One of the best things about my job is being part of projects that achieve success on such a large scale that they change what people believe is possible through conservation.
The Nature Conservancy this month helped finalize the biggest private conservation land acquisition in the history of the United States – the Montana Legacy Project which protects more than 310,000 acres of threatened forests, mountain habitat, lakes and streams. The land lies within a 10-million acre sweep of wild lands that includes one of the largest roadless areas in the country. It is also one of the last places on Earth where not a single plant or animal species has gone extinct in recorded history.
When Plum Creek—the timber company who owned the property—began to transition from logging to selling the land, we knew this was the chance to protect an entire ecosystem in one fell swoop. Those opportunities don’t happen very often. But if we want to preserve the world’s great ecosystems we must work at a scale larger than we’ve ever done before.
Had we not stepped in, the land would have faced the threat of subdivision and development, forever changing this iconic region of the American West. By working with a diverse group of public and private partners, we were able to acquire the land and transfer it to the state of Montana and the US Forest Service, ensuring it will remain healthy and intact for the benefit of both wildlife and people.
The area is home to such wide-ranging wildlife as grizzly bears, Canada Lynx and wolverines. It is also critical to local communities who for generations have relied on the land and its 640 miles of streams for fishing, hunting, cattle grazing, sustainable forestry and recreation.
But it’s not just the expanse and diversity of this landscape that make the Montana Legacy Project so impressive. The wide range of public and private partners who joined forces to protect it — from local loggers to elected officials to a European philanthropist — is just as inspiring.
Helping lead the charge were Montana Sen. Max Baucus and Gov. Brian Schweitzer who helped secure needed funding for the land’s acquisition. Stepping in to provide critical private dollars – which served as seed money for other donations as well as a catalyst for public dollars — was Hansjörg Wyss, a philanthropist, engineer, and entrepreneur. Wyss has never actually lived in Montana, but has fallen in love with its wild landscape and understands the need to protect it. With this support, the Conservancy was able to purchase the property and transfer it to public management. The Trust for Public Land was a great partner of ours on this project.
Just as important as the funding was the support of local communities in Montana who for decades have worked to preserve open spaces and public access to the state’s incredible landscapes, and who laid the groundwork for this deal to happen.
These disparate players – each from different walks of life – were able to come together for a common goal: protecting some of the country’s most vital and unique natural areas.
Along with providing direct benefits to Montanans, the Montana Legacy Project is also serving as a model of what can be achieved when the public and private sectors work together. The success of the collaboration also shows the powerful role federal support can play in conserving the country’s natural heritage.
As we face growing challenges to the natural world – from expanding populations to the changing climate to a widening disconnect between people and nature – the Montana Legacy Project is truly a game changer that demonstrates what can be achieved through conservation.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Montana walking through these lands. Along with my pride in having The Nature Conservancy be part of this historic collaboration, I am personally grateful knowing that this vast natural treasure will be around for many generations to come.
I really do love my job.
(Image: Cougar (Felis concolor) at Flathead River in Montana. Image Credit: ©Janet Haas)
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