Courtesy of Chris Boyer with aerial support from LightHawk

Bridging the Divide

Michael Whitfield, photo courtesy of Ilona McCarthy, Open View Photography

He’s tall with a rugged build and that confident Western cowboy look. Michael Whitfield lives in the High Divide, which is about as cowboy country as it gets. He is firmly committed to the people and communities there and feels spiritually connected to the wildlife and land.

The High Divide straddles the Rockies in Idaho and Montana, with watersheds draining to both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It is an essential linkage between the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the wilderness lands of central Idaho, providing important habitat connections for deer, elk, moose, lynx, grizzly bears, and wolverines. The High Divide is a vast, expansive, rural landscape with large ranches, many that have been in the same families for generations.

Michael’s roots run deep in the High Divide. He was born and raised in Driggs, Idaho, where he still lives and works, and where his great grandparents homesteaded. Michael went to college as a pre-med student hoping to become a rural community doctor. His concern and admiration for people of the High Divide are apparent, and his compassion extends to the natural world. As a child, he explored the High Divide country on many outdoor adventures with his grandfathers. Those experiences, and growing up at a time in America when environmental and conservation issues culminated in Earth Day, swayed Michael to the conservation field.

After earning advanced degrees in biology, Michael started a wildlife research career studying eagles, owls, and big horn sheep. Early in his career, he decided to shift his focus to conservation. He explained, “Learning how wildlife use their habitats is exciting work, but more satisfying is conserving wildlife habitat at the landscape-scale for generations. Something that lasts and that is durable.” The challenge Michael took on: how to protect the quality of life in the High Divide, its remarkable people, iconic wildlife species, and scenic landscape. He laughs when asked why he decided on a conservation career, “I recently reread an essay I wrote when I was twelve years old, the viewpoints on that piece are pretty much where I am at today,” he said.

Courtesy of Chris Boyer with aerial support from Lighthawk.

Today Michael sees the people and communities of the High Divide struggle with economic pressures, while the landscape and its wildlife habitat incrementally lose capacity as people move into the region, resulting in additional roads, structures, and subdivisions. Climate change complicates the situation further, as warming temperatures stress the natural resources needed by wildlife and people.

Michael built his career working cooperatively with High Divide locals to protect their landscape and the high quality of life it provides. He was the founding Board President of the Teton Valley Land Trust and served as its Executive Director for 17 years. For the nine years that followed his tenure there, he headed a coalition comprised of 22 land trusts called the Heart of the Rockies Initiative. Land trusts depend on collaboration and cooperation with private landowners. Michael’s extensive experience bolstered his ability to work with land trusts, ranchers and property owners. It also reinforced his respect and admiration for their determination to earn a living, support their families and communities, and conserve the region’s land and wildlife.

Courtesy of Grizzly Creek Films for Heart of the Rockies Initiative

In 2012, the Heart of the Rockies Initiative jumped on an opportunity to bring additional resources to the region through the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), a federal program that provides conservation funding to protect private lands with high resource values. Through this competitive program, if a collaborative group came to consensus on its priorities, the federal government could grant funds to acquire land and easements from private property owners, helping the owners financially, keeping working lands from inappropriate development, and protecting wildlife habitat.

Under Michael’s leadership, Heart of the Rockies Initiative founded the High Divide Collaborative (HDC), a partnership of landowners, local community leaders, public land managers, state wildlife agencies, scientists, and conservation groups. HDC created a broad conservation vision for the region, rooted in science, which includes the protection and restoration of public and private lands , and a landscape design that guides prioritization of projects. Essential to this vision is ensuring that working ranches and timberlands continue to thrive while also protecting conservation values. Michael notes, “Creating a climate where people are really heard can result in a whole lot of common ground around conservation.” That common ground is the basis for the outcomes that HDC seeks to achieve. Kristin Troy, the Executive Director for the Lemhi Regional Land Trust points out that “Under Michael’s leadership, people from all walks of life came together over the mountains and state lines and experienced a surprisingly profound realization; despite our perceived differences, our rural western issues sounded strikingly similar. As a result, we have embraced an expanded definition of ‘community’ and we share local solutions and a desire to nurture innovation.”

Courtesy of Ilona McCarthy, Open View Photography

The work of the HDC resulted in LWCF appropriations of $16 million in 2016 and $14.5 million in 2017. This funding will conserve 23,000 acres of land in the High Divide in the Madison Valley, the Big Hole, Henry’s Lake, and along the Salmon River. Also, the HDC has crystallized its identity and established eight well-defined goals for the organization’s future direction including ecological linkage, working ranchlands, and wildfire management.

The HDC has evolved with a new volunteer governing structure and is adjusting to changes in federal land policy leadership. Michael is poised to retire soon from the Executive Director job at the Heart of the Rockies Initiative. However, those who know him well expect his contributions to High Divide conservation will continue well into the future.

The Wilburforce Foundation congratulates High Divide landowners and all the participants of the HDC for their strong commitment to citizen engagement to find common ground on conservation and land use issues. These efforts align well with Wilburforce’s goal of protecting the irreplaceable lands, waters, and wildlife of western North America, and to increase the relevance for conservation in communities. Wilburforce recognizes that conservation success takes time, and has supported land trust conservation through the Heart of the Rockies Initiative since 2002.

By Bob Freimark, Program Associate for Yellowstone to Yukon