December 12, 2022 |Gates Watson

Take Care of the Land and the Land Will Take Care of You

I’ve lost track of how many hours I’ve spent over the last 20 years sitting at the kitchen table at McMaster Ranch chatting about land, water resources, cows, neighbors and news around town with Dolly McMaster and her late brother, Bud. It was important to Bud and Dolly that I truly understood how all the pieces fit together in terms of their goals and the actual operations at the ranch before any transaction would take place. Sometimes Bud and I would drive out to one of his favorite spots on the ranch and eat lunch with a view of the lake, Spokane Hills and just wild, open space. It was through catching up over coffee and walks on the property that we developed both a strong professional relationship and enduring personal friendship that I value immensely.

Dolly McMaster and Gates Watson. Photo by Kelly Ingebritson.

Dolly still lives on the property where she grew up, and until only recently she actively cared for 40 head of cattle. At age 94, she no longer engages in cattle raising and daily ranch chores, but she still thinks about the environmental stewardship responsibilities of land ownership every day. During my latest visit in summer 2022, Dolly and I talked about changes that have taken place in the area, including which large properties had been sold and subdivided and how certain areas look so different due to development that they are nearly unrecognizable. We reminisced about how Bud, who died in 2007, would share in her happiness that their ranch will never meet that same fate.

McMaster grassland. Photo by Todd Kaplan.

McMaster Ranch is located 15 miles east of Helena, Montana, where it was founded in 1893 by Dolly and Bud’s grandparents William and Lizzie McMaster. The McMaster Ranch was built on the foundation of hard work, frugality and the core belief that if you take care of the land it will take care of you. Lizzie McMaster instilled that ethic into her children and grandchildren, and it continues to guide Dolly to this day.

Starting as a 160-acre homestead, the family’s ranch expanded through the decades to more than 4,000 acres of hills, grassland and creeks. As the ranch grew over the years, the surrounding area between Helena and Bozeman experienced tremendous growth and development. The McMaster family remained committed to their land ownership ethic and restorative practices with respect to efficiency, grazing, water use and creating a healthier ecosystem. Land was always seen as a precious commodity in the McMaster family, and that legacy led them to set this land aside for everyone to enjoy.

Dolly McMaster pointing to the map. Photo by Kelly Ingebritson.

Thanks to Bud and Dolly’s decision to entrust their ranchland to the ownership and care of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the McMaster Ranch is now permanently protected. Without other family members willing and able to take over the demanding work of running the ranch, Dolly and Bud were confident that BLM management was the best way to honor their belief that land can be both restored and utilized as a working landscape and managed with health as the number one goal. Their decision to sell was truly an extension of caring for the land.

Dolly and Bud partnered with The Conservation Fund to achieve this outcome. We helped them realize their lifelong objective of restoration and protection by purchasing their ranch with capital from our Revolving Fund, which is a financial mechanism that provides this ready capital for acquisition of lands and waters of high conservation value. We use our Revolving Fund to help federal, state, and local partners by acting quickly to save priority lands vulnerable to development or fragmentation. BLM was later able to buy the ranch from us when federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund became available, allowing us to “revolve” our investment into the next critical conservation project.

Photo courtesy Bureau of Land Management.

Now McMaster Ranch provides public access for fishing, hiking, hunting, boating, camping and wildlife viewing. The ranch also provides habitat for eagles, waterfowl, bighorn sheep, elk, deer, antelope, bear and a variety of game fish, including salmon and brown trout.

In addition to the uninterrupted vistas and rich diversity of plants and animals, McMaster Ranch has historic value deemed worthy of inclusion in the National Registry of History Places in 2022. The buildings and structures at the ranch headquarters appear much the same way they did when they were originally built.

Aerial overview photo taken August 1956 of the McMaster Ranch main complex. Nearly all of the structures and features of headquarters remain today. Photo courtesy Montana Historical Society Photograph Archives.

Many of the buildings include examples of William McMaster’s unique style of carpentry, as well as the many iron latches and hooks that he created with his blacksmith skills. The irrigation system that made the ranch operable, a schoolhouse, and livestock barns and corrals are also all intact. And the orchard planted by Lizzie McMaster in the early 1900s has been designated as a Montana Heritage Orchard, which means it has five or more trees older than 75 years.

August 2020 view of the McMaster Ranch long barn with Spokane Mountain in the background. Photo courtesy Montana Historical Society.

Dolly still lives close to that orchard, in the main residence at ranch headquarters as part of a life estate. She enjoys seeing visitors who have come to hike or ride their horses on the trails now that McMaster Ranch is public land. And in September 2022 she celebrated the unveiling of the National Register of Historic Places sign at McMaster Ranch along with representatives from BLM and Montana Historical Society. At the ceremony, Dolly remarked that she was so happy knowing that after she’s gone the ranch would remain intact and cared for in perpetuity, and that if it wasn’t she would “come back and get us all!” That got a huge laugh and applause from the crowd, and very much represents Dolly’s commitment to the land and also her wonderful sense of humor.

Dolly McMaster with the official National Register of Historic Places sign at the unveiling ceremony in September 2022. Photo courtesy Montana Historical Society.

McMaster Ranch is a project that I will never forget — not just because of the amazing landscape that we helped protect, but also because of the landowners who chose to protect their land and legacy. Conservation is about protecting land for people and the planet, and I’m proud to have helped do that at McMaster Ranch.

Written by

Gates Watson

Gates Watson has led the protection of more than 100,000 acres of land during the two decades he has worked at The Conservation Fund. He currently serves as Vice President, Northwest Director. Gates lives in Missoula, Montana with his wife and two daughters, and together they love exploring the wild rivers and mountains of the region.