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Success Story

Preserving the Legacy: Stark and Naomi Ickes' Stewardship of their Montana Ranch

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NRCS District Conservationist, Jeffrey Bird (L) and Landowner Stark Ickes check out the fresh grass growth.

In their quest to preserve their ancestral legacy and pave the way for future generations, Stark and Naomi Ickes are resolutely committed to safeguarding their family ranch near Hysham, Montana, which boasts a remarkable history spanning 117 years.

Watch their story on YouTube: Conservation for the Future: Preserving the Legacy with Forest Thinning, Treasure County, MT

In their quest to preserve their ancestral legacy and pave the way for future generations, Stark and Naomi Ickes are resolutely committed to safeguarding their family ranch near Hysham, Montana, which boasts a remarkable history spanning 117 years.

Situated in Treasure County, bordered just to the north by the Yellowstone River with beautiful rolling hills to the south, this cherished property serves as both a historical landmark and a cow/calf operation. Collaborating with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Ickes family is working to improve their land through forest thinning and fuels reduction.

Their dedication to land conservation has earned them a distinguished place on the Centennial Farm and Ranch register, bestowed by the Montana Historical Society. After almost 45 years of running the ranch, the couple has raised three children here, instilling in them a deep appreciation for the land. Even their grandchildren happily participate in caring for the resident chickens.

"My granddad homesteaded here from Palouse, Washington, in 1917 and we’ve been operating ever since,” says Stark. An original log cabin dating back to that time still sits on the property adjacent to the couple’s home—reminder of their family’s enduring connection to the land.

Over the years, the operation has had to adapt to different environments, both natural and economical. Naomi recalls that during the Great Depression, the ranch housed a dairy farm. These days, the Ickes’ run yearlings and sell bred heifers and beef cattle.

With the invaluable support of NRCS District Conservationist Jeff Bird and tree thinning contractor, Brad Beeman, with B and M Trucking, they are determined to create a sustainable and resilient environment for their livestock, as well as the local wildlife.

Fuels Reduction: Mitigating the Fire Hazard 

Montana's arid climate, coupled with the abundance of dry fuels, makes forest fires a recurring concern. Treasure County had been dealing with big fires and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to fight them once they get into the dense timber.

“I’m a Conservation District Supervisor and I have been for a good number of years,” says Ickes. “As the tree and the fire suppression became worse and worse over the years, we decided we needed to do something.”

Initially, Ickes says he, along with some foresters and other landowners had considered a burn project, but there was too much private land. A concern over liability stalled the idea. Instead, all parties involved agreed on a fuels reduction project.

That’s where NRCS came in.

“Montana Focused Conservation starts locally,” says Bird, who has been with NRCS for 14 years, serving as the District Conservationist at Hysham for the last four. “You listen to the community and hear what they think are the top resource concerns,” he says. “From there, you focus the money to address those one or two top resource concerns.”

“We wrote a Targeted Implementation Plan (TIP) to try to address fuels reductions with tree thinning and to remove some of the debris,” Bird says. “We tried to do it in a small enough area to actually make a difference in the landscape.”

The TIP project is twofold—to thin out the trees for fire suppression and open up the land for improved forage production. The project addresses fuel hazards, which was the main resource concern identified by the Treasure County local working group.

Ickes explains how NRCS specialists came in and pointed out the key spots to focus on both within the TIP project area and on his property specifically. With a lot of ground to cover, he anticipates the work will continue for years.

“NRCS helped us in this project because we were basically unarmed,” says Ickes. “They had the maps and could actually go out and pinpoint the forest on our places and put it all together.”

Breaking up fuel continuity through mechanical treatments mitigates the potential for devastating fires by reducing the accumulation of flammable materials that can decimate both land and livelihoods.

The hope is that once the overstocked forest acres have been thinned enough, and thinned the right way, a controlled burn can take place to burn these treated areas—leaving the rest up to what Ickes refers to as “Mother Nature behavior.”

In addition to the hands-on help Ickes has received by working with Bird, he appreciates Beeman’s instrumental contributions as well. “We have a great family of contractors that came in here to do this work. They are a longtime logging family.”

“In these hot, dry years, when fires occur, it significantly reduces the fire hazard and [increases] our ability to combat the fire effectively,” says Beeman. “Projects like this, it’s important to have good people with the NRCS. That’s what makes these programs work is having people like Jeff who are kind of on the frontline making sure everything is done the right way.”

The camaraderie between the three involved parties is clear, and their admiration for the important roles each person plays in the project shines through.

Forest Thinning: Safeguarding the Natural Habitat 

Dense, overstocked forests create the risk of catastrophic wildfires. These areas often have dead, down timber and brush that act as ladder fuels allowing fire to climb into the tree canopy. In addition, these conifers are encroaching out into rangeland. Based on pictures from when his grandparents worked the land 60 to 70 years ago, wooded areas were smaller, less dense, and didn’t extend into grazing land critical for cattle.

“When you see the hillsides from when my grandparents were here, there were hardly any trees on the hills,” he says. “The fire department got too good. The landowners got too good. We suppress the lightning fires as soon as they start, so it never gets cleaned out like Mother Nature intended it to.”

By removing excess trees, they aim to reduce competition for vital resources and create space for healthy growth, making remaining trees more resilient. Ladder fuels are removed, and opening up the canopy allows sun, water, and nutrients to reach the ground where forage for grazing and wildlife can thrive.

“It usually takes a year or two for grass to come back in, but the amount of grass that does come back in a treated area is really very noticeable,” says Beeman.

Grass Growing: Nurturing a Sustainable Grazing Environment 

Maintaining healthy grasslands is crucial to the Ickes' cattle operation. The family has embraced sustainable grazing practices.

“The difference between areas of the land that have been thinned as opposed to those that have not is becoming increasingly noticeable,” points out Bird. “It’s exciting to see even how in one year the landscapes changed, and I assume it will keep getting better and better as the years go on.”

As a result of thinning the juniper and pine trees, the ranchers have already witnessed a change in their cattle’s behavior. Before the project began, the cattle would use the trees to hide, and it made handling them very troublesome. As those hiding spots decrease, their behavior has adjusted. “Before doing this thinning, the ground was so thick you couldn’t get cows out of there,” says Bird. “From a rancher’s perspective it’s worthless land.”

“We run purebred commercial angus cattle,” says Ickes, describing the herd as athletic and apt to cover a lot of acres. “And when you thin out the trees either by fire or by thinning, it changes behavior. They’re not hiders and hard to handle, so it actually helps us with our day-to-day work.”

Through the expert guidance of Bird, the Ickes have witnessed substantial improvements in forage quality, resulting in thriving livestock and increased productivity.

“Some of the benefits of this project have been that cattle are grazing more and the grasses that we desire are coming back rather than the ones that can just survive in the shaded, pine needle laden areas that we’re thinning,” says Ickes.

Past and Future on the Ranch

They also recognize the importance of working with an agency like the NRCS on a thinning project of this magnitude, which can be quite expensive.

“We’d be buying the land two or three times over,” says Ickes. “When you’re in a cattle operation or a farming operation, you can barely scrape by to buy the land the first time and so it would’ve been impossible without the technical addition from the NRCS and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation and the money from the federal government.”

Beeman, too, cites how valuable NRCS is, not just to producers like the Ickes family, but to others who work the land for a living. The logs removed from these overstocked areas are rarely of a quality that they can be sold. Some may be pulp quality, but as the timber industry has changed, there are fewer and fewer places to sell pulp logs. All of this means these thinning projects often can’t be done for the value of the timber. For contractors like Beeman to be able to do this kind of work in this area these programs are a necessity.

“We can’t just do it out of pocket. We can’t just expect the landowners to do it out of pocket. These programs are really a necessity for doing fuels reduction and improving grazing land where there is timber in this part of the country,” he says.

Bird says working in partnership with other area organizations has been great. Once the NRCS started on the TIP process, the local fire department got on board, and local commissioners wrote a letter of support and helped with outreach, which in turn helped get the TIP funded.

“The landowners around here have been great to work with and it has gone really well so far,” says Bird, explaining that after the TIP was put in, some of the neighbors were understandably nervous to take part. While it was tough getting a contractor the first year, working with Beeman has been great and they were able to get the ball rolling from there. “It’s been kind of nice to build off of that, and this year we have over 600 acres planned to be thinned.”

Together, their commitment and their efforts will ensure the land remains healthy, resilient, and protected from the risks of catastrophic wildfires and forest encroachment, securing a thriving legacy for generations to come.

High resolution photos of this project.
For more information about NRCS conservation technical assistance, contact your local USDA service center.