Blackfoot Challenge

Posted: Oct 7, 2005
Written by: 
Britta Beckstead


Updated February 2011

Location: The Blackfoot Watershed of western Montana.

Collaborative partners: Private landowners, businesses, and non-profits; federal, state, and local agencies.

Objective: Building and maintaining better rural communities through community cooperation.


  • Concerns about the sustainability of the project
  • Duplicative and uncoordinated agency efforts
  • Loss of the area's rural character
  • Bringing parties with disparate interests to the table and ensuring inclusive representation of all stakeholders
  • Establishing a strong leader or leaders in such a diverse partnership
  • Maintaining adequate funding
  • Prioritizing and implementing projects

Project summary:

In contrast to its beauty in the film “A River Runs Through It,” the Blackfoot Watershed has suffered from a long history of poorly regulated mining, logging, and livestock grazing practices, as well as generally fragmented land use. Beginning in the 1970s, inspired citizens began an effort to clean and conserve a stretch of the Big Blackfoot flowing past Lincoln, Montana. Land Lindbergh of the founding group described the Blackfoot Challenge as a “loosey-goosey, non-membership, non-dues paying, informal let’s-do-it group.” The Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited sponsored the first meeting of the Blackfoot Challenge. In 1993, the group hired an executive director and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.

According to Hank Goetz, Manager of the Lubrecht Forest (University of Montana), the Blackfoot Challenge has been successful for a number of reasons: “There was a common threat, that of subdivisions of beautiful, fertile land, that of unrestricted access—we had a common view of these threats. That view led to broad citizen participation, citizens gave of their time freely and patiently. Trust developed. And we have a large number of progressive-thinking, politically sophisticated landowners with access to financial resources. And we're not burdened by the suspicion of public agencies that you see in some ranching communities. We've had good relations with agency representatives. We sit down together as equals. Conversations are open-ended. We find common solutions to common problems."

There are a couple of unique aspects to this effort. For example, although there is a strong relationship among the government entities and citizen groups involved, agencies have let citizens take the lead in discussions and decision-making. In response to the difficulty of having everyone represented at the table, members of the group write letters asking a missing participant to come to the next meeting, make their information accessible, facilitate an open process, conduct workshops, and assign participants to specific communities.

The group has diverse sources of funding and the majority (94%) goes towards their programs. Their innovation, organization, and success have made more funding, partnership, and opportunities available each year. In addition, due to their comprehensive education program they have ensured that the Blackfoot Challenge’s legacy will continue.

Lessons Learned:

  • Have mutual respect for all parties 
  • Attack issues from all angles 
  • Find innovative solutions to problems 
  • There are many benefits to government agencies allowing citizens to take the lead


Today it has evolved into a partnership spanning public and private, federal and state, and small and large organizations. There are specific committees for the issues in the region – Conservation Strategies, Forestry, Wildlife, Water, and Weeds – in addition to Executive and Education committees. But, according to Hank Goetz, “our mission remains unchanged: to conserve the way of life and traditions and the land and the waters of the Blackfoot.”

The Blackfoot Challenge coordinates a Conservation Easement Work Group that represents land trusts overseeing 110,000 acres under conservation easements, support a community-based council that manages 41,000 acres of cooperatively stewarded public and private lands that in 2009 provided 5,609 acres with open hunting access, placed 3,000 acres under rotation systems, controlled for weeds on 70 acres, thinned 140 acres for fire safety, and restored 300 acres of public forest land. In 2006, the Innovations in American Government Award was granted to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's "Montana Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program" for their partnership in the Blackfoot Challenge. As a result, Partners in Conservation was created, which holds annual meetings with representatives from 18 western states (as of 2011) to communicate and to collaborate on conservation partnerships for working landscapse.

Additional Resources:

The Blackfoot Challenge Homepage:

Report on the Blackfoot Challenge:

Contact Information: Gary Burnett (

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