Emily Downing

USDA Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation visits Montana’s Blackfoot Valley

Under Secretary Bill Northey and Brady Stone of the Rolling Stone Ranch.

It’s long been said that agriculture and conservation go hand-in-hand in Montana’s Blackfoot Valley. Bill Northey, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation, recently got a first-hand glimpse of this symbiotic relationship during a July 14 visit to the Rolling Stone Ranch near Ovando on his way to a Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) State Technical Advisory Committee meeting in Great Falls. 

The Blackfoot Challenge, Intermountain West Joint Venture (IWJV), and other local conservation partners were pleased to meet with Northey and state-based USDA staff and share perspectives about getting private-public conservation work done in this iconic Montana landscape over multiple decades. Jim Stone, who owns and operates the Rolling Stone Ranch and chairs the Blackfoot Challenge, and Randy Gazda, the Blackfoot Challenge’s vice-chair, provided Northey with a rundown on the group’s work in Western Montana. The nationally-renowned watershed group began in the 1970s to bring landowners together to find solutions to commonly held problems. Today, the group focuses on innovative methods to work through issues from land-use change, to grizzly bear-livestock conflict, to fisheries management.

The Under Secretary expressed his belief that the kind of innovation shown by the Blackfoot Challenge and associated conservation efforts in the Blackfoot Valley is key to supporting agriculture and conservation. He listened and asked the group about how they had built a culture of trust and partnership. 

“It comes down to bringing all parties to the table, no matter their perspective; getting projects done; and transferring success,” Stone and Gazda replied.

Northey shared his experience as the former Iowa Secretary of Agriculture working with multiple landowners, agencies, and organizations to promote using cover crops to build soil health. That, he said, really showed him the importance of coming together to find new ways to tackle challenges. He said the Blackfoot Challenge, along with other Blackfoot Valley efforts that include partners such as NRCS, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service-Montana Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program, the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and many others, is a great example of locally-led conservation doing just that.

“It’s great to have folks from D.C. out in our landscape,” Stone said. “Under Secretary Northey’s visit confirmed for me that working from the community level is critical to NRCS’s success. Hearing him talk about the value of trust and listening reinforces the strength of our combined partnerships for generations to come.”

The discussion also included the topic of the importance of the next generation in agriculture. Brady Stone is beginning to fill his father’s shoes in operating the Rolling Stone Ranch, and Northey said he was impressed with the younger Stone’s approach to ranching. Brady, in turn, said he appreciated the Under Secretary taking an interest in the work done locally.

“It was great having the Under Secretary here in the Blackfoot Valley,” he said. “Having him see solid conservation in person is key to all of our successes.”

Key features of the IWJV’s work conserving priority bird habitats through partnership-driven, science-based projects and programs are relationships, strategic approach, innovation, and “getting it done.” During his visit, Northey emphasized the importance of these strategies for agricultural land conservation in the Intermountain West. Northey was excited to hear about the priority placed on working lands conservation by NRCS, the IWJV, and others.

In the Intermountain West, the IWJV and its conservation partners have invested heavily in establishing range conservationist and wildlife biologist positions in NRCS field offices and delivering science that helps these practitioners deliver strategic working lands conservation in tandem with ranchers and agricultural irrigators. Working at the state level with NRCS state conservationists and private landowners to implement Farm Bill conservation title programs in ways that benefit agricultural profitability, wildlife, fish, and people is central to the IWJV’s work. Locally-led decision making facilitated by the NRCS is critical to these efforts, according to Tom Watson, the State Conservationist for NRCS in Montana.

“Conservation can’t be effectively delivered with a one-size-fits-all approach,” Watson said. “Here in Montana, we rely on strong engagement and collaboration by partners and producers to drive a very focused and targeted delivery as we look at ways to ‘move the conservation needle’ at a landscape scale.”

Through Montana Focused Conservation, NRCS has nearly 50 Targeted Implementation Plans across the state and the potential for 30 additional opportunities for 2021. These plans allow the agency to support existing conservation efforts and help find new partner interest and additional investments on the landscape.

Dave Smith, the IWJV coordinator, described to Northey that the IWJV operates with the understanding that it is important to sustain and strengthen the ability of NRCS state conservationists to deliver programs in a way that achieves a high return on investments, meets the needs of producers, and achieves conservation outcomes.

“Our work is rooted in achieving multiple benefits for wildlife and people,” Smith said. “The concept of a win-win is real, and it’s a foundation of our conservation approach.”