Right out of the shoots, they ran into a problem. The state wouldn’t recognize the name. At the time, the banking industry had exclusive rights to use the word “trust.” Barbara recalled that they sat for several hours with a thesaurus and flip chart writing names on the wall. At some point Christine said, “Land Reliance, that’s it!” The name felt right, and for good reason. Reliance means to depend on or trust in someone or something. MLR intended to be the organization that land owners, especially farmers and ranchers, could depend on and trust in.
MLR’s early Board of Directors
So, in 1978, with little fanfare, MLR was founded. For a board Christine and Barbara recruited Bill Milton, Chase Hibbard, and Jon Roush. Bill Long, a recent graduate in economics at UM and friend of Christine’s, was hired to help get things moving. The next year, George Olsen, Allen Bjergo, and Sharon Peterson joined the board, bringing additional expertise. Phil and Robin Tawney at MEIC and Bill Bryan at Northern Rockies Action Group (NRAG) were also among MLR’s early champions, as were Max Milton, Dana Milton, and others.
Laying the foundation of an organization is hard work, and MLR faced two major challenges. First, the staff and board needed to clearly define their vision. Second, they had to figure out how to fund it. George Olsen recalled sitting in the MLR office with butcher paper taped to the walls. On the paper were written the staff and board’s ideas and the goals that they wanted to achieve. Those early brainstorming sessions were critical in defining how the new organization would look and operate.
Chase Hibbard, a fourth-generation Montana rancher who had a background in banking, advised the group to keep the focus on providing good options. He recalled recommending, “Don’t legislate it, don’t force it. Provide landowners the right tools, and if it’s right for them, it will fall into place.” From the beginning, MLR decided to stay out of the land management business, and instead, focused on providing information and expertise in the area of conservation easements.
Patience, trust, and a focus on preserving agriculture and ranching were several of the core tenets that emerged from those early meetings. So was the commitment to remain apolitical. As longtime board member Rick Berg put it, “MLR has worked extraordinarily hard since the beginning to remain politically neutral. It would be easy to veer to the left or right, but doing so would have taken away the ability to talk with neighbors and build relationships.”
Building relationships with both landowners and prospective supporters was especially crucial in the early years as MLR had not yet established a pipeline for funding. The situation became dire in 1981. George Olsen, MLR Board Treasurer, showed up to the scheduled board meeting and reported that they had $39 in the bank with payroll due at the end of the week. It was a critical moment. Allen Bjergo, who was at the meeting recalled, “We had three completed easements, and $39. We sat and looked at each other, said, ‘Shall we fold this thing up?’ But we decided to forge ahead.” A hat was passed around the room and the board members wrote checks; enough to pay the staff and keep the doors open.
It was at this low point that MLR hired Bill Dunham, a fire alarm salesman who loved American Literature and fly fishing. Bill brought an entrepreneurial spirit and energy to the nonprofit that was needed. By that time Christine Torgrimson and Barbara Rusmore had left MLR to pursue other interests. So, with the support of the board, Bill Dunham and Bill Long began developing new relationships with a wide array of people from all over the United States, primarily through fly fishing. On the banks of Montana’s famous trout streams, potential easement donors and benefactors learned about MLR. This new experiment in fundraising became known as the “trout route.”
During the summer of 1982, Bill Long and Bill Dunham fished with Herb Wellington. Herb had a firm on Wall Street and owned the Longhorn Ranch in the Madison Valley. The previous fall MLR had begun the process of completing a conservation easement on Herb’s ranch. It was only MLR’s second easement in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and one of the biggest projects the young nonprofit had undertaken. Bill Long recalled, “MLR was not the only organization wanting to work with Herb. A national organization ran hard after him. They wanted him. He had such a great ranch and connections on Wall Street. But for some reason he picked us. MLR was new, we didn’t have it figured out yet, but Herb believed in us.”The same was true for Sam Gary, who lived in Denver but owned a summer home on Flathead Lake. Sam fished the Missouri with Bill Dunham and Bill Long and gave generously. Herb and Sam’s donations gave MLR the financial infusion needed to move forward.
With a growing network of individual donors, MLR was able to look to the future. In 1983 the organization changed its mission statement to focus on “open space” conservation. It became increasingly clear that ecological, habitat, and social benefits could be realized simply by keeping land undeveloped. So, MLR simplified its mission statement and became an open space, private land conservation organization with one product: the conservation easement. It was also evident that money would be needed to pay for monitoring of easements. That was the promise MLR made to landowners; that they would ensure the terms of the easement were honored, forever.
During the winter of 1984, Bill Long met an aspiring broker named Andy Laszlo at the Dean Witter office in Billings, which at the time was nothing more than a double wide trailer. Andy recalled that he had no idea what MLR was about, he just needed work. Over the years, Andy became one of MLR’s major supporters, and placed his ranch in the Madison Valley under easement soon after Herb Wellington protected the Longhorn Ranch. Under Andy’s tutelage, MLR’s original Land Protection Fund investment of $32,000 grew to over $12 million. Today, Andy continues to oversee MLR’s investments totaling over $25 million.