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Community-based Conservation and a Utopic Vision in Montana

By: R. Patrick Bixler


The Rocky Mountain West with its vast expanse of open spaces and abundant natural resources has always held the allure of being a place for utopic visions. It was here where the manifest destiny of a young nation unfolded (embodying the positives and negatives of the ideology of the early American nation-state) and a national culture was formed that embraced the image of the vast, natural landscape as a national icon. Europe had cathedrals. America had a utopic vision of the West.

Those early utopian dreams of ‘amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesties’ have, in recent times, been threatened by unsustainable exploitation of the land and natural resources as well as marginalization of rural voices. Over the last several decades, however, emancipatory alternatives to the dominant institutions that have historically structured how this story of the West has been told have emerged. Collaborative conservation, perhaps a real utopia, promotes an institutional design to the governance of natural resources, placing communication at its core. As the sociologist Jurgen Habermas remarks, the hope of modernity is anchored in two arenas: speech communities and civil society. It is through undistorted communication where social goals and values are discussed that consensus decision making has led to a shift in power through collaborative decision making of interrelated conservation and livelihood challenges.

The possible futures presented by this new multi-stakeholder collaborative endeavor comes in response to local concerns. Past successes are often dependent on cooperative partnerships built on understanding, trust and respect. Participants in collaborative conservation come from diverse backgrounds and hold varying perspectives and concerns. Identifying shared values and finding opportunities for agreement is central to collaboration. From a utopic perspective, these initiatives strive to find the maximum dynamic harmony, dealing with different values reflexively to allow maximum satisfaction and expansion.

These characteristics make them an interesting cultural and sociological phenomenon. While collaborative conservation has emerged in many places in the Intermountain West (including many initiatives in Colorado); Montana has a noteworthy number of these civil society institutions on a per capita basis. Montana is considered by many to be “the last best place.” We would all agree that the romanticizing of the Blackfoot Valley by Norman Maclean in “A River Runs Through It” embedded the symbolism of wild and majestic landscapes in the imagination of millions of people. Although characterized by big sky, snow-capped mountains, wild rivers, fertile valleys and rugged individualism, no place exists without social, political, and ecological histories that actively shape present landscapes and livelihoods. As Pierre Bourdieu contends, present practice is framed by history and historical frames are made in the present.

The tendency in Montana, and in many of the lands in the West, to collaborate and cooperate is crucial because another historical legacy has fractured the landscape in a checkerboard pattern of landownership – a remnant of the railroad land grant deed restrictions of early white settlement. Today, a variety of public and private entities own and manage the Blackfoot Valley’s land: the largest landholders include the U.S. Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Company, which owns 1.2 million acres in Montana.

Starting from a strong love of place and a set of historical contingencies in this particular valley, the Blackfoot Challenge – a civil society, landowner-based group that is coordinating management of the Blackfoot River, its tributaries, and adjacent lands in Montana – has developed a particularly successful model of stewardship and conservation through collaboration. Because they reflect the needs of the community, on-the-ground projects encompass a wide variety of natural resource issues, but often include a strong education and outreach components. Projects include water quality monitoring, water conservation, and formulating effective strategies to deal with drought; the conservation of many endangered and threatened species such grizzly bear, gray wolf, Canada lynx, and bull trout; noxious and invasive weed management and habitat restoration; and land conservation through conservation easements and the establishment and management of an 88,000 acre community forest.

More collaborative conservation groups such as the Blackfoot Challenge are developing as an increasing number of local communities understand the value of grassroots approaches to problem solving. Most of these organizations share similarities: a commitment to involve community members and local institutions in management and conservation of natural resources; an interest in devolving power; a desire to link socioeconomic development to environmental conservation; a tendency to defend and legitimize local and/or indigenous resource and property rights; and, a belief in the desirability of including traditional values and ecological knowledge in modern resource management. From concept to practice, these characteristics lead to a more equitable distribution of power and status among local peoples, as well as a more integrated understanding of social and ecological sustainability – rekindling the image of the utopic West.