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Les Gilman on commonality, the inevitability of change & how long is always?

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

(Photo Sara Gilman)

Where do you live?

I live on the family ranch in the old mining town of Ruby, which is east of Alder in the Ruby Valley. Our stable was the original livery stable for the town of Ruby. During the dredging operations that tore up Alder Gulch, Ruby was the company town for the dredging operation. The history indicates that there were 500 people, almost the size of present-day Sheridan, living in Ruby in the peak of the mining days. Those mining operations ran from around 1900 to 1922.

What is your profession?

Primarily, I am a rancher in the Ruby Valley. Our family has been ranching here for a long time. A portion of our ranch was homesteaded by my great-great-grandfather in 1880. The biggest portion of our ranch was purchased by his son-in-law, my great-grandfather, in 1909.

Les countin' 'em through the gate to Taylor Creek in the Upper Ruby. (Photo Neil Barnosky)
Les and Juventino - 30-year coworkers at Ruby Habitat's Woodson Ranch. (Photo Les Gilman)

Also, I currently serve and have served for 20 years as the executive director of Ruby Habitat Foundation¹. Ruby Habitat Foundation was formed in 2002, so this year is the 20th anniversary. I actually managed the Ruby Habitat Foundation, Woodson ranch for the founder for 10 years before that, beginning in 1992. It’s been an honor and a privilege to serve in that capacity and work with founder Craig Woodson and the rest of the foundation.

I’m also retired from Ranch Resources². Ranch Resources really began with Craig

Woodson in 1992. Craig bought Woodson Ranch, which is close to my family ranch. I was looking for an opportunity to expand my ranching operation and I arranged an opportunity to meet this new landowner who I suspected wasn’t going to want to be a rancher. I was thinking I could lease the ranch from him and expand my ranching operation when he went back home. He said, “the problem with that is when I go back to Texas, you’ll be thinking about you. I need somebody to think about me. I heard you’re the guy who could do that.” While I was thinking about expanding my ranching operation, he’d been thinking about somebody to think about him. So, we ended up coming together and the idea for an independent management service was born.

A few years later, the company Ranch Resources was founded to provide independent ranch management services to landowners. In 2017, I sold the business to the current owners and agreed to stay on for a couple years; now it’s been 5 years and I’m still here.

What do you do for fun?

Les, Donna, Neil, and Gloria. Lifelong friends. (Photo Les Gilman)

I don’t really have any hobbies; I downhill ski a little bit. I really just enjoy the life I live and the opportunities to do some farming, tractor work, construction, sit horseback on a fairly regular basis, and be outdoors doing all that. So, I guess ranching is a fun thing for me. The opportunity to live and work in an environment with my kids and grandkids — there’s just a great deal of pleasure and satisfaction seeing three generations on Robb Ledford³ where we run cows with Neil Barnosky, fellow RVSA member, and his family. Here’s Grandpa Neil, son Jake, and grandchildren, and Grandpa Les, son Charlie, and grandkids. We have two families with three generations all together working side-by-side. Neil and I were in the same class in high school, Neil’s wife, Gloria, too, so we have this long-term relationship. To work side by side is really enjoyable. I have fun with everything that I do. I grew up right on our ranch and never remember being bored or lacking something to do. Fishing, walking the rock piles, it’s all fun.

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

Generationally, that’s how I’m connected. I mentioned this great-great grandfather, but actually I’m descended from six different families who came here for the gold rush. I have a generational relationship with the Centennial Valley and the Ruby Valley. I can look around and see how much a part of this valley the families I’m related to have been, but also how much a part of me the valley is.

There’s an author by the name of Paul Starrs and he wrote a book called Let the Cowboy Ride. In the book, he has a quote about landowners and humanity, it goes something like “we have changed the land, but the land in its turn has changed us.” I know it’s true about me.

Three generations of Barnoskys and Gilmans at the McGuire Homestead on Robb Creek. (Photo Les Gilman)

Why are you a member of the RVSA?

I can’t say no! No, I think it’s a personal sense of community and commitment to stewardship — to good, meaningful, lasting stewardship. My connection to the alliance and people in it goes back quite a few years before the creation of the group. I felt that we had a good thing going and probably should formalize that. I had an appreciation for its potential and decided it was worth providing time to, along with hospital foundation, project work, housing boards, school boards, and fire departments — I’ve always felt an obligation to give back to the community and this group feels like a larger scale. This is a landscape scale rather than a project scale.

Les and Charlie Gilman discuss grazing strategy at Gilman IH Cattle Co. (Photo Dave Delisi)

What are the vision and goals of the RVSA?

I think it’s about long-term conservation of our natural resources for and by the people dependent on those resources.

"The value of collaboration in achieving goals may be greater than the goals we’ve set for ourselves.

What in your mind are some key accomplishments of the RVSA?

I think our key accomplishment is identifying our commonality. That was not a minor thing. The identification of that commonality is a huge accomplishment and then being able to steer or direct this group towards accomplishing goals that we have or share. In terms of specific accomplishments, my thought would be the greatest is yet to come. The things that we’re working on now could have significant meaningful impact — not to diminish anything that we’ve done in the past. The field trips and opportunities to have all of us gain an appreciation for one another’s work are worthwhile. The various things we’ve worked on like the water compact, grizzly bear management, each one of those projects — our impact on policy for a variety of purposes — has been key accomplishment. But that comes from our success in building an organization with such integrity and innovative approaches, which is a huge accomplishment. Being part of an organization that has an impact is not a minor accomplishment.

What do you look forward to working with this group?

I always look forward to the relationships and the opportunities to get together, visit with people, and know them a little better. Not every organization is like that — you don’t get to know the other members of your organization on a personal basis. I always look forward to field trips where we have the opportunity to see things from different perspectives, and sometimes gain those other perspectives.

"One of the things I think often and say to a lot of people is, 'I don’t think it really has ever been the way we think it always was'... So, if someone tries to say, 'It’s always been this way.' I say, 'How long is always?' You don’t have to go back very far to realize it hasn’t always been."

What do you think others could learn from the RVSA?

The value of collaboration in achieving goals may be greater than the goals we’ve set for ourselves. We have personal goals and objectives; we think if I could just get those done, we’ll be successful. When we collaborate with others, maybe the success goes beyond what we were thinking we wanted.

One of the things I think often and say to a lot of people is, "I don’t think it really has ever been the way we think it always was." We get in a rut and think we’ve always done it this way. I don’t think it ever really was that way. I think we’ve been affecting change intentionally or accidentally for generations. Within your memory there may be things you thought were always the same, but it really wasn’t. We resist change and want to get in our rut and stick there because it’s comfortable, but I don’t think it ever really is comfortable. I think the Ruby is a really good example of that — it was Native American hunting ground, then it was mining ground, then it was hardscrabble farming and ranching trying to make a living, then that changed to flood irrigated farm ground with a reservoir, and now it’s transitioned to a combination of agriculture, tourism, and recreation. So, if someone tries to say, “It’s always been this way.” I say, “How long is always?” You don’t have to go back very far to realize it hasn’t always been.

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

What I’ve learned and maybe what other people could gain from our experiences is though we may not all think the same, live the same, or look the same, deep down there is probably some very similar desires, particularly when we get into the natural resource realm of things. Until we get to know folks, we don’t come to appreciate those common desires. That’s really what the RVSA is about. For the reasons which we’re organized, we’re all really on the same page. Collaboratives can be formed successfully if the participants are committed to success rather than just arguing over their differences.

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

The openness and honesty of the group.

Headed through the Robb Creek Notch in the Snowcrest Range. (Photo Les Gilman)

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

I would like to see it be a uniquely viable landscape of prosperity and of strong natural resource value. I don’t want to use the word unchanged. Change is inevitable. I would like it to be this unique setting of preserving open space, wildlife habitat, and agricultural working landscapes, because those are getting to be somewhat rare and worth sustaining. I would like the Ruby Valley to be that.

What is your personal theme song and/or theme song?

My Heros Have Always Been Cowboys, Willie Nelson.

¹ Ruby Habitat Foundation is a non-profit organization and working ranch dedicated to preserving and enhancing the natural resources, and social and economic makeup of the Ruby Valley and southwest Montana.

² Ranch Resources is a natural resource consulting service based in Sheridan, Montana providing comprehensive land management solutions for agricultural, recreational and investment property owners throughout the West.

³ Robb Ledford is a Wildlife Management Area owned by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks in the Snowcrest Range of southwest Montana.

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