Cooperative conservation 

Taking the Blackfoot Challenge nationwide

What do Theodore Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson and George W. Bush all have in common, other than having been presidents? They are the only four commanders-in-chief ever to call for a national White House-sponsored conference on conservation.

In 1908, Roosevelt convened the Governor’s Conference on Conservation to “formulate a national philosophy of conservation based on the efficient use of finite resources and scientific management of renewable ones.” Kennedy’s 1962 conference was designed to “stimulate the exchange of ideas about the future course of American conservation policy.” In 1965, LBJ’s White House Conference on Natural Beauty was intended to “develop concrete, immediate means for the preservation of natural beauty through federal, state and local private action.”

When you hear the word “conservation,” the Bush administration probably doesn’t come to mind, but that isn’t going to stop a group of conservationists from Western Montana from traveling to Missouri later this month to try to impact the future of federal conservation policy.

Representatives from the Ovando-based Blackfoot Challenge (a landowner-based group that coordinates management of the Blackfoot River, its tributaries and adjacent lands) will be presenting at a four-day White House Conference on Cooperative Conservation in St. Louis Aug. 29, the purpose of which is to “strengthen shared governance and citizen stewardship.” Thirty organizations from around the country have been selected to share their stories with 1,200 invitees from across the nation.

Tina Berend-Cohen, executive director of the Blackfoot Challenge, says the organization is a model for what can be accomplished when individual landowners and public and private agencies come together to solve conservation issues. She plans to use the opportunity to bend the ear of administration officials and hopefully affect future conservation policies.

“We are hoping to inspire others by sharing our Blackfoot Challenge story and by recommending ways to advance cooperative conservation in Montana and across the nation,” says Berend-Cohen. “We hope to affect the [Bush] administration’s conservation policy on the ground level.”

The conference comes at a time when Bush’s stance on the environment has been almost universally condemned by conservationists and environmentalists alike. Bush’s anti-environmental policies, ranging from the United States’ pullout from the Kyoto Agreement on global warming to his repeal of the Roadless Area Conservation Rule enacted in the final month of the Clinton presidency, are seen by many as undercutting decades of hard-won progress.

According to the conference’s website, in August 2004, the president signed an executive order titled “Facilitation of Cooperative Conservation” that “directs federal agencies that oversee environmental and natural resource policies and programs to promote cooperative conservation in full partnership with states, local governments, tribes and individuals.” The conference is designed to “consider the advancement of this cooperative conservation vision.”

The order is technically nothing more than advice to agency heads, since it carries no statutory mandate or congressional delegation of authority, but groups like the Blackfoot Challenge and the Big Hole River Foundation are hoping cooperative efforts will result in the conservation of lands and resources that might otherwise go unmanaged.

Jeff Schahczenski, executive director of Big Hole River Foundation, says that without public/private conservation partnerships, like those protecting the arctic grayling in the Upper Missouri River Basin, it’s extremely difficult for nonprofit groups to make conservation headway.

“There is no way around it. The critical land that affects riparian areas is mostly all private,” says Schahczenski, who plans to attend the invitation-only conference. “You cannot deal with conservation issues in the West without working with private landowners. It has to be public/private cooperation and collaboration if you are going to succeed. I think that’s the motivation of this conference.”

Recently, the Big Hole River Foundation was awarded a $130,000 Conservation Partnership Initiative grant from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to work in partnership with six other state, federal and private agencies to help protect the grayling. Schahczenski will share the Big Hole River Foundation’s experiences collaborating on conservation issues at the conference, and he hopes to learn what other watershed groups are doing around the country.

Berend-Cohen says that if cooperative conservation is to be a reality, the federal government will need to do more than encourage cooperation; there must be incentives for private individuals and organizations to invest money and resources. The mission of the Blackfoot Challenge, she says, is to coordinate efforts that will enhance, conserve and protect the natural resources and rural lifestyle of the Blackfoot River Valley.

“It’s not just about preserving, but also about preserving the rural lifestyle,” she says. “As the economy changes, and we move into recreational tourism, we need to think about how we will maintain our rural lifestyle so we’re not like the Bitterroot Valley. We don’t want to be a city, so how do we maintain rural lifestyle that is economically sustainable?”

On Aug. 17, Sen. Conrad Burns planned to be in Ovando to highlight the Blackfoot Community Project and Blackfoot Community Conservation Area, two major projects of the Blackfoot Challenge. In addition, a representative from the Department of the Interior was scheduled to present a certificate from Interior Secretary Gayle Norton recognizing the organization’s participation at the White House Conference on Conservation in St. Louis.

There is no way to know what impact, if any, the 30 groups presenting at this month’s conference will have on future Bush administration conservation policies, but Berend-Cohen is hoping the broad support behind the Blackfoot Challenge will make its mark.

“This is a very visionary group,” she says. “The Blackfoot Challenge is looking way down the road, because once you get behind the curve, it’s very, very hard to shape the future.”

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