How fly-fishing can save the West's ranchers

As Tom Milesnick drives his pickup truck along a dusty road in the middle of Montana's Gallatin Valley, he sizes up the fruits of his round-the-clock labors.

With beef cows grazing beside him and giant bales of hay dotting the pasture, he heads toward another crop growing inconspicuously between the grassy banks of Benhart Spring Creek.

Here, where the water meanders toward the East Gallatin River, Mr. Milesnick is standing not just at the confluence of two fantastic trout streams, he's also entering the headwaters of a pioneering venture that's helping folks like him stay on the land.

By charging fly-rod-wielding anglers $50 a day to fish the ribbons of water running through his MZ-Ranch, he's finding a way to keep his mom-and-pop business alive.

It is a marriage of American Gothic agrarianism with New Economy values, as ranchers add mountain-biking trails, convert old bunk houses into bed and breakfasts, and offer hayrides that ferry city slickers to pumpkin patches at harvest time. Beyond dude ranches, these cattlemen are turning to innovation to supplement their increasingly inadequate incomes.

"The traditional agricultural economy is in trouble throughout America, but a lot of ranchers and farmers are looking at their land in a different way than in the past," says Lill Erickson, executive director of the Corporation for the Northern Rockies, which works with ranchers to identify environmentally friendly business opportunities.

On the other side of the Gallatin Valley, for instance, in the tiny community of Willow Creek, George Kahrl has started a different kind of secondary business. The owner of the Sarah Faith Ranch hosts clinics for new landowners to teach them, horse-whisperer style, how to develop a personal bond with their horses.

Most of Mr. Kahrl's clients are urban transplants, but by teaching them to think like a horse, he helps them develop a better awareness for their land.

The need for creative alternatives is especially evident in the Rockies, where ranchers are struggling to stay economically solvent and land is rapidly being sold to wealthy second-homeowners. Economists estimate that, during the next decade, half the ranches in the West will be sold, leaving the region with an uncertain future, given patterns of growth.

The Milesnicks' ranch, in the family since 1936, encompasses 1,400 acres of prime real estate on the outskirts of Bozeman. It isn't the biggest piece of private property, but its abundant wildlife, miles of spring creeks, and five miles of the Gallatin River make it highly prized.

Until this year, when the real-estate market in the Gallatin Valley began cooling off, Milesnick and his wife, Mary Kay, had people knocking on their door at least once a week asking to purchase home sites.

Each time, the Milesnicks politely declined. While they're not particularly fond of radical environmentalists, they frown on unscrupulous real estate developers even more.

Across the West, farmers have had a long and uneasy relationship with outside recreationists and environmentalists. The recreationists are looked upon by many as nuisances: They rile livestock, are safety hazards in the presence of machinery, and disrupt the sense of solitude. Environmentalists, meanwhile, frequently take issue with ranching practices.

Milesnick's experience, in many ways, shows how a good idea can chart a middle ground that satisfies all three parties.

"Tom Milesnick sees his fishing operation as an opportunity to educate people about ranch life and the willingness of ranchers to be good stewards," says Bud Lilly, a legendary Montana fly-fisherman and vocal conservationist. "On the other hand, he's seeing the dividends that come with protecting natural assets that the public values."

During the late 1990s, Milesnick became concerned that environmentalists, worried about water quality and wildlife habitat, might push for regulations on his cattle, preventing them from roaming along stream banks. Rather than fight them, he decided to prove that cattle, recreationists, and healthy streams can co-exist if managed well.

*He no longer allows aerial spraying of herbicides near the water.

*He keeps his cows fenced out of the streamside riparian zones except for brief times when cattle grazing is used to control noxious weeds. Previously, the cows had polluted the water supply, and fish had been left vulnerable to herons and eagles, as season-long grazing removed vegetative cover.

*He's changed the flow of the stream and deepened it, putting back riffles and bends in places where the river ran shallow and straight.

*He even has a Web page and a decent-looking brochure - Information-Age accouterments that are becoming as important as the tractor and combine parked in his backyard beneath a copse of towering willows.

"What Tom Milesnick did was very innovative and it has worked out very well," says Gordon Hill of the US Department of Agriculture. "He's become a model for ... how to do it right."

The only surprising thing, perhaps, is that, despite his excellent trout streams, Milesnick - a man with pork-chop sideburns, a friendly weathered face, and calloused hands - admits that he doesn't fish much. "When you're a rancher, you've got too many other things to do," he says, picking through a box of old tractor parts. "If I ever have time to go fishing, I take a nap."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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