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News Release

Conservation Partners Tour Upper Blackfoot, Clark Fork Watersheds

Gary Burnett

On June 5, local, state and regional conservationists for USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) joined members of the Blackfoot Challenge, a community-based conservation organization based in western Montana’s Blackfoot watershed, to discuss methods to continue delivering private land conservation programs. The all-day tour showcased examples of land, water and wildlife conservation projects that resulted from public and private partnerships.

The Blackfoot Challenge and NRCS have a common purpose of advancing conservation of natural resources on private lands. Through voluntary, incentive-based programs, NRCS assists private landowners in improving rangeland and forest health, water quality, and fisheries and wildlife habitat. With the Farm Bill reauthorized in January, new opportunities exist for partnerships like the Blackfoot Challenge to utilize programs the agency offers that deliver technical and financial assistance to private landowners.

One such program is the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. RCPP consolidates four previously existing programs and is designed to further conservation, restoration and sustainable use of natural resources on regional and watershed scales. Local decision making is empowered through this program – bringing together private conservation interests to design conservation projects that are tailored to local needs. When matched by participating partners, NRCS’s $1.2 billion in funding over the life of the five-year program will leverage $2.4 billion for conservation.

“What we sell isn’t a project,” said Blackfoot Challenge Chairman and Ovando rancher Jim Stone. “It’s a process based on respect.” The Blackfoot Challenge is nationally recognized for their conservation success, grounded in public and private partnerships built on trust and credibility. Projects like private wetland restoration, large-scale landscape conservation and the reduction of conflicts between livestock and grizzly bears and wolves rely on substantial commitments of time and resources from private landowners and public agencies.

Both Astor Boozer, NRCS regional conservationist for the West, and Joyce Swartzendruber, NRCS state conservationist for Montana, emphasized the importance of ground-up, locally-led efforts with solid commitments from multiple partners to contributing to the success of NRCS programs. “At the national level, that’s what we’re most excited to see; work being done on the ground that’s locally-led and community-based,” Boozer said. With those structures and relationships in place, Boozer said, the likelihood of on-the-ground conservation results increase, as does an applicant’s likelihood of receiving funding through the agency.

“Community-based conservation is the bread and butter of the work in this valley,” said Dave Smith, coordinator for the Intermountain West Joint Venture. “Everything that happens here is grounded in the values of trust, respect, and relationships – and that’s why it works. Across the West, you won’t find a better example of collaborative, strategic, and results-oriented conservation.”