In our 11 years as a guest ranch, we’ve never had a bigger celebration for Earth Day than we’ve had this week. This year we’ve found more ways to say thanks to nature, which has sustained us personally and professionally during the pandemic.

During 2020, we had to revise our commitment to eliminate single-use plastics in a few small ways when it was necessary for safety protocols. Though we recommit to returning safely to single-use plastic elimination in all areas, we were inspired us to look deeper into our sustainability efforts to see where we could lessen our footprint further to minimize the environmental effects of new safety measures. Here’s a look at what we’ve been doing this week and this year to celebrate the Earth.

1. Resuming our annual Clark Fork Cleanup

In 2015, we launched our first Clark Fork Cleanup along with the Clark Fork Coalition (who oversees cleanups throughout this watershed) and the Philipsburg Brewing Company. (Rock Creek is a tributary to the Clark Fork River.) The Cleanup continued for years.

2 people cleaning up trash in the Clark Fork River

Due to high water levels and the pandemic, we were forced to go on a hiatus, but on Tuesday, April 20, we resumed the tradition with a total of 12 drift boats and rafts carrying 25 people! The Ranch provided lunch for the crew and removed approximately 1,500 lbs. of trash from 11 miles of the Clark Fork River. This included a kid’s bike, 30 pieces of sheet metal, three large rolls of wire fence and more.

Person on blue boat holding a tire found durinig the Clark Fork River cleanup

The Clark Fork river has some of the best trout rivers in Montana flowing into the Clark Fork, yet I feel it’s one of the most polluted big rivers in Montana. When we get great partners Like Trout Unlimited, Clark Fork Coalition, along with local businesses like Philipsburg Brewery, to help us clean up for a day it can really make a difference! Over the years we’ve cleaned up almost 4 tons of garbage and metal out of the same 11 miles of river. You can see the change!

~ Patrick Little, Activities Director

2. Adopting a stretch of highway

This year, our application to adopt four miles of highway near The Ranch was accepted by the Montana Department of Transportation, Adopt a Highway program. We now oversee cleanup efforts between mile marker 41 and 44 of the Skalkaho Highway–the main road that we use to access the unpaved Rock Creek Road that leads to The Ranch.

2 people walking along the highway picking up garbage

General Manager Jon Martin and HR Director Cat Johnson help during our first highway cleanup.

Accounting Associate Danna Landry organized our acceptance into this program.

I grew up in Philipsburg. My childhood memories are full of green grass, flowers, blue skies, and pristine spaces as far as the eye can see. I want others to have the same memories as I do, and it begins when each of us takes just a little time to contribute. It was my way of giving back to a place that has taken care of me.

On Wednesday, April 21, a crew of seven ranchers removed 12 bags of trash. Those involved commented that is was surprising how many things they removed were there for decades. They even found now-obsolete pull-top cans hidden in embankments with other trash. This hidden trash could have easily been washed into Rock Creek. A cleanup will happen every spring and more often if we see the need.

Person cleaning up trash on highway

Director of Rooms Linda Walser finds litter during the cleanup on April 21st.

3. Hosting a blood drive in our Buckle Barn

Covid-19 impacted the Red Cross’s ability to do blood drives, reducing its blood supply. For people in Philipsburg, that makes it significantly harder to donate because we are 90 minutes from the nearest donation locations. When one of our beloved long-time employees was diagnosed with cancer in January, Assistant Pastry Chef Flynn Hall saw the number of blood donations that staff member needed to fight cancer and scheduled a blood drive as soon as the Red Cross resumed them.

A Red Cross van parks outside the Buckle Barn

A Red Cross van parks outside the Buckle Barn where 15 people donated blood on April 20.

The blood drive took place on Tuesday, April 20 in our Buckle Barn and 15 people, including Flynn herself, donated blood. The Red Cross remarked how many first-time blood donors there were. Encouraging new blood donors is important step in providing enough blood to emergency room, cancer and chronically ill patients. It is one another addition to our community sustainability efforts that we hope to continue in the future.

Nest Supervisor Katie Tobin and Controller Angie Scantling donate blood during the drive

Nest Supervisor Katie Tobin and Controller Angie Scantling donate blood during the drive.

My cousin Caitie was diagnosed with Acute Myeloid Leukemia at the same time one of our Ranchers was diagnosed with AML as well. Patients often need blood transfusions, due to a low count of red blood cells and platelets. I was unable to attend a blood drive back home so I thought it’s a good cause in honor of someone we love at The Ranch. It was really gratifying to see everyone supporting the cause as a donor, organizer or providing food for the event.

~ Flynn Hall, Assistant Pastry Chef

4. Installing a Trout Unlimited fish screen

This winter and spring, and through snowstorms and rain, Trout Unlimited constructed a fish screen on an irrigation headgate on The Ranch to protect fish populations that were swimming into irrigation ditches and dying as those seasonal ditches dried up.

Construction of the fish screen on The Ranch at Rock Creek

Construction of the fish screen on The Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo Courtesy of @troutunlimitedcf

Trout Unlimited has raised funds to revise the headgates in agricultural areas throughout the Clark Fork watershed and beyond. While this meant a large construction project would have to take place for months on one of our most frequented areas of Rock Creek, we knew that this was an essential step in protecting the creek we love. The fish screen is designed to regulate flow like a normal headgate, but also let water flow through holes in a steel plate while fish and debris are ushered into a tube that returns them to the main channel of Rock Creek. During the research portion of this project Trout Unlimited discovered there were 14-16 inch brown trout making their way into irrigation ditches, which will now safely stay in their natural habitat.

Trout Unlimited fish screen working in the warmer months

An example of the Trout Unlimited fish screen working in the warmer months.

The Rock Creek director of this Trout Unlimited Clark Fork project, Tess Scanlon, has taken on an incredible amount of work to make this happen. While the construction took place on our land, the irrigation ditch that was installed does not serve our own irrigation ditch, but rather the irrigation for three ranches down the road. Conservation efforts are rarely done quickly. Trout Unlimited, those ranch owners, and The Ranch at Rock Creek, had to work together for years to make this a reality. Tess wrote a blog about these efforts two years ago. They require an incredible amount of community participation, organizational oversight and planning. We thank Trout Unlimited, Tess Scanlon and the construction crew for their commitment to protecting the streams in our area.

General Manager Jon Martin said,

The Clark Fork Cleanup, the Trout Unlimited fish screen and the highway cleanup extend how we can protect Rock Creek. It’s not just about the 52 miles on Rock Creek. It’s about protecting the tributaries upstream and the watershed downstream.

5. Starting on-Ranch glass reuse

One of the major reasons we strived to eliminate single-use plastics in 2019 was that nearly all recycling was removed from our frontier county. Now, as we prioritize safety protocols that require some single-use plastics, we look for alternatives to using those plastics along with other meaningful ways to reduce our footprint.

Aluminum is one of the few materials that can still be recycled in our area. We both recycle and support local businesses like Philipsburg Brewing Company and Montana Silver Springs that bottle with recyclable aluminum and create containers that can be reused.

We’ve long sought to close the loop on even this practice, so we’ve just completed the purchase of a glass crusher which will turn glass into sand to use on property. This will allow us to prioritize glass containers because they can be directly put to use on property.

As GM Jon Martin said,

The bottle of wine that you enjoy today with dinner can be under foot at Bikini Beach pond tomorrow.

dock on lake

If you’ve just read for the first time about these efforts, they are adding to a multitude of other practices, such as composting, local purchasing and community philanthropy. We detail our other ongoing efforts on a special sustainability page, from reducing vehicle traffic and emissions to recycling brass from our shooting ranges and replacing all lights with LEDs.

I think it’s our progression toward sustainability that is important. In 2020, we had an excuse to bring back single-use plastics, but we are striving not to do it where it’s not absolutely necessary. When we make changes, we always ask “Is this sustainable? Is this good for the environment? And we try to make the most environmentally friendly choice while retaining our high Forbes Travel Guide standards.

~ Linda Walser, Director of Rooms

6. Educating guests and staff on the importance of sustainability

One very important piece of sustainability is educating our staff and guests about conservation efforts.

Our endeavors for a more sustainable workplace, are also great ways for staff to invest in this area. Whether they are here long term or for a season, the beauty of Montana is often what inspires them to come out here and work for us.

~ Cat Johnson, HR Director

Recently Virtuoso featured Master Naturalist and Activities Manager Kelsey McGlothlin in an article called, “Big Sky School.

Master Naturalist Kelsey McGlothlin leads a Master Naturalist class with Centano's daughters

Master Naturalist Kelsey McGlothlin leads a Master Naturalist class with Centano’s daughters. Photo courtesy Joel Centano/Virtuoso.

Writer Joel Centano explains how he tried to impart information about environmentalism to his daughters, but it wasn’t until their stay at The Ranch that they realized the impact they had on the environment around them.

Ranch stays include plenty of other ways to continue the conversation that won’t feel like you’re forcing your kids to eat their vegetables. A fleet of specialized bikes replaces cars to encourage carbon-free wanderings around the property’s 6,600 protected acres. Art classes by the creek show how green spaces spur creativity. Visits to the apiary illuminate how bees sustain food supplies. Fly-fishing guides preach catch-and-release and lead cleanups to remove refuse from nearby rivers.

~ Joel Centano, Virtuoso

Centano's daughter shares her master naturalist journal

Centano’s daughter shares her master naturalist journal. Photo courtesy Joel Centano/Virtuoso.

Our Ride Along with a Rancher activity also teaches how our Ranching Manager Rob Laird and Barn Manager Hailey Laird are developing our own cattle herd to close the loop on our beef supply, while Executive Chef Josh Drage sources our meat and produce from over 100 local and regional farms and ranches. Every department is empowered to keep sustainability a priority in their decisions and development.

Mother Nature has been so good to us, and our gratitude must be expressed in lasting, meaningful action to protect her for future generations.

Read more about our sustainability efforts here.