COLUMBUS - Chance sightings of Mel Gibson are a thing of the past. And so, too, are the annual bull auctions that earned the Beartooth Ranch international acclaim.

Instead, the property has taken on a new look and a new focus.

When Pam and Kent Williams purchased the Beartooth Ranch from the Oscar-winning actor/director, they had a different vision in mind. Their goal was to restore the ranch's 20,000-plus acres to a more natural state that would be compatible with environmentally friendly ranching, wildlife management and recreation.

Four years later, the Columbus couple is out of the cattle business and has made significant steps toward meeting their objective. And this fall, Pam launched Beartooth Boarding and Riding, an equestrian facility that will give boarders a chance to enjoy their piece of the Stillwater Valley.

The Beartooth Ranch headquarters is roughly five miles from Columbus, but the property sweeps across several miles on both sides of Highway 78 from just a few miles south of Columbus to just a few miles north of Absarokee. It encompasses high grasslands, forested foothills, irrigated river bottoms and sporadic rimrocks.

The Williamses, who had long shared fence lines with Gibson, adhere to a philosophy that the land has been entrusted to them to maintain and even improve.

"Kent always says, 'You've got to give it back in better shape than you borrowed it.' " Pam said. "Our passion is to keep the land nice."

In working toward that objective, the Williamses shifted the focus of the operation from cattle to horses, leveled and seeded meadows and invested thousands of dollars in a fuels reduction project.

Some locals watched the activity and thought the ranch was preparing to subdivide, Pam said. To the contrary, the couple says they purchased the property to prevent the Stillwater Valley from being chopped up. In fact, they're in the process of preserving some of the open space through conservation easements.

Besides the more visible changes, the Williamses and the Beartooth Ranch team have altered practices to improve water quality, protect riparian areas and enhance the production of natural grasslands. They've removed cattle facilities to prevent runoff from polluting the river and creeks. And riverside bull pens, once knee deep in manure, have been cleaned up and converted into pastures for grazing. Likewise they installed miles of underground water lines and water tanks to lure stock away from fragile stream banks. (The Williamses no longer raise cattle year-round on the ranch, but lease most of the hay and pasturelands to the Donald family of Melville, which shares their vision of long-term land management practices. The Donalds, a fourth-generation ranching family, run some cattle on the Beartooth Ranch)

The Williamses' logging operation, which selectively removed pine trees from roughly 1,500 acres, served several purposes: to reduce the threat of wildfire, to provide better access should fire strike and to restore native grasslands.

"In the scope of things, it's very small but it's strategic," Kent said, pointing to where the hillsides showed green even in autumn. "One hundred years ago, there were no trees out here. This is better use of the land."

While the upgrades were aimed at improving wildlife habitat and pasturelands, they simultaneously paved the way for Pam's new business venture.

Pam was in the fifth grade when she got her first horse. Back then, she rode bareback for lack of a saddle. She fantasized about a horse paradise, where any kid could come and ride to his or her heart's delight.

"I used to think to myself, if I ever won a million dollars in the lottery, I'd do that," she said, smiling. "I didn't do quite that, but this is a dream."

Today, Pam is the devoted owner of several miniature horses and two miniature donkeys. But her love for the full-size version is evident as she watches the first horses that recently arrived at Beartooth Boarding and Riding.

The idea, Pam said, is that anyone boarding a horse on the ranch has access to 100-plus miles of interconnecting lanes and logging roads, not to mention 20,000 acres of meadows, coulees, river bottoms and hilltop views.

In early October, Sylvia Lee of Billings moved her horse Snickers to the Beartooth. From day one she's been overwhelmed with the wide variety of riding opportunities.

"For people who want to pleasure ride, they couldn't find a better place," she said. "It's a little far, but it's worth it for what they offer."

Besides miles of trails and primo views of several mountain ranges, Beartooth Boarding and Riding offers indoor and outdoor riding arenas as well as a large round pen for training. In addition, there are indoor and outdoor wash-downs and even trailer storage. Boarding options vary from free-range grazing for $95 on up to stalls with individual paddocks, with several choices in between.

"We've tried to provide options for everyone at every price range," Pam said.

The facility is especially geared for pleasure riders and endurance riders, but welcomes equestrians of all interests. Ideally, Pam promotes the facility as a wholesome place where family and friends can board their horses and ride together without a guide leading the way.

"You are on your own, which we think is much more appealing," she said.

With its extensive on-site trail system - boarders are provided a map of the land, with trails, pastures, watering holes and picnic areas - Pam promotes the ranch as a way to avoid the high cost of trailering horses.

"You don't need to trailer your horse at all," she said. "Just saddle up and ride."

In fact, for prospective boarders with no access to a trailer, the full-service facility will even pick up horses within a 50-mile radius. And for boarders short on time, one of the BBR staff will, for a fee, catch their horse and have it ready to ride, Pam said. Other services, such as horse exercising, are also available.

For the human half of the equation, Beartooth Boarding and Riding has renovated one of its barns into a spacious lounge and tack area, complete with kitchen facilities, bathrooms, a cozy couch and an oversized kitchen table.

Out on the trail, the Williamses are establishing a few select picnic sites, with tables and portable toilets. There's even camping nearby, so families can set up a tent and stay close for the weekend.

As Pam strides from barn to paddock, she leans over the fence to welcome a new arrival. It's evident she takes pleasure in seeing her long-ago dream taking shape.

"We are so excited to see horses filling the headquarters area," she said. "It makes us smile."

For more information or an appointment to see the facility, call 321-1701 or 322-5960.

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