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Innitiative Name: Blackfoot Challenge

Case Study Author: Sam Williams, 2013-14 State of the Rockies Project Researcher

Location: Located in North Powell, Lewis & Clark, and Missoula Counties in western Montana, the 1.5 million acre area of the initiative, as well as ownership of lands, is displayed here. The Blackfoot Watershed, the Challenge’s area of focus, is not a standalone conservation area. Nested within the 18 million acre Crown of the Continent region and the even larger Yellowstone to Yukon bioregion (which spans over 2000 miles from Wyoming to just below the Arctic Circle) this watershed forms a small, yet integral, part of the greater conservation picture. 

The Challenge is also nested within several federally designated large landscapes, the most well-known being the Great Northern Landscape Conservation Cooperative (GNLCC) of the Department of Interior. Created by Secretarial Order No. 3289, the GNLCC is a part of the broader Department of Interior network of environmentally and politically formed regions where cooperation between government agencies and the public and private sectors is utilized in order to mitigate the effects of climate change and conserve natural resources[i].

Date of Origin: the Blackfoot Challenge was chartered in 1993, while conservation activities by Blackfoot landowners date back to the mid 1970’s.

Size of Initiative: Approximately 1.5 million acres of land in the Blackfoot Watershed, which extends from the Continental Divide westward for 132 miles to its confluence with the Clark Fork River.

Summary:  Like most large landscape conservation initiatives, the Blackfoot Challenge is multi-jurisdictional, multi-purpose, and multi-stakeholder; it operates at various geographical scales and involves a variety of relationships between interested groups.

 Operating in the Blackfoot Watershed, the Challenge was initiated in order to act as “a hub of information”[ii] in the valley. Residents, managers, recreationalists and more were concerned about deteriorating environmental quality in waterways. So in the early 1990’s, meetings began to occur in order to address these issues. From the beginning, inclusivity was a major component. By bringing everyone to the table and, initially, refraining from making any major decisions, relationships and understanding began to build and an environment of respect, community, and shared purpose emerged.  This development is at the heart of the emergence of one of the first working scale examples of a “community-based conservation” initiative.

The original academic understanding of community-based conservation was a strictly theoretical argument against bio-centric conservation, which embraced actions without looking toward social effects. It has since shifted to on-the-ground, “integrated approaches that embrace equally the societal and biological aspects of conservation”[iii]. Cornerstone principles of community-based conservation now include “local participation, sustainable natural and human communities, inclusion of disempowered voices, and voluntary consent and compliance... Win–win outcomes are sought, with all stakeholders at the table.”[iv] The Blackfoot Challenge takes these already lofty goals a step further by utilizing a consensus-based decision making process: a daunting prospect, given the polarizing nature of conservation work.

 Although the initial stages of the Challenge faced several opponents, such as corporate timber interests in the area, the group’s inclusive decision-making process has, over time, become a cornerstone of the entire community. Minor pockets of what could be called opposition (but in reality are more along the lines of non-participation) do exist. But, as the former BLM representative on the Challenge board George Hirschenberger puts it, there is always that “10% of the population: give them a gold watch and they’d complain.”[v]

The consensus principle of the Challenge is a keystone of their approach. According to Executive Director Gary Burnett, it is not so much a formalized voting procedure as a “nuanced, aware, subjective relationship” between members[vi] which allows for better understandings and cooperation. By understanding and respecting all positions and foregoing any item which is strongly opposed, even if there is just one hold-out, a consensus is upheld and decisions do not polarize groups, but bring them together.

Over the history of the Challenge, continuous consultation with the various stakeholders and provision of sound information resulted in the organization becoming a vital conduit between federal agencies and the public[vii].

From the early environmental rumblings of landowners, to its inception, and into the present day, the Blackfoot Challenge has undergone quite an evolution. From around the late 1990’s, big strides were being made in integrative weed management, sustainable ranching practices, conservation easements and water quality measures, among other things. The positive, tangible results of this group are being felt more powerfully every year.

Despite the progress of the last 20 years, the Challenge is not above critique. Held up as a nation-wide model of the power of community based conservation, the process of the Blackfoot Challenge, and its accomplishments, may not be as transferrable as its advocates would like to believe.

There were highly specific factors which facilitated the development of the Challenge. Two of the greatest factors are unique leadership, and high, some would say disproportionately high, federal funding. Energetic and charismatic personalities such as rancher Jim Stone and USFWS representative Greg Neudecker, have played a crucial role in bringing together various segments of the watershed and obtaining agency funding. Personality, unfortunately, cannot be learned, so this factor could be limiting in other circumstances.

With the political consensus in the watershed, and proactive agency workers such as Mr. Neudecker, vast amounts of federal funding, almost $40 Million over the last 15 years, have been obtained in order to pursue Challenge projects. These levels of funding simply cannot be obtained in the same way regardless of area. Certain local and agency personalities, political attention or environments, and numerous other factors created the perfect target for these federal grants in the Blackfoot Valley. While other grants were given to the Challenge, the majority were federal, both in number and value.

Although the specific achievements of the Challenge and the levels of funding, especially federal, may not be precisely reproducible, the organizational ideas utilized are incredibly important. In our current national political divide, ideology and attitudes appear to make collaboration, and even simple respect, across the aisle a nearly impossible task. With the Challenge comes an example of “people as people” in politics. At a small scale, respect and understanding are at the forefront of politically divisive discussions. The path to this social environment, and the power it holds, are perhaps the greatest lessons of the Blackfoot Challenge.


                Leadership: The Challenge depends heavily upon its board members, who consist of ranchers, landowners, federal and state agency administrators, non-governmental organization members, and more. The Board and committees are unpaid, but there is a paid team of 7 full-time staff members to assist in the operation of this entity.

                Structure: Following an open-membership model, anyone who wishes may participate in Challenge meetings and all decisions are made by consensus. Additionally, there is a Board of Executives and Directors. Under this board are 7 committees, each tasked with an important limb of the Challenge’s strategic areas. The committees are Water, Wildlife, Weeds, Forestry, Education, Conservation Strategies, and Executive & Outreach. There are monthly meetings for the Board of Executives and Directors, and annual, larger meetings.

                Type of Initiative: The Blackfoot Challenge is a 501 (c)3  non-profit organization. It is a formal institution.

                Authority: The authority held by the Challenge is due to the trust between it, its partners, and the community. This trust allows them to enact powerful measures, even using their consensus-based approach.

Participants: Partners include private landowners, local, state and federal agencies, corporations, foundations, and other non-profit groups.

                Key Partners – The United States Fish and Wildlife Service, the Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks, and the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation are some of the most integral partners.

                Affiliated Partners - For a full list of partners, please visit the Challenge website.

Mission:  “To coordinate efforts to conserve and enhance the natural resources and rural way of life in the Blackfoot Watershed for present and future generations”[viii].

Objectives – the specific objectives of the Challenge are determined and pursued on a committee basis. These include reducing wildlife conflicts, improving river water and fishery quality, maintaining and improving forest health, and spreading the lessons of the challenges to interested parties.

Motivations for initiating effort: A history of poor mining, logging, and grazing practices had cumulatively led to the deterioration of the Blackfoot River Watershed’s quality.

 According to Blackfoot Challenge co-founder, Land Lindbergh:

“Before the Challenge was formed, there was no forum to handle both the direct and indirect impacts to the river. With the influx of new ideas and people to the valley coupled with the different agendas of all of the agencies, it was time to get in front of the potential issues and try to deal with them.”[ix]

Major Strategies:

                Research – Most of the research in the watershed is paid for or conducted by entities other than the Blackfoot Challenge. Federal agencies, non-profits, and others pursue the legwork, which is then shared between parties at Challenge meetings. This environment creates an open, knowledgeable community of experts which can better evaluate the environmental status of issues in the watershed.

                Planning – General planning for the direction and finances of the Challenge occur at the monthly meetings. All planning of specific activities is driven by individual committees[x]. It is at the committee level that all tangible plans are informed, created, and implemented.

                Regulation – All projects which contain pieces that regulate behavior in some way are totally voluntary. Incentive based programs are implemented so that the vast majority of landowners will decide to abide by the specific stipulations. While there is no direct way to regulate landowners, the environment of trust makes this a deceptively powerful tool. As for the landowners who don’t participate, well, says Jim Stone, they’ll either come around or they won’t.

                Restoration – Made famous in the Norman Mclean novel, and subsequent film, A River Runs Through It, this area of Montana contains a large fly fishing presence. Hence, many of the restoration projects have been focused on riparian areas, stream beds and banks, and other projects that increase fishery health. Other common projects include noxious weed removal and sustainable forestry and grazing practices.

                Communication – Communication among Challenge members occurs at monthly meetings where mornings are occupied with the business of running the enterprise, and afternoons are filled with information sharing and relationship building. When committee meetings will occur is variable and up to each committee on an individual basis.

                Some strategies for successful communication are “proper pacing” and the “nuanced, aware, subjective relationship”[xi] among members. As Jim Stone says, conservation “isn’t all about resource management, it’s about people”[xii].  In its communications, the Challenge shows that this is not just a slogan, but a guiding principle.

Besides the above mentioned strategies, the Blackfoot Challenge also pursues these other tools in order to fulfill its mission:

Participation - Inclusive, consensus-based format mandates as much participation by stakeholders as possible, from landowners to corporations to government agencies. Besides serving this direct function, the Challenge also facilitates communication between and among various groups for conservation purposes in the Blackfoot Watershed.

Conservation - Mainly using the tools of fee title acquisition and conservation easements, the Challenge seeks to conserve “the working landscapes and rural way of life” in the watershed.

Stewardship – With the goal of maintaining connections between people and their land, projects such as fire management, wildlife-human interactions, and water usage are implemented.

Education - In order to ensure the current state of the watershed for “future generations”, as per their motto, educational programs engage both youth and adults in place-based classes and workshops.

Outreach – In addition to educating local communities, the Challenge hosts workshops (such as the “Transferability Workshop” of September, 2012) and shares information with federal programs such as the USFWS “Partners for Conservation” and President Obama’s America’s Great Outdoors. The aim of these programs is to examine the possibility of the Challenge model of community-based conservation in other areas around the country and take steps for its application.

Ecosystems Characteristics and Threats:

                The Ecosystem - The valley forms the southern edge of the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, which supports the largest population of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states. The exceptional wildlife in the area also includes Canada lynx, fisher, gray wolves, bull trout, and migratory birds such as the recently reintroduced trumpeter swan. The watershed itself contains riparian and wetland areas, sagebrush steppe, coniferous forests, prairie grasslands and various states of range and agricultural land.[xiii]

                Threats - Threats to the watershed include continued development, subdivision of land into smaller parcels, drought conditions and declining water resources, invasive plant species, unhealthy human-wildlife interactions, and wildfires, among others.

                Distribution of Protected Land - The watershed is currently situated with majority of private land in the lower elevation valley floor, while higher elevations tend to be publicly held.   The distribution of protected land may be seen here.

Monitoring, Assessment, and Evaluation:

                Baseline Conditions – Baseline environmental conditions, as well as goals, are established by the agencies in the area. Utilizing higher levels of funding and expertise, federal and state agencies such as the United States Fish and Wildlife Service provide the environmental information necessary for Challenge decision-making.

                Monitoring – Similar to the baseline conditions, most monitoring is done by agencies, not the Challenge itself.

                Evaluation – In the committees, experts from all Challenge partners consult the available information and collectively evaluate conditions to determine plans of action.


Accomplishments/Impacts: Reported on a yearly basis in the annual reports, some major accomplishments of the Challenge include:

285,000 acres are now under conservation easement, all of which were created since the mid-1970’s, when the very first easement in Montana was established in the watershed.

Over 500 students, ranging from preschoolers to 8th graders, and 200 adults have participated in education programs and workshops

Drought response plans drafted and implemented, involving voluntary community-wide reductions in irrigation, angling, and other uses.

Nearly 400 private landowners are participating in integrative weed management

93% reduction in grizzly bear conflicts from 2003-2009.

Factors Facilitating Progress:  During the roll-out of the America’s Great Outdoors program in 2011, former Secretary of the Interior Kenneth Salazar noted that the Blackfoot Watershed is “the birthplace of the conservation concept for the 21st century.”[xiv] While not undeserved, these accolades fail to recognize some of the powerful factors which contribute to the success of the Challenge. The two most considerable factors are the leadership present in the valley and the high levels of federal funding[xv].

Leadership - Personalities such as rancher Jim Stone, USFWS representative Greg Neudecker, and Executive Director Gary Burnett, among others, are knowledgeable, well-respected, and energetic. The leadership in the valley has been instrumental in galvanizing the community and implementing the efforts of the Challenge. Unfortunately, personalities such as these may not be found everywhere nor are they guaranteed for the future of the Challenge.

High Levels of Funding - Throughout the years, the Blackfoot Challenge has secured vast amounts of State and Federal funding for projects. These large financial gains are due to a variety of inherent attributes such as ecosystem types, wildlife, leadership, and political environments. These situations simply do not exist in other areas. It is also unsustainable to imagine this level of funding going to many different regions; the federal pot simply isn’t that large.

Challenges: While the approach taken by the Blackfoot Challenge has been inclusive, innovative, and powerful, there remain many obstacles to fulfilling its stated goals.

Local versus Federal Interests­ –While the chasm between these two sides is reduced by the fact that valley dwellers are pursuing conservation-minded projects, the tension between local and federal interests still exists in the watershed. As Rich Torquemada of the BLM states, “If you get a letter [about public lands in the watershed] from someone in Chicago, does it count any less than one from Ovando [a town at the heart of the watershed]?”[xvi]  With the funding and decisions made in the valley based almost exclusively upon the Challenge’s discussions, so far, it has indeed counted less.

Inability to Confront Certain Issues – Occasionally the Challenge will step away from an issue because, as Rancher Jim Stone puts it, “it’s just too hot”[xvii]. This situation occurred in 2010 when plans were being discussed about allowing Energy corporations to transport huge equipment through the valley and up to the Tar Sands of Alberta. Due to its divisiveness, the issue was not fully discussed, and no plan or decision was reached.

Allocation of Resources - Due to the limitations of a consensus based approach, the Challenge often finds itself spending a disproportionate amount of time and resources on issues, such as weed management, which appeal to everybody. In doing so, other important projects that are more controversial are often forgone.

Getting everyone to the table - Some parties have been reluctant to join in on meetings, and are often unwilling participants when they are involved. In order to more broadly represent all stakeholders, these entities need to be open to participation. At present however, the Challenge represents more than 90% of the watershed’s population.

Distrust of the Federal Government - Often concerned over the amount of influence the government has on natural resource management, many locals wish to have no part of Federal endeavors. The accomplishments and respect of the Challenge are slowly eroding this opposition in the Blackfoot, yet it is still broadly prevalent across the West.

Lessons Learned:

Inclusion - The inclusion of as many stakeholders as possible creates balanced solutions, builds bridges in and between communities, and presents an opportunity for learning from others.

Building Trust - A key aspect of cooperation and collaboration, trust is built through openness, respect, and results.

The 80/20 Rule - Focus on the 80% you have in common, in order to build lasting, healthy relationships in the community, before moving on to the 20% where you differ.

Consensus Can Work - By learning and applying the above lessons, an organization may create powerful, lasting results in divisive topics, even with a consensus based procedure.

Proper Pacing – Following the “go slow to go fast” motto[xviii] allowing trust to build and relationships to grow is more important than immediate results. Doing so promotes sustainable solutions and successful future collaboration. Time scales here are perhaps longer than one might suspect; some experts estimate that “it takes at least 2 years to grasp the social landscape and 5 years to build the trust and credibility necessary to deliver community-based landscape conservation.”[xix]

Situation Based Solutions – The Challenge demonstrates an innovative and powerful model of a community’s healthy relationship with the environment. However, the factors allowing this model to flourish must be acknowledged and the transferability of its concepts examined before implementation into different communities is attempted.

Bottom-up  versus Top-down – Especially in the American west, internal drivers of conservation such as community leaders, user groups, and local agencies, have had greater success in creating lasting conservation efforts than Federal or State agency “top-down” models[xx]. In large part this is due to the political sentiment against big government action, especially as it relates to land management, in the West. 

Website Links: Much of the information from this report originated from the Blackfoot Challenge website and the various reports, publications, and sections therein.

[i] Kenneth Salazar, “Secretarial Order No. 3289”, signed September 14, 2009

[ii] Jim Stone, Blackfoot Challenge Board Chair, interviewed by the author, July 23, 2013.

[iii] Gregory A. Neudecker, Allison Duvall, and James W. Stutzman. Community-Based Landscape Conservation: a Roadmap for the Future, in Energy Development and Wildlife Conservation in Western North America, (Island Press/Center for Resource Economics, 2011), 212.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] George Hirschenberger, former BLM representative, interviewed by the author, July 23, 2013.

[vi] Gary Burnett, Blackfoot Challenge Executive Director, interviewed by the author, July 23, 2013.

[vii] Richard Torquemada, current  BLM representative, interviewed by the author, July 23, 2013.

[viii] Gary Burnett. Community-Based Approach to Conservation for the 21st Century. (The Blackfoot Challenge:, 2013), 2.

[ix] Christine Coughlin et al. A Systematic Assessment of Collaborative Resource Management Partnerships. PhD diss., (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1999), 3.

[x] Gary Burnett, interview.

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Jim Stone, interview.

[xiii] The Blackfoot Challenge website, Accessed June 5, 2013.

[xiv] Gary Burnett. Community-Based Approach to Conservation for the 21st Century, 8

[xv] Matthew McKinney and Shawn Johnson, Crown of the Continent Roundtable, interviewed by the author, July 24, 2013.

[xvi] Richard Torquemada, interview.

[xvii] Jim Stone, interview.

[xviii] Dan Clark and Eric Austin, Gallatin Community Collaborative, interviewed by the author July 17, 2013.

[xix] Gregory A. Neudecker, Allison Duvall, and James W. Stutzman. Community-Based Landscape Conservation: a Roadmap for the Future, 220.

[xx] Gary L. Sullivan, Partnerships in Practice: the Fine Line Between Success and Failure in Transactions of the North American Wildlife and Natural Resources Conference, vol. 62, (Wildlife Management Institute, 1997), 197.