It started with a ski trip to Big Sky more than a decade ago and was fueled by a love of the land and outdoor activities like hiking, skiing, and fly-fishing.
Steve and Gretchen Burke’s adventure in Montana that winter was memorable. Life-long residents of the Eastern Seaboard, Montana’s big country and tall mountains captured their imaginations. The Burkes visiteda ranch outside of Big Timber and were totally enamored.
“We started thinking about maybe buying a ranch,” remembered Steve who is the CEO of NBC Universal. During the next two years, he said, “we looked at a lot of places until we found the Valley Garden.”
Through that ski trip and ranch visit and the long process of finding just the right place, the Burkes fell in love with the state. They settled on purchasing the Madison Valley Garden Ranch in the heart of the upper Madison Valley. The Valley Garden is an historic ranch—an early-day stage stop on the route to the bustling frontier town of Virginia City is the centerpiece of the headquarters that lies north of Ennis in the heart of the southwestern part of the state. Once a massive cattle operation that covered more than 100,000 acres, the ranch is still big by anyone’s standards. The Valley Garden sprawls more than 13,000 deeded acres from the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains on the west to the Madison River and Ennis Lake on the east, and abuts the community’s golf course north of Ennis on its southern boundary. It is a landscape that typifies Montana, where one gets a feeling of enormity and freedom. It is home to the cattle, fisheries, and wildlife that have defined Montana. Lodgepole, limber pine, and Douglas fir cloak the foothills while native grasses wave on the valley floor. Antelope, whitetail and mule deer, and hundreds of elk roam the ranch throughout the year. Meanwhile, the Burkes, under the guidance of a ranch manager, run a thriving cow-calf operation.
After they bought the ranch, they returned as often as they could, spending much of their summers in Madison County, fully embracing the lifestyle. In the years since the Valley Garden became theirs, the Burkes watched their five children—all now in their 20s—grow up under those wide open skies. The ranch quickly became the epicenter of the Burke’s outdoor adventures, hiking in the nearby mountains, riding horseback, and sharing their love of the land with friends and family. Today, the love of Montana runs in the family’s blood. “Montana has really become our favorite place in the world,” Steve said.
”Right from the second a fish rose to a fly I loved it,” said Steve, who wanted a place that combined several criteria. Not surprisingly those “must-haves” included good fishing, a nearby town like Ennis, hiking, and a big mountain landscape. The latter, being part of the Madison Valley, was a key element. “We just love the Madison Valley. Montana is full of beautiful mountain valleys but the Madison really is something special,” said Steve.
Moreover, there are 4 miles of the Madison River—the legendary channels section of the river upstream from Ennis Lake, plus the shores of the lake itself on the ranch. Steve remembered that, “I saw it when it was snow and ice in the middle of winter, but we came back and ended up purchasing it.”
Every summer, the Burkes come to Montana to enjoy the ranch and all it has to offer. Steve passionately fishes the Madison River and other waters like the Beaverhead River. “We live in New York City and being on the water fishing is just to me the perfect place. When I’m fishing, I’m not thinking about all of the other things in my life, I’m just fishing. That’s really important,” said Steve.
Gretchen and the couple’s five children all enjoy their time on the ranch, as well. The Burke’s eldest daughter spent a summer at the Valley Garden learning about Montana and ranching.
The ranching business has been something that the Burkes have embraced fully. “I love to fish, but I really enjoy all the various aspects of ranching, the business side of things. I love the cowboy lifestyle, the cowboy way of conducting business. I’ve also started to do some wing-shooting and I love chasing elk and deer around,” said Steve.
To help those deer and elk, the Valley Garden has removed much of its internal fencing so wildlife can move freely across the ranch. “We’ve gone to a system of grazing where we’re moving the cattle a lot. We graze the cattle intensively, then we move them. When I look out across the ranch, I can imagine that it looks a lot like it was five hundred years ago,” said Steve.
Early on, protecting the ranch and the ranching lifestyle, was a priority. Initially, two people were instrumental in encouraging the Burkes to think about conservation easements: Ted Turner and the late Alex Diekmann.
“I know Ted and when we had lunch one day all he talked about was conservation and conservation easements,” remembered Steve. “Then I met Alex Diekmann and he rolled out this big map that was color coded with all of the easements in the valley and Alex said, ‘You really ought to think about doing an easement.’”
Diekmann, who lost a battle with cancer in February 2016, was a well-known conservationist in southwestern Montana who worked with others, notably The Montana Land Reliance (MLR), to place much of the Madison Valley under permanent protection from development. The Burkes thought it over and entered into their first conservation easement on the Madison Valley ranch working with MLR. In the following years, the Burkes protected even more acreage in conservation easements with the organization. This land ethic made the Burkes the recipients of MLR’s 2016 Conservation Award.
“We love the idea of keeping it the way it is forever. Ourkids all love Montana and we love Montana and the idea of being good stewards and having something that lasts so our grandchildren and their grandchildren can see something that is unchanged is very rewarding,” said Steve.
Thanks to the Burkes’ conservation ethic, love of the land, and The Montana Land Reliance, that view is going to last.