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Conversation Before Conservation

By Travis Tzioumis, Resource Conservation major
Wednesday, August 24, 2011

When talking about a topic as polarizing and large as climate change it can be overwhelming and a bit depressing. Karen Wayland, former advisor to Nancy Pelosi and current Director of Climate Policy for The Nature Conservancy joined our course from D.C. to talk with us about national climate policy.  The Nature Conservancy’s Caroline Byrd gives us an enthusiastic overview of the collaborative conservation in the Blackfoot.I expected to be discouraged, but what she talked about was not the failure of a national climate bill, but the importance “small victories” to the climate change efforts, and that rural communities are where people need to be talking, coming together and getting perspective from what others think.  As someone so savvy at the national level, it says a lot that Karen wants to be with us this week to learn about some of these small rural victories that Montana is increasingly known for.  The Blackfoot Challenge is the result of having a community with foresight and understanding notice a problem and come together to fix it.  Whether or not they call it climate change, those who make their living off of the land can see how conditions are not the same as they used to be.  They understand that things done to one piece of land affects his or her neighbors’ lands and those downstream.  It was refreshing to see what can happen when a community gets together and makes a difference for everyone in the area.  How were they able to get started?

According to Jim Stone, owner of the Rolling Stone Ranch and Chairman of the Blackfoot Challenge, you have to talk.  “You have to have a landscape conversation before you can have landscape conservation,” he told our class as we stood outside the Stray Bullet Café in the heart of Ovando, Montana.  The most important part of what the Blackfoot Challenge does, he told us, is listening and bouncing ideas off of each other.  Talking with other land owners and getting their input lets them know that you are all on an equal level and everybody’s opinion matters.  When a policy is just handed down from D.C. it can create problems, but if that policy is started in local communities and works its way up it can be much more effective.  The Challenge works with federal agencies and other NGOs to implement conservation techniques that will improve the quality and restore their land.  They live by their own 80/20 motto; which is, “let’s talk about the 80% of the things we can agree on and leave the 20% we can’t at the door.”  Eating at the Stray Bullet with rancher and Blackfoot Challenge Chair, Jim Stone.That is how the challenge is successful: they don’t spend their time arguing and not making progress.  It was quite remarkable to be in a place like the Blackfoot Valley where they have turned one of the “small victories” I mentioned earlier into a huge success and have been visited by Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar who spoke in front of the Stray Bullet, where our class first met Jim Stone. 

With regard to climate change, Jim asked us point blank: “what do you think regarding what I’m doing here on my land has to do with climate change?”  We had just been listening to Jim talk about how he had restored a creek running through his property, which was actually a wetland.  It took many years to convince him, but eventually he let the US Fish and Wildlife Service partner with him on a grant that paid to plug the wetland back up, which can sequester a large amount of carbon. The result for Jim as a rancher was that he didn’t have to irrigate his hay fields and increase the productivity of his land.  He went from raising one ton of hay to over three tons after the wetland was restored.  Good for the fish, good for the rancher, but good for the climate? Jim boldly opens our conversation up to the topic of ranching and climate change.
Jim’s question to us reflects exactly what the Blackfoot Challenge is known for: opening conversation around topics that are oriented toward solving issues that work for all.  I’m a bit stunned at first and have no good answer, none of us do, but later we talk moreover dinner at Trixi’s and start to see how maybe, just maybe, rural agriculture could be part of the solution to climate change.  If those new wetlands help sequester carbon, maybe we can find a way to compensate ranchers who steward their lands in ways that help us mitigate climate change.  I’m not sure what I think about carbon offsets, and maybe rural agriculture will see it as more big government, but it sure seems possible to come up with a climate bill that better represents these people like Jim who are living off their land.