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Cole Mannix


As winter slowly gives way to spring, working lands across Montana will become increasingly busy with the sorting of livestock, field work, irrigation, fencing, and maintenance of all types. It’s “Get ‘Er Done” time. Soon, neighbors will assemble to help each other brand calves, signifying the beginning of another ranching cycle. This custom is a way of life in the rural West where people and communities have historically come together, not only to help with seasonal tasks but also to meet unexpected needs as they arise. It is reassuring that in today’s busy and rapidly changing world some traditions remain and we are still capable of cooperation, be it to brand calves or resolve complex difficulties.

One such example recently emerged from the meetings of a diverse group of stakeholders discussing access to public lands across private property. These conversations have led to a pending agreement between the U.S. Forest Service and a longstanding ranch owner to establish a recorded easement across the owner’s private property and expeditiously settle whether the public can freely access the Crazy Mountains via a currently disputed trail.

Through civil discourse and a good faith effort by the Crazy Mountains Working Group, a contentious issue has been turned into an opportunity based on mutual interests. These include a shared appreciation of our western landscapes and all they represent. To some, these areas signify a place to recreate, hunt or simply enjoy the wonders of nature. As importantly, to others they also offer a place to work and carry on the ranching traditions that thankfully have preserved much of our open space and wildlife habitat. For generations, ranching families in Montana strove towards the goal of sustainable operations which by definition have helped keep the landscape we treasure intact. Regardless of our individual interests, we all want our West to remain whole, healthy and economically viable. These lands, both public and private, impart the things we live for and indeed support life itself.

Though the process to address this particular access issue has involved nonprofits, recreationists, sportsmen, ranchers and government agencies, it would be remiss to not give credit where it is truly due. Without the leadership of the Zimmerman family and their willingness to offer permanent recorded access across their ranch, the path forward would likely be very different. When property disagreements arise, legal proceedings are often the only available option. Outcomes are never certain but the costs in time and money are guaranteed, as are the subsequent resentments. Working together from a starting point of respect and understanding can produce superior and timelier results, as demonstrated by the CMWG. Its efforts should be applauded and seen as a model showcasing the power of partnerships and community. When conflicts arise, whether related to access, economic development or the management of our natural resources, thoughtful, community-led efforts can work and often do so better than top down directives. The resolution arrived at by the efforts of the Zimmermans, the Forest Service and the CMWG involves a minor trail relocation but may produce a major improvement to the relationship between private working lands and the recreating public.

Issues surrounding our public lands tend to get much attention; and yet recognizing the significance of our private working lands which yield substantial benefits such as the conservation of habitat and water resources, not to mention the production of food, is of equal importance. Functional and intact private ranchland is critical to the well-being of rural communities, agricultural productivity and bio-diversity, from native vegetation to our most iconic species. Considering the rapid loss and conversion of agricultural lands and their synergistic association to our public lands, perhaps we should be dedicating as much energy to the challenges of maintaining their viability as we are to the issues surrounding access through them. Our public and private lands are inextricably intertwined. We should consider them with similar reverence and care.

Cole Mannix, of Helena, works for the Western Landowners Alliance, founded in 2011 to advance policies and practices that sustain working lands, connected landscapes and native species.