I grew up on the ranch, joined the Navy out of high school, then went on to college, medical school, IM residency, and then Infectious Diseases fellowship. When I finished all this training, I came back to Montana to be closer to where I grew up. I’ve never lost interest in the ranch, and as my parents grew older I became more involved and began helping more extensively with business decisions. My family had done, at best, cursory estate planning, as is typical for many ranching families, and given the relatively small productivity of the ranches (inability to produce large numbers cattle due to size and climate), 2 of the 3 ranches in the family ultimately are no longer in the family. My brother and I recognized we did not want this to happen to the ranch we grew up on, and with a lot of nudging from Sarah, we put together a family trust.
With Sarah, I began to research sustainable agriculture, particularly with regards to grazing animals in our climate (essentially no farmable crops other than forage can grow in the climate of the ranch; it is too high, rocky, dry, and cold in the winter). I was fascinated to discover that a lot of beef in America is imported (over 3 billion lbs/yr), much of which is produced in ecologically sensitive areas. High-quality beef can be produced in the US, in a way that sustains American farms and ranches, both ecologically and financially. When working ranches go under, they rarely remain an expanse of open space with wildlife and cattle; they quickly become a subdivision, with monoculture lawns bereft of the flora and fauna that lived there. The value of cattle vs land paralleled for almost a century until about 1950, when the logarithmic increase in land value ended the era of a family buying a ranch and making a living off it. No one except those with vast wealth are now buying ranches that remain unspoiled; otherwise, the land is subdivided. The loss is not just to the wildlife; it is to the public, with the loss of areas that were once open to hunting and fishing, for example. The question of how to keep the land protected and provide a sustainable quality product at the same time can be answered. It will not be easy nor quick, but rather a fulfilling lifetime endeavor, that if it can be passed on to the next generation, will be an epitaph far too wonderful to chisel onto a tombstone. That the ranch exists unspoiled another century from now will be a greater memorial, in my opinion, than the Pyramids of Egypt or the Taj Mahal in India ever will be.