This Business of Ecology

This Business of Ecology

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Orms, R. Kent
I still remember the valley the way I first saw it as a kid. It had been a long heavy winter when finally, spring arrived, tentative and coy. Then the large, open fields near our house exploded with wildflower blues and yellows aching to reach up and be caught in the late afternoon breeze. Without even trying you could hear the grass buzz with vast microsystems of life. Magpies squawked, a young blue grouse chirped from dense cover, and in the stream a cutthroat twisted, then rose on a midge not half a minute old. Across southwest Montana the open lands stretched from slumber and readied for the furious pace of the season.

When the sprawling growth came to the valley, it started subtle, like the turn to spring. First, a new subdivision. Then, as warmth rolled across the high country and little streams swelled, ten more. The sputtering last gasps of winter held spring in check, and the sprawl abated. But, soon summer rippled with oceans of barley and wheat and before the last snow had come off the shaded couloirs, the open space had dwindled.

Open space does remain in the region, and several local businesses are making sure it stays such. One of them, Fay Fly-Fishing Properties, started selling high-end ranches to sportsmen in the early nineties. After finding that, despite good intentions, most of his clients didn’t know a thing about ranching or what being a good steward of the land meant, owner Greg Fay started Fay Recreational Ranch Management. Acting as the supervising arm of ranch real estate, it handles the details of managing the ranch. "An enormous amount of what we do is education," Fay told me from his office in Bozeman. Since the ranches they sell are usually large, between 1,000 and 5,000 acres, and on or near prime wildlife habitat, they tend to be expensive. Which means most clients are from out of state. "We basically have to give them an owner’s manual," Fay says. And that amounts to an incredible amount of work for Fay and his staff, which includes water and ag resource managers, hydrologists, horticulturists, and an agronomist. Much of the work occurs before the purchase of the property even takes place. In fact, it takes an average of a year of preparation, education, and legwork before the client is ready to move into the new ranch. Fay’s staff begins by determining the desires and price range of the client, then goes to work finding that property. Once the property is located and agreed upon, the real work begins.

It starts by assigning a project manager who oversees the whole operation and functions something like a general contractor for the client. They then assess the condition of the acreage with their team of water, plant, and soil experts. In a blend of applied science and alchemy that includes soil samples, surveys, and what Fay describes as "a lot of vision", the plan comes together. The projects can be small, as simple as installing a more efficient irrigation system. Or they can be big. In the Ruby Valley, I visited a ranch where Fay’s team has spent over a year enhancing, reclaiming, and reshaping the land into a pristine sportsman’s paradise. They planted over a quarter of a million dollars worth of vegetation, completely overhauled the irrigation system, reseeded fields and rotated crops to attract wildlife, moved roads, and created two wetland complexes – one spring fed, the other a multicell pond system used to filter sediment from the irrigation canal before it reaches the stream. Hydrologists dredged and rebedded the entire spring-fed run, then rebuilt the nonexistent banks. The 40-foot-wide quagmire of muck I saw two summers ago is now a four-foot-deep, crystal-clear stream where brown trout come to spawn. Generally, all the properties need some work, Fay says, as decades of eking a living from the ground take their toll. But, still almost all the ranches they sell remain working ranches with cattle and crops. "Agriculture is the savior of Montana," Greg Fay says. "Without it, we lose the habitat essential to wildlife."

After the dirt and stream reclamation work is finished, Fay’s staff continues the education of the new ranch owner. Often they will have to locate and hire a quality ranch manager or hands. Though the ranch won’t be relied upon for making a living, the property will still require constant maintenance to keep it a healthy and productive habitat. Project managers stop by year-round, to make sure the crops were cut on time, to see if the stream is healthy and just to check in on the new ranchers.

Already successful in ranch real estate, Greg Fay started Fay Fly Fishing Properties after a spoiled fishing trip to a favorite secluded spot that had been invaded by new homes. "I couldn’t believe it," he remembers, "I was practically looking into their living room." Wanting to dosomething about the sprawl, he combined real estate success with his love of fly-fishing. The more ranches he sold the more he realized that with a little vision these ranches could be spectacular. When I asked if clients ever disregard their guidance and advice, he said, "Well, we attract like-minded conservationists, they’re sportsmen, and they want what’s best for the long-term health of the land and the habitat." Since many of the clients are fishermen, most of the ranches either border water or have streams or wetlands on them. And much of the work involves stream reclamation or enhancement. This can be as simple as cleaning trash from the water’s edge or as extensive as cutting and raising the banks and dredging the stream bottom of years of silt. For the larger work, they subcontract local hydrologists.

Managing the operation also involves getting the client integrated with the local folk. The community of other ranchers is integral to the owner’s long term happiness. "The neighbors see these changes taking place, trees going in, bulldozers, and all sorts of commotion, and the rumors start flying. These are old communities, and they get pretty worried when we start tearing up the place." So Fay’s staff goes back to work, talking with neighbors, showing them plans, discussing ideas. "A lot of time is spent in old ranchers’ kitchens over coffee," says Fay. "They warm up to the people and ideas pretty quickly but just want to know what’s going on and to be a part of the change."

Most of the ranches sold by Fay Fly Fishing Properties run in the one- to five-million dollar range, so their work is not unrewarded. But doubly rewarding is the fact that they convince almost all of their clients to sign conservation easements on their land so no development can ever take place there. Guaranteeing that somewhere past the 20-acre ranchette subdivisions, past political myopia, and past the sprawling arms of development, there remains pristine wide-open space.
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