March 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 3

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Montana: The Last Best Place

R. Patrick Bixler, Colorado State University,

This year’s ASA Annual Meeting in Denver will host a multitude of perspectives that all point to Real Utopias. The Rocky Mountain West is a suitable location to host a conference themed “Real Utopia’s: Emancipatory Projects, Institutional Designs, Possible Futures,”as the 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.

Collaborative Conservation as a Real Utopia

Montana Skyline

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, which 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 Habermas remarked, the hope of modernity is anchored in two arenas: speech communities and civil society (1979). It is through undistorted communication where social goals and values are discussed that consensus has led to a shift in power through collaborative decision making regarding interrelated conservation and livelihood challenges.

The possible futures present within this new multi-stakeholder collaborative endeavor are in response to local concerns. Past successes often have been 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 (Mead 1934), dealing with different values reflexively to allow maximum satisfaction and expansion.

"Because they reflect the
needs of the community,
on-the-ground projects
encompass a wide variety
of natural resource issues,
and often include strong
education and outreach

Montana’s Civil Society

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.” Many would 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 Bourdieu contends, present practice is framed by history and historical frames are made in the present (Bourdieu and Waquant 1992).

The tendency in Montana, and in many of the lands in the West, to collaborate and cooperate is crucial because of a legacy that 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 are the U.S. Forest Service and Plum Creek Timber Company, which own 1.2 million acres in Montana, combined.

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, and often include 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 as grizzly bears, gray wolves, Canada lynxes, 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 involving 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 (Kellert 2000). 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. 


Bourdieu, Pierre. and L.J.D. Wacquant. 1992. An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Habermas, Jurgen. 1979. Communication and the Evolution of Society. Boston, Mass: MIT Press.

Kellert, Stephen R., Jai N. Mehta, Syma A. Ebbin, Laly L. Lichtenfeld. 2000. “Community Natural Resource Management: Promise, Rhetoric, and Reality.” Society and Natural Resources, 13:705-715.

Mead, George Herbert 1934. Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

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