THE MANNIX FAMILY has owned and managed a sprawling ranch in the heart of the Blackfoot Watershed since 1882. Five generations of Mannixes have worked this landscape interwoven with streams that irrigate crops, provide water for cattle, and support blue ribbon native trout fisheries.
“Clean water is an indicator of sustainable management. Ranchers manage that landscape and it’s a measure of how well we’re doing it. In a real practical sense it’s about our survival.”
No individual ranch is an island by itself. The more we work together, the more effective we are.
Over the years, David has experienced the power of partnerships first-hand, through ranch improvements such as sustainable grazing plans, effective drought planning, and restored trout habitat.
When David joined the Blackfoot Challenge Board in 2002, he brought with him the “80/20 rule,” a hallmark of the Challenge’s community-based approach.
“We can agree on so many things if we just talk to people about what they want to achieve. If you can focus on the 80% of issues that we agree on, we can work together, build trust, and find success. Then if we do disagree, the trust is there to keep working on the other 20%.”
“Most of our kids would like to return to the ranch, if they haven’t already. A major reason why is because of this approach. We actively work together. This attitude attracts people who appreciate it.”
WHEN LEIGH AND KYLE KELLEY got married on the banks of the Blackfoot River in 2001, they could only imagine how those waters would bind them, their forthcoming family, their community, and ultimately their livelihood.
Today, Leigh and Kyle manage the Paws Up Ranch, a job that puts them at the center of decisions that will impact the entire watershed for years to come.
We want to set future generations up to succeed—and that means looking at a variety of perspectives, not just our own.
“Our vision of the river was narrower in the past. Now we recreate on it, share it with friends and family, teach our kids science in its waters.”
A search for community-based solutions led Leigh to the Blackfoot Challenge. Outfitters, guides, irrigators and fish – all depend on the health of the river.
“The water binds us all together, and we have to find a balance between these uses. A drought management plan helps us do that here on the ranch.”
She sees the work at the Blackfoot Challenge as seeking to find common ground in a shared landscape, with the greatest beneficiaries being her children.
“When I look long-term, we want to set future generations up to succeed – and that means looking at a variety of perspectives, not just our own.”
WHEN KEVIN ERTL came to the Blackfoot watershed as an employee of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service nearly 20 years ago, the community was in the early stages of trying to collectively solve water and other natural resource problems to benefit everyone. This type of work wasn’t part of Kevin’s wildlife management classes at Montana State University, but along with his new neighbors, he dove right in.
When you become part of the community, it changes things.
Today, Kevin is a passionate proponent of community-based solutions, including the Challenge’s ground-up approach. Why? “Because it works,” he said.
“It’s the community and the people I love the most,” Kevin said. “The health of these waters is the lifeblood of this community.”
The Blackfoot watershed includes vast wilderness, timberlands, private ranch lands, blue ribbon trout streams, and small communities – a mix that carries diverse values.
In the early 1990s, a group of community members and their agency partners decided to put aside their disagreements and focus on what they had in common. A shared concern for the health of the water quickly surfaced. From those conversations arose the Blackfoot Challenge – one of the flagship watershed groups in Montana and beyond.
The Challenge’s ground-up approach attracted its share of naysayers. But Kevin found that the most profound work happened by giving those naysayers a seat at the table. They, too, quickly realized that their commonalities were far greater than their differences.
Ranchers, loggers, anglers, shop owners, state and federal agencies all found their voice around the table – all realizing their interdependence on their shared landscape and ultimately, on each other.
“Being in a small community, I work with folks in so many capacities – from helping them with grazing plans to seeing them at the local basketball game and at funerals,” Kevin said. “When you become part of the community, it changes things.”
IN 2008, RANCHER DENNY IVERSON and his neighbors in Potomac began hearing rumors that Plum Creek Timber Company was planning to sell 34,000 acres south of town. If sold, the future of the intact landscape that bordered their community was in jeopardy – 10,000 acres had been prioritized for subdivision. “That would have really changed the face of the valley, the quality of life, everything,” said Denny. “We were really concerned and wanted to find a solution.”
“Our community trusted the Blackfoot Challenge to get it right. To involve them, not just bulldoze through it knowing what was best. That’s not how we operate. When people see how well this process can work, it’s infectious.”
Only a few years before, the Blackfoot Challenge partnered with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to purchase 89,000 acres of Plum Creek land in the Blackfoot and transfer those lands into permanent conservation ownership. TNC was ready to team up again, and Denny was ready to bring his community together through the Blackfoot Challenge process to ensure these lands continued to produce timber, be grazed by neighboring ranches, provide wildlife habitat, and be open to public access for generations to come.
When the legislative session began that winter, Denny and his neighbors were ready to campaign for the State of Montana to purchase the land. “We had about 70 people from our community and the logging community show up for the hearing. They had to move it to a bigger room to get everybody in. It was impressive.” With such strong and diverse local support, the funding was quickly approved.
When it comes to an intact landscape, the sum of the parts doesn’t necessarily equal the whole. As Denny explained, “A healthy watershed that has the ability to hold snow, to keep the creeks flowing, to support forest health – it keeps me on the land.”
FOR STEVE AND APRIL WOODHOUSE, wildfire and invasive species threaten two things they most enjoy about living in the Blackfoot – the forests that surround them and the clear, healthy waters of the lake they live on.
Ever since buying their property on Cooper’s Lake, the Woodhouses have been cutting dead, dying, and hazard trees near their house but hadn’t thought much about overall forest health. Then April and a neighbor took a forestry stewardship class together. “We learned so much,” said April. “We realized we needed to get on it, we needed to do more.”
“Everything we do has effects downstream. It all comes down to cooperation and communication, working together and doing what you can for others. We’re glad to do what we’re doing.”
With assistance from the Blackfoot Challenge, the Woodhouses treated the forest surrounding their home to improve its health and reduce wildfire risk. “We feel much better about our surroundings. The ground looks healthier. If a fire comes through, we can likely defend our home and it won’t be as devastating for us or for the lake.”
When the Blackfoot Challenge began monitoring for invasive mussels on Cooper’s Lake a few years ago, the Woodhouses stepped up to volunteer their boat and their time to the effort. When asked why, Steve and April replied, “Why wouldn’t we? How could we not?”
Over the years, the Woodhouses have realized just how important the health of their immediate surroundings is for the health of the entire Blackfoot watershed.
Header photo: Joe Milmoe, USFWS
We coordinate efforts to conserve and enhance the natural resources and rural way of life in the Blackfoot watershed for present and future generations.