"We were raised at the intersection of great trout rivers in Missoula, Montana."
~the narrative voice of Norman Maclean from A Rivers Runs Through It
The last 100 miles of the trip from our house to Missoula is the most anticipated journey that I make every year. You drive through Lewistown and on to Great Falls along Montana Highway 200, with the Judiths, the Little Belts, the Highwoods, the Bear Paws and the Snowy mountain ranges appearing as distinct spots on the horizon to your north and south. Technically and visually, though you are traveling across the prairie for 350 miles. When you approach the Rocky Mountain Front near Simms and climb Rogers Pass, you are suddenly and truly in a mountain realm.
The valley is never overhwelmingly wide. Mountain slopes skirting the valley are filled with ponderosa and lodgepole pine, much of which is being decimated by the pine bark beetle. Careful reading of the growth habits of the hardwoods on the valley floor lets you locate the river even when the highway ventures far from it. It is a valley whose history is filled with mining, logging, agriculture, unabombers, and now: cooperative conservation.
While the Blackfoot valley is exquisite on its own terms for natural beauty, my favorite part is the story of the Blackfoot Challenge and the beauty of the human spirit. The Blackfoot Challenge is a watershed group that formed here in 1973 to represent a variety of public interest groups and restore the river to its full potential. Private landowners (ranchers, retirees, outfitters), government entities, corporations and non-profits all take part in both meetings, steering committees and hands-on restoration.
I love the idea of watershed groups. I love that people can work together to find common ground in a setting such as the Blackfoot River valley, can work to rehabilitate a watershed, can maintain economic prosperity, and can live side by side all while recognizing that a healthy ecosystem benefits us all, no matter what our beliefs. Cooperative conservation doesn't always work so well. Sometimes it isn't very pretty. What matters, though, is that people participate and progress has been made. If only all cooperative conservation efforts had as many success stories as the Blackfoot Challenge...