Montana Association of Land Trusts

Private Land Conservation

Glenn Marx
Executive Director
PO Box 892
Helena, MT 59624

Conservation Conversations

Conservation Conversations is a 12-part series of interviews from the Montana Association of Land Trusts that seeks to present a deeper and broader understanding of private land conservation and the work of Montana’s land trusts. Each month in 2010, a leader within the Montana land trust community will voice their personal perspectives about the value private land conservation brings to Montana’s landscape, to the people of Montana and Montana’s economy. The interviews are conducted by Glenn Marx, executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. This is number eleven in the series.

November 2010

Rick Oncken Rick Oncken

Rick Oncken was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and joined the Navy after attending Iowa State University. His varied career includes time as an electrician and a newspaper publisher before becoming involved in real estate, specializing in ranch and land transactions. Rick and his wife, Penney, arrived in Montana in 1988 as a way to “get back to the mountains.” Rick has served six years as a member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Board, served on the RMEF Lands Committee and has served on the RMEF Habitat Committee as well. Rick and Penney received the Wallace Fennell Pate Wildlife Conservation Award from RMEF, the Elk Foundation’s highest award, and have a conservation easement on their property west of Missoula and a second easement with friends in Arkansas. Rick is a committed hunter, and he’s hunted in several Canadian providences, Mexico, most of the western U.S., New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, and England. In fact, Rick says, “If you ask my wife, all I do is hunt.” Pause “But I fish, too.” The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation was founded in 1984 and has protected or enhanced nearly six million acres, helped keep nearly 600,000 acres open for public access, has been a partner in nearly 7,000 land protection projects and the organization has 160,000 members, 500 chapters and over 10,000 volunteers.

Q: It’s an understatement to call you an avid outdoorsman. What prompts your avid appreciation for and commitment to hunting, fishing and conservation?

A: As a Realtor, it’s interesting, because Missoula has so many positives. The University (of Montana) of course is a big plus, as is the hospital system. We have upwards of 300 doctors here. It’s a very appealing place to retire. The weather is very pleasant. There’s plenty of shopping, theater, symphony. There’s something for everyone. For our tastes, there’s lots of outdoor recreation. My wife has five Tennessee Walkers and likes to ride the trails. I tend to do my riding on a mule into the wilderness.

It’s just a very pleasant place to be.

And the people make it a great place to live. It’s a very caring community. We have more nonprofits than most places. The college is always leading the charge for varying causes. There are a lot of people who get involved on a very grassroots basis. People help each other here.

Q: You and Penney show up on several Missoula area contribution lists. You’ve been generous to not only the RMEF but to the University of Montana, Missoula Children’s Theatre, local Humane Society, St. Patrick’s Hospital and more. In 2009 you and Penney were named Missoula Outstanding Philanthropists of the Year. What is the motivation for your philanthropy?

A: (Laughs) So much for keeping a low profile. We’ve always tried to be below the radar but apparently if you do enough things, eventually the radar catches you.

A lot of it stems from our parents…we were raised to give back. That if you felt there was something you could do to help - either physically or financially - you tried to help in whatever the cause is. We’ve tried to do that wherever we’ve been. It’s just the way we live.

Q: Speaking of contributions…two years ago, in 2008, you gave a $500,000 challenge grant to the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. What prompted that, and how did it work out?

A: Well, what prompted it was our national economy…we’re in some financially difficult times, and I wanted to appeal to not only the Elk Foundation members but to other groups. With a challenge grant you can get people a little more excited about giving to a program or a cause, because they feel they have a chance to double or triple their contribution, depending on the match.

I thought it would help the organization if I put this matching grant forward, and people rose to the occasion and not only met but exceeded our expectations. Our primary purpose for the grant was to raise funds for Elk Foundation operating costs so we could continue to do what we do, which is to save land and critters.

Q: Last year you and Penney received the RMEF’s highest honor, the Wallace Fennell Pate Wildlife Conservation Award, at the Elk Foundation’s 25th annual convention at Fort Worth. What does that award mean to you?

A: The award came as a complete surprise to me. I knew about the award, of course, and knew about the previous winners and the things that they’d done to help the organization grow, but I had never anticipated our name would ever be involved in those discussions.

What’s makes this even more curious is that I was chairman of the awards committee and apparently my committee revolted and put my name in. So during the convention I’m standing there expecting one result and then they announce our name for the award, which caught me rather flat-footed. I said during the acceptance speech I felt like I had the “deer in the headlights” look because that’s exactly how I felt.

It was quite an emotional moment because the Elk Foundation had arranged - as a surprise to Penney and me - for our whole family to join us on stage to accept the award. I had no idea they were there until we were all up there on the stage.

Q: During the acceptance speech for the Wallace Pate award, you said about your work with the Elk Foundation, “It’s about mission, it’s about family, it’s about the future.” What do those words mean to you?

A: “Mission” is what we’re trying to accomplish. The rate of expansion of housing and commercial developments is expanding exponentially across the country. We lose farm, ranch and forest acres every day to development. We have a limited time to protect some of these properties we think are important for wildlife. And we’re doing it for the future…for our grandchildren, so they can enjoy what we have enjoyed in the past.

It’s important we protect these areas now. There won’t be the opportunity to protect some of these places in the future. You can’t “un-do” a shopping center and turn it back into a woodland.

So it’s a compound problem and a compound answer, and the answer is to do as much as we can as fast as we can to save the future.

Q: Let’s expand on that for a moment. Why is the RMEF mission of elk habitat conservation so personally important to you?

A: I’ve been fortunate enough to live in the west, and hunt in the west, horseback ride out here, and for people who have not had a chance to see this land…it is truly awesome. People travel all over the world to see sites, and when you see the Absarokees or you go into the Bob Marshall, you will truly be awed by nature.

I’ve always been more favorably impressed by what nature does than what architects can do.

The mission of the Elk Foundation is to save large blocks of land, because large animals require large amounts of land, whether it be bears or elk or other species. You need a certain land mass for things to survive, and it’s those pieces of land we need to work on. Elk country is viable, and it can remain viable, but only if we act to protect it.

Q: What do you see as some of RMEF’s most important accomplishments in the past quarter-century, and what do you think will be RMEF’s future conservation priorities?

A: Well, if you were around in the early days (laughs), the most impressive thing is that we survived this long. In the 1980s a group of people had an idea for the Elk Foundation but they really didn’t know how to make it work. To take that idea and run with it, and to now have 160,000 members, is truly amazing. There had to be a lot of people in state government, local government, the Forest Service, who bought into the idea of what the Elk Foundation was trying to do. It’s been a partnership with other organizations and agencies since day one and it took all these partnerships to make it all happen and protect over six million acres of wildlife habitat.

One of the things we have going for us in the future is that we’ve become known as a group that can make things happen, and make things happen in a fairly quick manner. We’re trusted by landowners, by government agencies and by other organizations because we do what we say we’re going to do.

And I think all this is an accomplishment that we will be building on as we move ahead. The economy is a little tough right now, but we have people who believe in our mission and will continue to help us move forward with conservation easements. People join us because we’re part of the solution and they want to also be part of the solution. Conservation easements are part of the solution, and it’s always impressive to meet with family members and learn about their vision for their ranch or property and see how the Elk Foundation fits in helping them realize that vision.

Q: In 2007, you put a conservation easement on your place here in Montana. What prompted that decision?

A: We actually have two conservation easements. We have one on a property we co-own in Arkansas as well.

Both of these properties had the potential to be subdivided. It may sound strange, coming from a Realtor, but subdivision was never one of my priorities. When I sold farms and ranches I was always looking for someone who would keep the place as a farm or ranch operation.

Both our properties are unique in how they lay where they lay, and because of the amount of wildlife that is on them. The Arkansas property is surrounded on three sides by a wildlife management area, and to subdivide it would have removed all wildlife values from the place.

Here in Montana, we have deer, elk, bear, lion, grouse, coyotes and more on our property, and while it’s surrounded by houses our 500-acre piece is a sanctuary for these animals.

My wife and I knew if the place was subdivided all that would be lost. We thought this was a place where the animals should have refuge. The property also fit into Missoula’s viewshed, so there would have been houses and lights on the skyline…we just don’t need houses everywhere. We really don’t. There are places for houses, and there are places that should be left alone. This is one area that should be left alone.

Q: The Elk Foundation has taken a pretty strong stand in favor of state management of wolves. Why has RMEF weighed-in on wolf management?

A: Our philosophy has always been that states need to manage wildlife…both predators and prey species. And we’ve never changed that philosophy. It’s just that the court system changed enough of the endangered species rules that the states are no longer in control. So we’ve issued a little stronger message that we do believe that the state wildlife management agencies should be involved and that federal authorities should perhaps step out of the way and let the states manage the animals within their borders.

Our message has been well received by hunters and ranchers, because all these people are impacted (by wolves) directly. For ranchers, their livelihood is impacted. Wolf impacts are real and states should be allowed to manage the animals and address those impacts.

Q: You’re a Realtor (on inactive status) with Lambros Real Estate in Missoula. Can you talk about your specialization in ranches and conservation and how you view the ranch economy in Montana?

A: It depends on where you go in the state. Here in the Missoula area we’ve probably lost 70 percent of our farms and ranches over 100 acres to some sort of commercial or residential subdivision. This was always a cow-calf area, running in the Forest Service timberlands in the summer and coming down to the meadows in the fall. Now the Forest Service has limited grazing in a lot of areas because of riparian or endangered species issues, and a lot of the timber companies have completely done away with grazing because they didn’t want to deal with it anymore.

So it is becoming more and more difficult around here to find enough land to run enough animals to be financially secure. If you don’t run 250 or 300 cattle, you’re pretty much considered a hobby ranch or farm, and a lot of the land base now in western Montana is limited to those kinds of numbers. The people are working somewhere else to support this lifestyle.

If you go further east you can find enough land base to handle 300-500 head or more. But it’s a tough lifestyle. When you can go to the grocery store and buy beef from Brazil or New Zealand that’s cheaper than what you see grazing down the road, it makes you wonder how is this working and why it’s working this way.

The average age of farmers and ranchers in Montana is continuing to be extended. Kids don’t want to work that hard for that small of pay, and they might not necessarily like the lifestyle. So in a lot of cases, ranches and farms used to be sold to neighbors, but now when these older farmers and ranchers sell or die, the neighbors are not in a position to buy the place or take on any more debt.

For Montana itself, most of the wildlife ends up on private land at some point during the year. Farmers and ranchers have been good stewards and mainstays for wildlife populations. We’ll always have some kind of a ranch economy in Montana, and the farm economy is vitally important to our state.

But the lifestyle is changing, the small communities are struggling, and the large cities are expanding. All of this makes the Elk Foundation’s mission more important.

Q: Let’s play “What If” for the final question. If your doctor told you, “Rick, you’ve got some health problems and can make only one more hunt in your life,” what would you do or where would you go?

A: It would be a sheep hunt. I really enjoy hunting sheep. We eat a lot of wild game in my house - probably four or five nights a week we’re eating wild something - and sheep is my favorite meat to eat.

To be in those mountains, to be in places the majority of people will never see…to see bear and moose…to see grouse walking around you because they have no idea what you are…it’s just amazing to be up at 11,000 feet in the mountains and not see a gum wrapper or sardine can or even a beer can, for God’s sake. That’s what it would be. One more sheep hunt.

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