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Emily Cleveland on wilderness, authentic partnerships & common-sense solutions



Where do you live?


I live in Bozeman.


Where do you work or what is your profession?


I'm the conservation director for Wild Montana.


What do you do for fun?


I try to get outside as much as possible with my husband and daughter and our dog. I especially like back country skiing, hiking, and backpacking.


How are you connected to the Ruby Valley or surrounding area?


I started working for Wild Montana in 2018 and began representing the organization in the RVSA at that time. That was really my first opportunity to learn about the Ruby Valley and the work that the group had been doing. There's been a long history of Wild Montana’s engagement with the group since its inception. It has been a really valuable opportunity to learn about the valley, the physical geography and what makes it so special, the community and people, and the issues that are facing the valley.


Why are you a member of the RVSA?


Wild Montana is a member of the RVSA because we feel like collaborating with local communities is the most important way to address conservation challenges and to really learn about the issues on the ground affecting communities and management. The strategic alliance is a valuable opportunity to build partnerships and expand support for Wilderness in the Snowcrest Range. It’s also providing opportunities to have conversations and learn from people in the group to help us craft conservation proposals that make sense and work for people on the ground whose livelihoods depend on these public lands.


"...Wilderness is a topic that divides people frequently. The fact that we were able to not just reach agreement, but that a Wilderness agreement was the seed that led to our group really blossoming, says a lot about the type of issues that we can dig in on and find agreement around – and that we can do it in a way that results in durable, common-sense solutions that work for everybody."

What is the vision and goals of the RVSA?


To me, the vision and the goal of the RVSA is to protect what makes the Ruby Valley what it is today, which is a really wild place that supports livelihoods, intact wildlife habitat, and that provides cold, clean water. The vision and goals include figuring out how to steward these lands and ensure the next generation can continue to experience what makes them so unique in not just Montana, but in the country.


What do you see as some of our key accomplishments?


I think one of the biggest accomplishments of the group, and what really showed the potential of the group, was the Snowcrest Agreement. What brought the group together in the first place was conversations that arose out of conflict when a piece of legislation included a Wilderness designation in the Snowcrest Range.¹ It brought up concerns about what that would mean for local grazing permittees. Rick Sandru really opened a dialogue between ranchers and conservationists, and once we started talking, we realized a lot of our goals and our vision for the area were held in common and we could figure out a way to find an agreement that could meet everybody's needs. Through those conversations, the group did find agreement and submitted modified language for that bill, which didn't end up moving through Congress, but the result of that work is still paying off in the sense that the group has an agreement for Wilderness in the Snowcrest Range. This agreement would protect all the things that are important to the group from our intact, wild public lands and remote backcountry recreation experiences to the ranching operations that rely on these places.


That’s a huge accomplishment because Wilderness is a topic that divides people frequently. The fact that we were able to not just reach agreement, but that a Wilderness agreement was the seed that led to our group really blossoming, says a lot about the type of issues that we can dig in on and find agreement around – and that we can do it in a way that results in durable, common-sense solutions that work for everybody.


Since then, we've been able to take that success and the relationships we have built and tackle additional issues and figure out where we can weigh in on issues to help improve the viability of working lands and in turn, intact wildlife corridors. Through that Snowcrest Agreement, we were able to really develop trust and understanding that has given us a really strong foundation for our work and the ability to collaborate on tricky issues.


RVSA members and guests gather before the 2021 RVSA Field Trip (L-R Ann Schwend, Nathan Korb, Siva Sundaresan, Emily Cleveland, Rick Sandru). (Photo GYC/Emmy Reed)
"Part of why I want to do this work is because I care about the success of our partners. It’s not just this abstract policy question. I want Neil to be able to keep doing what he's doing, and I want his kids and his grandkids to be able to keep ranching because it’s important."

What do you look forward to while working with this group?


What I look forward to is being able to get together in person every month, share lunch, and hear what's going on in everybody's worlds. For me it's been a valuable opportunity to learn about agriculture in southwest Montana – what that lifestyle looks like and just the hard work and diversity of skill sets that go into running a ranch. I’ve gained an understanding of how ranchers build their livelihoods off the land, what kind of challenges they're facing, and where we can work together to make improvements in the status quo. I appreciate the conversations and the opportunities to just be friends – that we're able to have these friendly relationships that go beyond sitting in the room and talking about issues.


Part of why I want to do this work is because I care about the success of our partners. It’s not just this abstract policy question. I want Neil to be able to keep doing what he's doing, and I want his kids and his grandkids to be able to keep ranching because it’s important. All of our ranching partners have such a deep connection to stewardship in the valley. It’s been a great opportunity to learn about a different way of connecting to and conserving the land compared to the sort of the conservation-oriented perspective that I had and brought from the nonprofit world.


"We also have strong enough relationships with one another that we aren't easily divided. The usual wedge issues can’t splinter our group because we are a strong and robust group that has real connections with one another."

What do you think others could learn from the RVSA?


I think people can learn what it takes to be able to build authentic, genuine partnerships. What it takes is time, patience, and really building trust and an understanding, and being open to learn from one another – to show up in that room and be just as willing to listen as you are to talk. Not to show up and try to make sure everybody understands your point of view, but to show up and say, “I want to understand this issue from your perspective and what's going on. What problems does it cause you? Why do you care about this? Why is it important to you?” Then, share why it is important to me and why I care about this issue. It sounds so straightforward and so simple, but it's amazing how it’s not always simple. It's pretty rare for groups to get together and to be able to have these really hard conversations and it not impact interpersonal relationships or dynamics.


I walk out of our meetings feeling like I've been honest, but not worried that I won’t be wanted back the next time, which I feel is an amazing and unique thing. I know that even if I say something others might not like to hear, they know it doesn't mean I don't still care about their perspective. I’m saying it because I want to make sure we have a good solution. I think the RVSA is a really good model for what authentic grassroots collaborative conversations look like.


Sometimes people approach these collaborative conversations with a very results-oriented perspective of, “how fast can we get an answer" or "how fast can we create a solution?” I think part of the success of the RVSA is that we've given ourselves the space and time to build trust and relationships. That's why I think our group is different than others. Hopefully it shows others the power of having patience and giving time to these groups – that it really pays off and can ultimately lead to really robust partnerships.


Emily and crew touring the Upper Ruby with the Snowcrest Range on the horizon. (Photo GYC/Emmy Reed)

What do you want to be sure people know about the RVSA?


I want people to know that we're a group that doesn't reflect one interest group. We're a group that reflects a range of perspectives and interests. When a decision maker or someone else comes to the group and asks for our perspective, it's not going to be the ranching perspective or the conservation perspective. It's going to be an opportunity for us to talk together and figure out how we want to weigh in.


We also have strong enough relationships with one another that we aren't easily divided. The usual wedge issues can’t splinter our group because we are a strong and robust group that has real connections with one another. We're confident in being able to weather those conversations or issues.


What have you been surprised by in your work with the RVSA?


I think I’ve been surprised at how often we actually agree on things. Sometimes I think, “oh, this is going to be a tricky conversation,” and it's not actually. Historically, conservation and agriculture are kind of seen as being in opposite corners, but through these conversations, I've been surprised at how often we're in the same place on issues. It’s a cool opportunity to realize that we share a lot in common in terms of what we want to see on the ground and what matters to us.


What is your hope for the future of the Ruby Valley?


My hope for the future of the Ruby Valley is that it can be resilient. Through stewardship practices and public land management, I hope the land can continue to be resilient, that it can continue to be a place for wildlife to move and to weather flooding or fires. I hope communities and people will continue to be resilient because change is constant. There are many different dynamic moving parts right now in our world and a lot of challenges to address. Figuring out how to make both the communities and the lands resilient to what comes next is really important.


I also hope the valley retains what makes it so special, which to me as part of Wild Montana, are the wild and remote opportunities available in southwest Montana that are so rare these days. You can see grizzly tracks and stand on top of a mountain and you can't see development in 360 degrees, but you can see multiple other mountain ranges.


What is your personal theme song or walk song?


This Must Be the Place (Naïve Melody) by Talking Heads




¹ This piece of legislation, The Forest Jobs and Recreation Act, was introduced in 2009 as a bill to sustain economic development and recreational use of National Forest lands and other public lands in Montana, to add certain land to the National Wilderness Preservation System, to release certain wilderness study areas, and for other purposes. The bill eventually failed after many years of amendments and debates.

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