When I try to put our accomplishments in tangible terms, I sometimes think of the road from Virginia City to Ennis. The next time you find yourself making that drive I suggest that you stop at the top of the ridge before the road drops down toward Ennis, pull over to the side, and survey the landscape. In the distance to the east you’ll see the peaks of the Madison Range, towering over the Madison Valley with its blue ribbon trout waters. That beautiful valley, for the most part, is intact and undeveloped. Redirect your gaze to the slope below you, and you’ll see the clusters of ranchettes and subdivisions that chop up the land. In other words, you see what the Madison Valley might have looked like had The Montana Land Reliance not worked so tirelessly to preserve that landscape.
That particular juxtaposition of beautiful open space with helter-skelter development is jarring. You can probably think of many more examples that illustrate MLR’s profound and lasting impact on this state.
A lot of us in the MLR family are fond of reciting facts about our organization. We like to find ways to quantify our work in terms of numbers of acres conserved, the number of miles of streams and rivers protected, and – as I alluded to above – the number of subdivisions that haven’t been built.
I’m honestly blown away by how effective this organization has been since its inception. I have the privilege of serving on the board of the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), which includes more than 1,100 land trusts across the nation. When we look at MLR in the context of the national conservation movement, what we’ve been able to accomplish is staggering.
But as I’ve been thinking about MLR recently – contemplating our successes and milestones and trying to put my finger on just what it is that has made us so effective – I realize our secret is that we’ve always been dynamic, creative, and evolving. It’s not that we have a single formula or template that we keep utilizing. For decades now we’ve adapted to the changing landscape of conservation. Not only that, but to a large extent we’ve had a significant hand in changing that landscape.
The genius of MLR has been our ability to effectively work on big picture issues on a national level, while at the same time forging and maintaining relationships with individual landowners, listening to their needs and concerns, and working with them to develop a plan that works for them. Because each piece of land is different. Each easement donor – or potential donor – has a different set of goals. As you will read in the pages that follow, while there is certainly a common thread of conservation values that bind the MLR family, there is also a tremendous variety of backgrounds and perspectives. And that is something that we have always honored and valued. I like to think of The Montana Land Reliance as a diverse group of people coming together to do the right thing for their own reasons.
As we move forward, private land conservation is likely to be a little bit more of a heavy lift. We will have to be innovative about exploring new funding sources. But regardless of the financial incentives, we still need to do what we’ve always done to expand protected lands. It would be a mistake for us to rest on our accomplishments. We are extremely fortunate to have a hardworking and creative staff that is second to none, a staff that will ensure that we continue to evolve and adapt. Because, at the end of the day, remember this: a million acres is fine, but it’s just a start. It’s our job to take the excitement of that big number, and convert it to fresh ideas.