By Jessianne Castle
BOZEMAN – A kaleidoscopic band of speakers shared conservation insight and inspiration on June 5 at Bozeman’s Emerson Center for the Arts and Culture as a part of the nonprofit Future West’s conference, “Sustaining the New West Bold Visions – Inspiring Action.”
More than 200 people from around the Rocky Mountain West attended the day-long event, which focused on introspective, solutions-based thinking and conversations hinging on the premise that the West is changing, whether by default or by design.
Relating to this place
After an all-night drive from his home on the Nez Perce Reservation in North Central Idaho following his son’s middle school graduation, Josiah Blackeagle Pinkham stood before the conference podium as an ethnographer and storyteller. He spoke after a presentation about growth trends in the Greater Yellowstone. “This is an opportunity to affect the way that people think about the landscape,” he said.
Blackeagle Pinkham projected an image of a rock formation on his reservation, sacred to his people, and he shared important oral traditions. One such creation story describes when the animal people of old gathered during a time of great change after seeing a pitiful animal—the human—walking on two legs.
Out of generosity, the animal people made sacrifices, Blackeagle Pinkham said. They gave up their bodies for these two-legged human beings, becoming salmon, elk and deer, grizzly bears and the coyote.
“These are my saviors. These are the ones that sacrificed for me to be here,” he said.
Speaking on behalf of his people, he also described a core-value statement that includes the commitment to promoting relationships with the land—an aspect of which includes ensuring the survival of resources as well as people and their lifeways.
“I want you to think about this term ‘wilderness’. It’s based upon the concept of wild, something untamed, something that doesn’t do what you want it to do,” he said. “I don’t have that concept. That’s my homeland; it’s sacred. I revere it in a way that I can’t compare anything else to. What am I without my homeland? … It’s really important to think about how people relate to their landscape.”
During the conference, Blackeagle Pinkham’s oral tradition was placed in conversation with other experts around the Northern Rockies, all of whom explored traditional and non-traditional data, definitions, relational thinking and visions for the future of the West, from planning towns and working landscapes, to management for wild lands.
“I would guess that one of the reasons why you’re here is that you all share a concern—and maybe a deep concern—for the future of this incredible place that we are so fortunate to call our home,” said Future West Director Dennis Glick.
“I also believe that each and every one of you knows in your heart of hearts that we really do live in an extraordinary landscape,” he added. “The million-dollar question is, can we conserve these natural, cultural, social and economic values even as we grow and change.”
In the fall of 2017, Future West hosted a similar conference in Bozeman in order to explore conservation challenges in our region, and this year’s conference explored visions for the future and how to achieve them, relying on examples within the area.
To use the words of the first speaker, conservation biologist David Theobald, “Here we are today. Where do we want to go in the future and how do we get there?”
Finding ways forward
The morning lineup included Blackeagle Pinkham and Theobald, as well as Idaho’s Teton County Commissioner Cindy Riegel; Blackfoot Challenge founding member and rancher Denny Iverson; and Aerin Jacobs from the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative.
The afternoon session heard from the Mayor of Canmore, Alberta, John Borrowman; Lain Leoniak, former Bozeman Water Conservation Specialist and current Assistant Attorney General for Colorado; Loren BirdRattler of the Blackfeet National Agricultural Resource Management Plan Team; Devin Middlebrook from the Lake Tahoe Regional Planning Agency; and Robert Liberty, architect of Oregon’s land-use planning system.
Among small-scale conservation success stories, a single thread becomes clear: in order to promote open spaces and viable communities and economies, conversations and decisions must be informed with data and actual experience, and collaboration is key.
Denny Iverson, who lives in the Blackfoot Valley east of Missoula, described a forward-looking initiative in his home area, that originated in the 1970s when grizzlies still hadn’t shown up on the landscape, there was plentiful water and development was still slow.
“If you live out on the landscape like I do, you know that something’s changing,” Iverson said. “Whether it’s growth, climate change, water, predators.”
Known as the Blackfoot Challenge, the initiative began when a group of ranchers and local landowners decided to work together as stewards. They started a cattle carcass pickup program for ranches as one way to reduce conflict with grizzly bears that are attracted to dead cows. It’s grown to include programs like “range riders,” water conservation through organized water-use and agricultural irrigation, forestry initiatives, and efforts to stop invasive weeds.
“The main thing is we’re trying to keep our landowners, our ranchers, our farmers on the landscape because we know if we do that, then we’ll still have wildlife habitat,” Iverson said. “And we’ll still have that ranching tradition. We don’t forget the people [who are] part of that.”
Real solutions are possible when real people come together to talk about and plan for really important issues, something which is taking place right now in the Colorado River Basin. Aided by attorney Lain Leoniak, a new Drought Contingency Agreement intended to mitigate risks should lakes Mead and Powell reach critically low levels was signed by the seven basin states and the federal government on May 20.
Speaking about water allocation and planning for drought, she said stakeholders must be willing to share the burdens and work cooperatively. “This requires everybody’s buy-in and everybody to be engaged and committed. It’s difficult, but I do believe this is the best path forward,” she said. Referencing an African proverb, she added, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Looking for examples
Aerin Jacobs, as an ecologist, spoke about ecological integrity and biodiversity, beginning by saying, “I think it’s really important when we travel, when we work, where we live, to know who lives there, to know who’s lived there for a long time.” In addition to tribal homelands, she said this includes historic wildlife ranges.
Amid high extinction rates for many plant and animal species worldwide, Jacobs said her vision—Y2Y’s vision as well—“is an interconnected system of wild lands and waters that stretches from Yellowstone to Yukon, that harmonizes the needs of people with those of nature … These things are inextricably combined.”
As a specific example of how to accomplish this vision, Jacobs referred to the numerous wildlife-crossing structures that have been built across highways in the last three decades to reduce vehicle collisions with wildlife and promote migration corridors. A big question though, when first built, was whether or not they’d work.
“With research and monitoring over the last 25 years, they’ve found out that yes, they do work. They work for all kinds of species,” she said, switching the slide to a photograph of a grizzly sow and two cubs striding out across one of the bridges. “That’s success because this female is teaching her babies how to move. … If you build it in the right place, they will come.
“I am delighted that people all across the Yellowstone to Yukon region are thinking about this,” she added. Jacobs went on to offer tips for success in developing these tangible solutions.
“When you’re thinking about something this large scale, you have to collaborate,” Jacobs said, adding that we must connect with each other, develop partnerships, communicate broadly, measure different metrics for success, embrace mistakes, and start small but think big.
In the very spirit of thinking big and broadening horizons, Loren BirdRattler from the Blackfeet Nation near Glacier National Park, is the project manager for the development of the tribe’s Agriculture, Research and Resource Management Plan which will create economy, protect the environment and improve health on the reservation.
Specifically, BirdRattler said this plan includes developing their own standards as a sovereign nation for organic and grass-fed products; establishing a delivery program that connects producers with tribal consumers like the schools and community centers; and creating their own beef and bison production label and the exploration of new sales markets abroad.
The nation is also raising funds for a feasibility study for a proposed Blackfeet Conservation Area that would protect the area’s biodiversity at a level similar to a national park.
During a final panel discussion, the day’s speakers were asked to provide a single actionable recommendation for individuals within Northern Rockies communities to promote conversations and solution-finding.
Among the answers: speak up for the issues boldly, persist, don’t be afraid to fail, reach beyond comfort zones and traditional “white” institutions, create advocacy groups or run for local government, and, recommended by Robert Liberty of Portland State University, be willing to “write a check that hurts.”
Speaker presentations will be available online in the coming weeks. Visit future-west.org for more information or to view the slides.