The RSA worked to add expired CRP ground back into a grazing system, shown here. This ground can now support several different species, both wild and domestic. Picture by Hunter VanDonsel

MALTA, Mont. – Montana has long been known as “The Last Best Place” – a state filled with diverse ecosystems, deep-seeded in history. Arguably the last best place in “The Last Best Place” is Phillips County, located in the north central part of the state. Phillips County is nearly equal parts public and private land with less then one person per square mile. The county is home to generational family farms and ranchers, as well as countless numbers of wildlife.

Proclaiming themselves the “original environmentalists,” farmers and ranchers in the area have always aimed to do right by the land and the animals that inhabit it, both wild and domestic. Conservation agencies and agriculturalists in Phillips County were stigmatized to not generally see eye-to-eye, but a unique, collaborative organization known as the Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance (RSA) has been working to give everyone a voice.

RSA can trace its roots back to the early 2000s when ranching traditions where really starting to feel threatened by some environmentalists. The Nature Conservancy had purchased Matador Ranch in south Phillips County and there was a circulating air of distrust among local ranchers. The manager of the ranch realized that dialogue had to be opened between local ranchers and conservation agencies so facilitated meetings were arranged.

“We came to understand we weren’t going to stop change, there were actually a lot of good reasons why they were here. Through those facilitated meetings we decided to form the Rancher’s Stewardship Alliance, so we could have a voice at the table and help guide the change,” explained Leo Barthelmess, a third-generation Phillips County rancher and president of RSA.  

Barthelmess admits there were a lot of factors that played into the formation of the RSA, but boiled down, the founders saw that agriculturalists and conservation organizations truly want the same thing, long-term protection of natural resources.

“All these wild species have the same requirements that cattle do. This is kind of a keystone area for lots of different reasons,” he said.

Officially formed in 2003, the RSA is a 501 (c) (3) land trust. In its infancy the organization gave ranch and range tours, but overtime, it has come to surpass expectations. Currently the group is working on projects like seeding crop land back into grazing and building fence and water sources on those lands, as well as CRP land. Additionally, the RSA hosts several stockmanship, range management and succession planning workshops.

“We just keep bringing educational opportunities to our community that help the agriculturalists do better work,” stated Barthelmess.

RSA gets a lot of their monies from grants and in-kind contributions. Their first three grants, in conjunction with the group’s contributions, led to over $620,000, which has allowed the RSA to positively impact 30,000 acres of private land.

And there’s more. RSA is working on securing more grant money from some leading beef industry corporate partners. Barthelmess explained if the grants from these corporations come through, the RSA will have managed over one million dollars in just four short years and the extra monetary boost will allow them to impact another 20,000 acres.

RSA is a consensus driven group that works to fund the gap in conservation projects. Oftentimes, it is agencies that recommend projects to the RSA for funding. It is common for producers to reach out to agencies like the NRCS because they are well known, but if their proposed project doesn’t fit the agency’s criteria, the RSA steps up. That is what makes this alliance so unique. Most of the time it is conservation agencies that turn to ranchers, and the two join forces for the betterment of the land.

“The RSA manages the money and the contracting, all the other partners are actually bringing the participants to us,” Barthelmess said.

The RSA has forged alliances with numerous leading conservation agencies. In addition, The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund and Montana Stockgrowers Association help fund the RSA’s one full-time employee. The rest of the work and the board of directors is completely volunteer.  

“We are just trying to build our communities and preserve our grasslands,” emphasized Barthelmess.

It can be said that grazing is what developed the west. The dichotomy between preserving traditions and embracing modern ways of thinking has forever trapped agriculturalists in a corner. The RSA proves that through communication and open dialog, cooperation can be achieved.

The RSA mission statement says it best: “Ranching, conservation, communities-a winning team!”

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