"There's Nothing Here." That was the 2009 tagline for the state's Travel Montana advertising campaign to attract tourists. "Nothing but grizzlies and wolves and bison and trout," one of the magazine ads continues, "Nothing but fresh huckleberry pie for breakfast—with a friendly conversation on the side."
That "nothingness" may be one big reason more than 10 million tourists come to Montana each year and spend nearly three billion dollars, but it also gave Buck's T-4 Lodge owner Mike Scholz an idea: those tourists could be key partners in funding the land trusts and conservation easements that preserve the nothingness.
“Open landscapes and beautiful scenery are what make Montana great,” says Scholz, founder of the Travelers for Open Land program, which culls donations from hotel guests and business patrons and turns them into land grants. Born and cultivated right here in Bozeman, the program partners with the Montana Innkeepers Association and the Montana Association of Land Trusts.
Based on the same method that Lee Iacocca used to refurbish the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s, Mike figured that Montana’s 10 million yearly visitors who enjoy the state's wildlife and scenery would very likely donate to protect it. “These small donations really add up over time to help conserve Montana’s natural horizons," Scholz explains. "We're going to take care of it a dollar or two at a time.”
The idea is simple, really: When guests stay at participating hotels and shop at participating businesses (over 100 businesses have joined since the program launched in April), they’re asked if they’d like to make a donation to the Travelers program. These donations go into the Travelers for Open Land fund and are managed by the Montana Community Foundation, which awards grants to organizations that help protect valuable open lands throughout the state.
“We’re protecting one of our greatest assets, and by doing so, protecting our economy, our way of life, and our identity,” said Glenn Marx, the former publisher of a Whitehall weekly newspaper and now executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts (MALT). MALT is a group of 12 nonprofit organizations that work with landowners on conservation easement projects, and they're the principal competitors for the Travelers grants. The Travelers Grant Review Panel makes the awards based on three specific criteria: the nature of the conservation easement, the level of community support for the project, and the requesting land trust's cash match.
When asked about the effectiveness of the program, launched in April, Marx had some surprising results: “Even though the Travelers program is still in its infancy, we’ve generated two $5,000 land grants in about six months," he says. Marx expects the grants to be awarded in early January 2010. Since 1976, nonprofit land trusts have helped conserve over one million acres of Montana, maintaining working farms and ranches, protecting water quality, and defending habitat for wildlife.
Mike Scholz is going to be an even busier guy in 2010, because Travelers For Open Land has three big goals next year. The first goal, of course, is to get more donations. The second is to do a better job of highlighting and saluting lodging properties and businesses that participate in the project. The last goal is to make the general public more aware of the Travelers program, generate excitement, and really show Montana exactly what the program can create: a whole lot of nothing.
For find out more or to make a donation, go to travelersforopenland.org.