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The Blackfoot Challenge is presenting its story and touting its partnerships at a White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation in St. Louis, Mo.
The Challenge, a collaborative organization that coordinates conservation efforts in western Montana's Blackfoot watershed, was selected as an outstanding example of successful conservation partnerships to be showcased at the three-day event.
"We have much to celebrate and many to thank," said Jim Stone, chair of the Blackfoot Challenge and a rancher from Ovando.
At a gathering of 80 people in the Blackfoot in mid-August, Kathleen Clarke, director of the Bureau of Land Management, presented Stone with a certificate in recognition of outstanding leadership and personal stewardship from the Department of Interior.
"The Blackfoot Challenge epitomizes the concept of grassroots, cooperative conservation," said Clarke. "The Bureau of Land Management is proud of its long association with the Challenge. Over the years, the Blackfoot Challenge has been a constant in working to maintain the health and rural character of the Blackfoot Valley, and I believe that the future of this beautiful valley is in good hands with the Challenge on the job," she said.
The Blackfoot Challenge has 160 partners who help them achieve cooperative conservation in the Blackfoot River Valley, many of whom are attending the White House conference. The Challenge's partners include local ranchers, outfitters, businesses, federal, state and local agencies, conservation organizations and private corporations and foundations.
"The key to our partnership is trust and respect that has been built over many years and that is why we have more than 500 landowners involved in the Challenge," said Tina Bernd-Cohen, executive director of the Blackfoot Challenge.
"Plum Creek is pleased with the strong partnership that has evolved between our company and others associated with the Blackfoot Challenge as we worked together to identify a large landscape plan to protect a variety of community values associated with the valley including recreation, forestry, wildlife habitat and more," said Rick Holley, president and chief executive officer, Plum Creek Timber Company. "Plum Creek has a history of engaging in conservation partnerships in Montana and across the country and we look forward to maintaining these partnerships into the future."
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a long-standing interest in the Blackfoot, with waterfowl production and wetland holdings, as well as over 30,000 acres of conservation easements in the valley. "This is incredible habitat for grizzly bears and waterfowl," said Greg Neudecker of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services Partners Program and vice chairman of the Challenge. In 2002, USFWS presented the Challenge with a Stewardship Award in recognition of its outstanding conservation efforts. "We value the people, ideas and results of the Blackfoot Challenge," said Matt Hogan, acting director of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The USDA Forest Service manages more than 50% of the lands in the Blackfoot watershed and is a partner on the Blackfoot Challenge. "We need to work with partners to achieve conservation on a large landscape," said Gail Kimbell, regional forester for the northern region of the Forest Service. "We are pleased that the partners have been able to accomplish so much to conserve, restore, and utilize our resources and to provide community access to public lands." The Blackfoot includes the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex as well as critical riparian areas and productive timber lands at the lower elevations.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognizes the Blackfoot Challenge as a leader in water quality issues. In 2000, EPA asked the Blackfoot Challenge to lead the water quality planning or TMDL (total maximum daily load) effort in the Valley where 56 streams are in need of restoration to meet EPA water quality standards. The Challenge and its restoration partners have gone way beyond that to work on more than 100 streams they feel will benefit from restoration actions. And the Blackfoot Challenge partnership is conducting monitoring to show environmental improvements as a result of these restoration efforts. "The Blackfoot Challenge ranks among the most effective local watershed groups in the nation," said EPA Regional Administrator, Robbie Roberts. "The group's work with landowners, its focus on results, and its ability to collaborate and leverage resources from a diverse set of partners serve as examples for all watershed groups facing challenging water quality problems."
The Nature Conservancy accepted its first conservation easement on the Blackfoot in 1976 and has continued its conservation legacy in the Valley culminating in the Blackfoot Community Project. In this project, the Conservancy is temporarily purchasing up to 88,000 acres of land from Plum Creek to give the community time to implement its ownership and management plan for these lands. The community's expressed goal is to protect traditional values such as recreational access, grazing, wildlife habitat, economic stability and forestry. "The Conservancy is proud to support this local effort to conserve the wildlife habitat, natural resources and rural character of this special place," said Steve McCormick, president and chief executive officer of The Nature Conservancy.
"The Blackfoot Challenge is one of the oldest community-driven watershed groups in Montana and the nation. Similar efforts are emerging in the plains and in the Rockies to address dicey resource issues at the local level through cooperative partnership," said Bill Milton, co-chair of the Montana Watershed Coordination Council, a network of 50 watershed groups in Montana that are using community-based approaches to achieve conservation and to resolve and manage complex resource issues.
"We work with watershed groups nationwide and can say without a doubt that the Blackfoot Challenge is a group to watch and learn from," said Don Elders, president of River Network, a national organization out of Portland, Oregon that hosts an annual River Rally and provides support services to watershed groups nationwide.
The Blackfoot Challenge puts millions of federal dollars it receives toward projects aimed at keeping the landscapes intact. The program, with its partner Trout Unlimited is featured in a spread about "Heroes of Conservation" in the September issue of Field & Stream. "The Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited and the Blackfoot Challenge are joined at the hip when it comes to promoting the health of our watershed and cold water fisheries in the Blackfoot," said Rob Stebbins, president of the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
"The Blackfoot Challenge is the culmination of 25 years of cooperative efforts in the Valley," said Hank Goetz, lands director of the Blackfoot Challenge and recently retired Lubrecht Experimental Forest director.
"We all leave our agenda at the door and all put on the Blackfoot Challenge hat," said Jim Stone, a rancher from Ovando and chair of the Blackfoot Challenge. "What we do, we do for the valley and we focus on the 80 percent that we can agree on and that's what makes it work."
The U.S. Departments of the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Defense and the Environmental Protection Agency are co-hosting the White House conference. Five cabinet secretaries are attending the national assembly, which aims to strengthen conservation partnerships with states, tribes and communities and expand citizen stewardship initiatives.
"Ultimately, the people who are best able to take care of the land are those who live on the land, work on the land, and love the land," Secretary Norton said when announcing the Department of Interior's participation in the conference. "They have the knowledge, skills and motivation to care for the land. We need to empower them."
Through facilitated discussions, conference participants will examine some of the most challenging aspects of working collaboratively, including how to build successful partnerships and expand the role of tribes, states and communities in cooperative conservation; how to improve certainty and incentives for landowners; and how to coordinate conservation across different jurisdictions.
President Bush called for the conference last year in his Executive Order directing federal agencies to promote cooperative conservation by actively working in partnership with states, local communities, businesses, non-profit groups and private citizens. The goal is to help empower the American people as citizen stewards to protect and enhance wildlife, lands, and waters across the nation.