I pulled up to Rick and Gayle Berg’s ranch house, turned off my car, and stepped out to a wiggling, happy ranch dog and a vista most people will never get to see: the Castle Mountains towering over the south fork of the Musselshell River. And it was quiet – country quiet. Winter hadn’t taken hold yet, the sky was bright blue, and the sun was shining. It was a perfect day to sit down with Rick, Gayle, and their daughter Kari (pronounced Car-ee) at their ranch near Lennep, Montana – a little town between White Sulphur Springs and Harlowtown.
Like most multi-generational Montana ranching families, who they are is, in large part, based on where they are.
“This land is a part of us; it’s who we are,” said Rick.
They exude the kind of knowing that involves the senses, the memories, and the history of one family on one piece of land for well over a century. That certain knowledge and love of a place, as Wallace Stegner noted, comes from “working it in all weathers, making a living from it, suffering from its catastrophes, loving its mornings or evenings or hot noons, valuing it for the profound investment of labor and feeling that you, your parents, and grandparents, your all-but unknown ancestors have put into it.”
When I ask Rick about his family’s history in the valley, Kari laughs. She has an easy smile just like her dad.
“He’s good at this,” she says.
Rick leans back in his chair, wraps his hand around a hot cup of coffee, and tells me the story of their ancestors. Gayle, who is making fudge in the kitchen, occasionally chimes in with an anecdote or comment. Like most stories of Montana ranch families who have been able to keep the land through four or five generations, it is a story of hard work, hardship, and commitment – of people who decided to stay and commit to a place.
“Just like the chickadee, a really Montana bird, they tough it out, they stay through the winter,” Rick said.
Rick’s great-grandfather, Jakob Berg, was a Norwegian immigrant who began working for the first settler in the valley, another Norwegian named Grandy, who had driven a bunch of sheep up from Idaho. Jakob also had a butcher shop in a nearby mining town called Castle Town. Eventually, he took up his own homestead in 1890 and started the Berg Brothers’ Sheep Company with his brother. He essentially had the ranch put together as it is now by 1916.
And a beautiful ranch it is, ranging from 6,800 feet in elevation down to river bottom, where the south fork of the Musselshell River runs. The Bergs are proud of the fact that the land they manage is able to support livestock, farming, and incredibly diverse and healthy wildlife populations of moose, elk, deer, pronghorn, black bears, sandhill cranes, and dozens of other species.
“I knew I wanted to be a rancher from the age of 12. I was always going to come back here after college. It’s our sanctuary,” Kari says, “a place to raise our kids so they can grow up the way I did. It’s priceless.”
Everyone knows it’s not easy to keep a ranch intact and pass it down to the next generation. Rick notes that all his relations, through generations of his family, no matter if they were going to stay on the ranch or not, were committed to keeping the ranch intact.
“All of us were taught our ranch, this chunk of land that my great-grandfather and grandfather put together, was a sacred legacy,” Rick said. “My great-grandfather carved it out and my grandfather fought his way through the depression to hang onto it.”
Rick first heard about conservation easements in 1983 when an easement came across his desk during his time on the county planning board.
“I thought it was an interesting tool. I had it in the back of my mind that I would do it all along,” he said. In 2006, the family came together and decided to do an easement with MLR.
Gayle emphasized the importance of planning and talking with the family while putting together an easement and transitioning the ranch to the next generation.
“Our family sat down at the kitchen table and talked it through. We have to take the long view of what our role is on this landscape. This place is our legacy, we said, let’s sit down and make this work.”
Kari and her husband Charlie took over the day-to-day operations of the ranch in 2012 and are the fifth generation to run the Berg ranch. After a three-year stint of working in Washington state after college, Kari and Charlie moved to the ranch. Kari is in charge of the cows and Charlie is in charge of the equipment and farming. They have two kids, Kellen and Claire, ages eleven and nine. Rick and Gayle also have another daughter, Solveig, who lives in Big Fork, Montana, with her family.
“We’ve always had a deep reverence for the land and our role in stewarding through to the next generation,” Kari said. “We take that role seriously.”