Montana is a very special – I’d even say unique – place. There’s nowhere else like it in the lower 48 states in terms of wild country, wildlife, and wild rivers.
Montana is home to eight national park units including two of our nations’ most iconic national parks: Glacier, with its high peaks and alpine meadows, and Yellowstone, with its unique thermal and geologic areas that include about half of the world’s active geysers. We are blessed with an abundance of roadless, wild country—more than nine million acres in all. Some is protected as Congressionally designated Wilderness, including the iconic Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness and the Bob Marshall Wilderness areas, while much more is in need of permanent protection. In addition to its unparalleled natural beauty, Montana also boasts rare wildlife including wolves, grizzly bears and bison. Abundant populations of elk, antelope and deer roam throughout most parts of our state, and our rivers teem with many species of trout including the rare (and threatened) bull trout and arctic grayling.
Aptly nicknamed Big Sky Country, Montana is the nation’s fourth largest state in sheer size, but it ranks 44th in population, with just over one million residents. Primary among those residents are members of eight federally recognized Native Tribes, each with a proud heritage and presence here that spans millennia. The state also has an active and diverse community of ranchers, hunters, anglers, recreationalists, and conservationists.
While this diverse group of residents can often have conflicting, and even competing interests, I have nonetheless been greatly encouraged to see Montanans from across the spectrum of interests coming together to solve the many challenges to our state. Fundamental to that is an almost universal desire to protect our precious landscapes, rivers, and wildlife, maintain access to public lands, and keep our small towns and unique way of life intact. While there are still many challenges in Montana, the Kendeda Fund has been inspired by the work we’ve been able to be a part of here. And we believe deeply that the progress we are seeing merits broader and increased commitment from our friends in the funding community.
When Kendeda began funding in Montana we realized there were many challenges to overcome, but even more opportunities to make a difference in a land of superlatives. Our goal has always been to support the thoughtful, strategic work of effective organizations and leaders that not only focuses on protecting the state’s lands, water and wildlife but also on the future of our communities and unique way of life—all while building long term power so that ‘wins’ are enduring. This strategy even has a name. We call it ‘The Montana Opportunity.’ And through it, we seek to build upon the following critical assets:
Montana has a mature, established conservation community that works closely with local communities to design long term, community-based solutions to difficult problems
Our state has a decades-long tradition of success with community-based conservation where stakeholders and neighbors set aside their differences to pursue shared solutions for land and water protection. This history, along with the well-established organizations spread throughout the state, provides the necessary infrastructure to help solve seemingly intractable problems.
For example, for more than 30 years, a coalition of Tribal, conservation and recreation interests have worked together to protect the Badger II Medicine area south of Glacier National Park. The ‘Badger’ is considered sacred by the Blackfeet Tribe and is a critical piece of wild country with abundant wildlife populations. When the threat of oil and gas development on these sacred lands reared its head, diverse interests banded together for a long-term campaign to secure permanent protections, and stronger tribal management, for the landscape. While the battle continues, no new oil and gas wells have been developed there and the coalition remains strong.
There is often conflict in Montana between the interests of urban and rural communities and residents. Fortunately, we have a long history of working across that urban/rural divide on matters of land conservation.
Montanans are leading the way in bridging the urban-rural divide
As with many states across the country, there is often conflict in Montana between the interests of urban and rural communities and residents. Fortunately, we have a long history of working across that urban/rural divide on matters of land conservation, finding creative outcomes which balance competing interests in unexpected ways. In fact, one of the first collaborative conservation groups in the country, the Blackfoot Challenge, started in Montana.
Founded in the 1970s to protect the Blackfoot River watershed, the Blackfoot Challenge board is made up of local landowners and livestock producers, hunters and anglers, conservationists from larger towns, local business owners, and local biologists. From the outset, the Blackfoot Challenge’s key to success has been focusing on the 80 percent of issues these diverse interests agree on instead of the 20 percent they don’t.
Over the years, they’ve untangled complex challenges related to wildlife management, livestock grazing, increased recreational use, land access, water quality and many other issues. The model the Blackfoot Challenge has created is now the gold standard for community conservation and has been replicated across the country.
Montana has vast landscapes that are unique in the lower 48 states
Montana has abundant, large, connected landscapes with more than six million acres of unprotected roadless public lands providing exceptional wildlife habitat and supporting a diverse wildlife resource. Importantly, many millions more acres are held in private hands. These (often) working lands not only support our state’s agricultural economy but are also critical to maintaining Montana’s ecological integrity. In Montana, we think about conservation on the landscape scale in which both public and private lands play a vital role.
Whether it’s Greater Yellowstone, the Crown of the Continent, or the High Divide, the opportunity to protect large, intact landscapes and their associated wildlife is unique in the lower 48. Our conservation partners are implementing strategies that work on both public and private lands to achieve outcomes. Montana’s seasoned, dynamic land trust community has worked with private landowners to protect more than two million acres of private land for wildlife, watershed and recreational benefits and, importantly, to also keep productive agricultural lands intact and working.
The Crazy Mountains Working Group is a great example of a broad spectrum of disparate interests coming together to resolve longstanding conflicts over land protection and public land access. The Crazy Mountains are a high-alpine island mountain range surrounded by working ranch lands and river valleys in south-central Montana. The mountain range provides critical wildlife habitat that holds a significant importance to Montana’s Crow tribe. It is also prized for its recreational and hunting opportunities. But the land is a ‘checkerboard’ of public and private ownership that greatly reduces public access opportunities.
After years of fighting over public access in the Crazies, ‘opponents’ came together in 2017 to form the Crazy Mountains Working Group. Comprised of a diverse set of stakeholders including ranchers, hikers, conservationists, hunters, and local businesses, this group has focused on finding solutions to longstanding issues around access which has created the necessary momentum to begin tackling the even more difficult issues around public/private land ownership patterns in the Crazies. While this work is not without its critics, we applaud the way these diverse voices have aligned for action and built on that initial success.
Montana’s Native Communities are leading the way with Indigenous-led conservation initiatives
Montana is home to approximately 78,000 Native Americans. That’s roughly 6.5 percent of the state’s total population…and growing. Montana’s Native nations are strong, resilient, and creative. And they are leading the way in their own conservation work – showing non-Indigenous communities how to live in balance with the incredible nature that surrounds us. Montana’s Native leaders are tackling challenging issues with creativity and with multi-faceted programs that not only restore and protect resources, but also are building a sustainable economic future while keeping a firm grounding in indigenous culture and traditions.
For example, the Iinnii Initiative, designed and led by Blackfeet Nation leaders, is not only restoring bison to the landscape (now over 500 strong and growing), but they are also implementing a ‘Guardians’ program in which young tribal members work to help manage lands and bison while safeguarding and communicating the important cultural aspects of the re-established bison population on the landscape. In this time of great interest in learning how we might partner with Indigenous leaders on conservation efforts, Montana’s Native communities are a guide and an inspiration.
Residents and visitors alike care deeply about our state
After agriculture, tourism is the second biggest driver of Montana’s economy. While accommodating 13 million visitors each year can have negative environmental impacts, the locals recognize that most of those visitors care deeply about our state’s natural environment and the wellbeing of our residents and communities.
For example, after record floods wiped out the entrance to Yellowstone in June 2022, devastating downstream communities in Park and Carbon counties, funds were established to help flood victims in both communities. The Park County fund quickly gained national attention, and within only a couple of months, over $3 million was raised from more than 1,700 donors spanning all 50 states and multiple countries around the world. This outpouring of generosity included benefit concerts by musician (and local resident) John Mayer. Our local communities similarly responded to help neighbors in need. In the town of Livingston, hundreds of people showed up to fill sandbags to keep the swelling Yellowstone River at bay, and many more came after the flood to help neighbors muck out flooded homes. Montana is still a place where neighbors come together when there’s a need.
There is no doubt that Montana faces many complicated and complex issues related to conservation, but I am proud we are finding ways to build on the state’s diverse, abundant assets. In 2021, Kendeda and about 25 other conservation funder colleagues came together to learn more about the issues affecting the state and the groups doing the work, identify and invest in successful strategies, and increase overall funder support for innovative conservation work and leadership in Montana. The Montana Conservation Funders Network (as we now call ourselves) is now hard at work building its collaborative web of support for the incredible work taking place on this unique landscape.
It is a truly a privilege to live in this incredible corner of the world. And it is an honor to wake up every morning and think about how we can work collaboratively to preserve and enhance Montana’s magic for current and future generations. I am inspired daily by the collective will of the state’s residents – my friends and neighbors – to set aside differences and find common ground to protect some of our nation’s most precious wildlife, wild lands and rivers. It is my hope to continue to serve as a resource to those who may have an interest in supporting the work here—whether through the Montana Conservation Funders Network or other pathways. In that spirit, I’m always available to share with you any information that might be helpful about ‘the last best place.’