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Travelers for Open Land: Saving Montana’s Irreplaceable Landscapes

A new land conservation effort in Montana is helping to preserve the state’s natural areas through an innovative partnership between visitors to the state, the hospitality industry, private landowners and nonprofit land trusts. The program, known as Travelers for Open Land (TFOL), collects voluntary donations from visitors to Montana to fund grants to preserve the landscapes that attract travelers in the first place. Launched in April 2009, TFOL recently awarded its first grants, totaling $10,000.

Hotels, restaurants and other businesses with a strong link to tourism take part in the program by asking their guests for voluntary donations to TFOL. Donations can be as little as a dollar or two. Twice a year the money collected is awarded to nonprofit land trusts based on a competitive application process. Projects that apply must conserve open lands, be supported by the community and have matching funds.

Mike Scholz, owner of Buck’s T-4 Lodge at Big Sky and the founder of TFOL, said the idea for the program originated in 2007 while he was researching Montana’s tourism industry. His research revealed that the primary reasons travelers gave for visiting the state were enjoyment of the vast open lands and wildlife viewing. Residents cited the same reasons for living in Montana. Scholz recognized the importance of protecting those natural assets and believed travelers could play a key role in expanding conservation efforts.

In January, TFOL awarded its first grants in the amounts of $2,500 each to four different nonprofit land trusts. The projects supported were located throughout Montana and ranged from helping to preserve a historic ranch to creating a permanent hiking trail on private land to protecting bird habitat and a Blue Ribbon trout stream.

In a recent post on TFOL’s Facebook page, Jack Rich, owner of Rich Ranch, a business participating in the program, shared a photo of people snowmobiling on property that until recently was threatened by subdivision. “Then the Blackfoot Challenge and Nature Conservancy got involved with the local community and as a result this landscape is now part of the Lolo National Forest and available for continued enjoyment by all,” Rich wrote, adding an appeal to individuals who are able to contribute to TFOL’s conservation efforts.

“TFOL is good for the landscape and it’s also good for business,” said Kris Hauck, owner of the El Western Cabins & Lodges in Ennis, in a TFOL January press release. Hauck believes that preservation is one way to ensure that people keep coming back to Montana year after year.

There is no other statewide conservation project like TFOL in the US. With continued success the program could become a model for other state conservation efforts. According to Scholz, Glenn Marx, the executive director of Montana Association of Land Trusts, a group of 12 land trusts that compete for TFOL funding, receives one to two calls a month from other states interested in the TFOL program.

Montana receives roughly 10 million visitors each year. As Scholz puts it, “If just one tenth donated a dollar, that would be a million dollars. You can do a lot with a million dollars.”

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