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Rick Sandru on tough conversations, collaboration & keeping working ranches viable

Updated: Dec 7, 2022

Where do you live?

I reside on our family ranch here in Twin Bridges, Montana on the Jefferson River.

Where do you work or what is your profession?

I’m a rancher. I’ve been doing this my whole life and I’ve never wanted to do anything else. I tried college. I worked for a year in construction, saved my money, and went to college. I sat in those classes thinking, why am I here? I got my refund, went home, and leased a small place.

Rick after a successful day of elk hunting. (Photo Rick Sandru)

What do you do for fun?

My entertainment is right here on the ranch. Most people work to save money to go someplace on vacation. I feel like I'm vacationing every day, why do I need to go someplace? I get to work out here. My wife always says, "we should really go do something!” I say, we could go camping and be surrounded by other people or we could stay here on the ranch and take a walk around this place. So, ranching is kind of what I do for fun. One other thing I enjoy is a little elk hunting.

How would you describe your relationship with Ruby Valley or the surrounding area?

I’ve got a pretty serious relationship with the Ruby Valley — we definitely seem to have a commitment. I’ve only been here for 32 years, but I have a great appreciation for this valley and its open space. With Helena’s expansion over the years, the area where I grew up and ranched turned from working ranchlands into 20-acre ranchettes. Neighboring ranches were suddenly worth more as subdivisions than working ranches. That continued until there were only a handful of ranches between Helena and our place. When we moved down here, it was like we were moving back to real Montana where ranches prevailed, there was open space, and everybody knew the code of the West. Respectful, hardworking, and just great people. Because of that, I am always advocating for this whole area. I know what will happen to this area if we don’t do something.

How did you first become involved with the RVSA, and why was it important to you to join?

I’m pretty much responsible for starting the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance. It all began with conversations around the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act¹ and the relationships that were built trying to find solutions that would work for all parties involved to move that forward in an acceptable way.

What is the importance of a group like the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance?

There’s no other group like the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance. It's one of a kind. I saw the opportunity for such a group because of the relationships that had been built in the Forest Jobs and Recreation Act¹ debates. We worked with the Wilderness Society, Greater Yellowstone Coalition, and Montana Wilderness Association; through those conversations, we developed good relationships and appreciation for one another. Those relationships are still in place years later.

I am also a Ruby Valley Conservation District board supervisor, so I presented this idea to the rest of the board members. I said, “We have these great relationships with a diverse bunch of people, why don’t we try to capitalize and expand on that? Get together and try to tackle some of the tough issues in the valley together. Maybe we can work through it and find some solutions.” That was a tougher sell than you might think. There were people in that room who didn’t think it would be worth the effort. The last holdout was the chairman, Gary Giem. He finally threw up his hands in despair, he just got tired of listening to me and he said, “Alright Rick, if you can make this fly, I’ve got some oceanfront property you can sell for me.” From there, we gave it a whirl and that’s how we got started. Gary is now one of the strongest advocates.

What are the vision and goals for the RVSA?

The goal is to keep working ranches and the public lands they depend on intact and viable so we can all achieve our long-term conservation goals.

What do you see as some of your key accomplishments?

Seeing our recommendations adopted by the Governor’s Grizzly Bear Advisory Council was one of our big accomplishments. I was at a grizzly bear meeting with all the key players and the Governor to talk about appointing a Grizzly Bear Advisory Council a few years ago. We were visiting about how that was going to work and I thought our group could put forward some really good recommendations that the council could use. When we got through with the process of creating recommendations, we sent a letter to the council and they adopted largely the letter we sent as their recommendations. It took us about a year — we were pretty sick of talking about grizzlies, but we did it. Everyone was committed to finishing it. We got a great response for that.

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

I look forward to having meaningful active management of our public lands and having people, all the people who live here, understand the importance of working ranches. Hopefully we can pass this ranching legacy onto the next generation, and not just my kids that are going to be working the land, but you might have kids that want to come out here and enjoy this area. They might want to come out to the Sandru Ranch to hunt a deer or just enjoy the wildlife. It’s not just the private ground affected by change in the valley. There is an inextricable connection between private land and public land — you can’t affect one without affecting the other. I think a lot more people are understanding that.

"There is an inextricable connection between private land and public land — you can’t affect one without affecting the other."
Rick riding in the Snowcrest Range. (Photo Rick Sandru)

Do you have any favorite memories from your time with the RVSA?

I thought we were talking about way back with Jimmy Buffett. That was prime time for me... I have a lot of favorite memories from the alliance. One of the most rewarding was when we had Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s board of directors down here for dinner. That was such a rewarding evening, I learned they were from all over the country, not just the Greater Yellowstone area. Our neighbor came over and barbequed for the meal, he’s quite famous around here. Everybody was visiting, and we just had the best time. Time very well spent there.

What do you think others could learn from the Ruby Valley Strategic Alliance?

I think others have learned that if you get a diverse group together and have serious discussions about issues of concern, that you can come up with productive solutions. I’m thinking about the Farm Bureau leadership series that Darcie (Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s Montana Conservation Coordinator) and Emily (Conservation Director, Wild Montana) have been working with. Originally there was not a lot of trust there, but we’ve created a partnership that has allowed us to shake preconceived notions.

You hear about collaborative groups all over, but this isn’t like an ordinary collaborative group. For one thing, we are not project oriented. We’re focused on policy and procedure. I think that sets us apart from others. We support a lot of projects, but that’s not our mission.

What do you wish other people knew about the RVSA?

Something people may not know about the alliance is that I believe there isn’t one of us that doesn’t thoroughly enjoy every meeting and interacting with each other. There’s an incredible mutual respect in the group and a bond, it’s almost like a championship football team or something. We're all in it to win. Even in the toughest conversations, we’re all trying to figure out a way to make this thing work. And I think that’s why we come up with such productive solutions. It’s not just a representative of a group sitting across from you, you know how their marriage is, how many kids they have, if they're on the school board, or what the problems in their life are. They're almost like an extended family.

Rick riding through blooming rabbitbrush in the foothills of the Tobacco Root Mountains. (Photo Rick Sandru)
"It’s not just a representative of a group sitting across from you, you know how their marriage is, how many kids they have, if they're on the school board, or what the problems in their life are. They're almost like an extended family."

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

I have to tell you that I'm not a bit surprised by this group. I had so much faith in what this group could accomplish when I went before the Ruby Valley Conservation District and pled my case — or I never would have done that. For some reason I could see the huge potential for this group and believe me, they haven't let me down

¹ 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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