement: “We don’t always think about cows anymore, because the crop we raise is grass.  We think as much about ground nesting birds to time the cutting of our hay as how we graze.  At Rolling Stone Ranch we’ve removed all our internal barbed wire and now have a one-wire electric fence.  It saves a ton of money and makes a huge difference in how wildlife moves.  Plus, we no longer spend a lot of time fixing fences.  

“Now, hundreds of college kids will look at you like you’re a dork when you tell them that.  To them, it’s obvious.  They’ll say, ‘why didn’t you do that before.  It’s simple!’  Well, that’s true.  It’s not grampa’s farm anymore.  We have to change some of the ways we do business and embrace technology.  For example, the ranches in Montana were usually built on a stream for a reason.  When they were built, they couldn’t pump water because there was no electricity - so they had to be near water.  Now we’ve got wind, solar, and standard electricity - so we can move facilities away, improve our water quality and riparian habitat.  Sometimes it’s a stretch, and it can be expensive.

Fisheries Biologists Learn About Cows Too

“I came out of college thinking I knew everything, but I found out I was not completely informed.  When my parents offered to let me take over their ranch out of college, I discovered that to do this I need partners and I need them now!  I’m not a water guy, I don’t fish, so in 1985 I could not tell you the value of fish and how it all connected together from ridge top to ridge top - how grazing on the uplands affects fisheries in streams.  Yet, today we base our grazing system and how much we stock the ranch by how good the fishery is.”  Jim emphasizes that his 180 degree turn was based on survival, and it was a two-way street:  fisheries biologists and wildlife biologists were also having to learn about cows.