Sally & Dan Lilja

Sally Lilja grew up riding horseback in the forested hills around her hometown of Plains, Montana. She helped neighbors push cattle on a particularly lovely patch of ponderosa pine forest that overlooked a beautiful run of the Clark Fork River, so a few years ago when she was working at the local fire department and a plat for a new subdivision came in, her stomach fell. There, on ground where she had ridden as a youngster, was a planned housing development that would forever change the land she had loved.

“When I saw that plat, I was just sick. Sick and a little angry,” said Sally.

But then fortune turned a bit for the developer, as the country entered a lasting recession and real estate across Montana—Sanders County included—nose-dived. The planned subdivision did not happen after all, and instead, the bank ended up taking over the land. That’s when Sally and her husband, Dan, started talking with a friend, Joe Rogers, about possibly purchasing the land from the bank. Almost from the very beginning, the Lilja’s and Rogers considered putting the ground in an easement of some kind to protect the wildlife habitat.

Located on the ponderosa pine steppe above the Clark Fork, elk use the land year-round, but especially during the winter. Whitetail deer, black bear, and turkeys also call the ground home. The Lilja’s and Rogers wanted to make sure it stayed that way, but before they could all put the deal together, Joe got sick and eventually lost a battle with cancer. However, Joe’s enthusiasm for protecting the land stayed with the Lilja’s, and Dan and Sally moved forward with the purchase.

Early conversations with a well-known conservation group for some kind of an easement fell flat, however. Afterward, Dan went to The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) and in late 2014, the Lilja’s and MLR were able to come up with an agreement that worked for everyone involved.

“Working with the Land Reliance on the conservation easement was almost effortless,” said Dan. “They were just really good to work with, making everything easy and explaining stuff really well. We wanted to get this done by the end of 2014 for our taxes and they made that happen. They were great.”

“We wanted some place for the elk,” continued Dan, who is the president of Lilja Precision Rifle Barrels, Inc., in Plains. The company has been a Plains institution for 30 years and produces rifle barrels for all kinds of applications from military to competition target shooting to hunting.

This passion for shooting not only sparked the business itself, but also a love of the outdoors and hunting that has kept the Lilija’s in Plains where they’ve raised three boys, two of whom are involved in the company business. So when the opportunity to purchase the ground near Plains came about, the entire family was enthusiastic. Much of that was because everyone in the family loves to hunt.

Last fall, for instance, Sally shot a nice cow elk on the property on opening morning and as Dan went to get the truck to haul it out, one of the Lilja sons shot a nice bull on the same piece of ground. Two elk on opening day and it wasn’t even noon.

Hunting and horseback riding are only part of the reason the Lilja’s were drawn to the land. Just knowing its there and protected brings a lot of satisfaction to the family. “The elk need a place to live,” said Sally. “We like leaving it there for them.”