Digging into Hands on the Land

“It’s not every day that you’re invited out to a private property or big family ranch,” says Jenny Tollefson , Five Valleys Stewardship Director. “Connecting community members with these special places, and supporting their stewardship, that’s what Hands on the Land is all about.”

Five Valleys has been fortunate to work with over 200 families to protect their land with conservation easements. While conserved in perpetuity, these lands remain private; and like most private properties, are not usually open to public recreation. The opportunity to see and support these properties is what makes Hands on the Land unique.

Hands on the Land volunteers assist with a fencing project on a easement property in Rock Creek.

In the early 2000s, new conservation easement landowners Jill Perelman, and her son and daughter-in-law Kent Perelman and Mary Shaffer, began the process of restoring three creeks on their Sundance Ranch property near Ovando. The creeks were in sorry shape: Decades of livestock overgrazing had eroded the banks, eliminated streambank vegetation, and increased water temperatures to the point that they could no longer support the bull and westslope cutthroat trout that once thrived there.

Despite these conditions, the Perelman family forged ahead with their efforts, working in partnership with several conservation organizations, businesses, and agencies to plant nearly 10,000 shrubs, trees and cuttings along 14,500 feet of streambank. But to be successful, all those new plants required regular watering and monitoring, year after year. What the project needed was more hands. From that effort, Five Valleys' Hands on the Land volunteering program was born.

Today, Hands on the Land offers a unique opportunity: connecting community members with direct ways to enhance, restore, and support privately owned conservation lands. Since 2001, Five Valleys and our easement landowners have held over 50 Hands on the Land events. These stewardship workdays vary as much as the properties that host them: streambank restoration, weed pulls, fence removal, waste cleanups, tree pruning, trail maintenance, and installing beaver dam analogs.

A young conservationist pulls weeds on a conservation easement near Alberton.

With that much variety, there’s something for everyone. Over two decades, thousands of community volunteers have lent their time, tools, and enthusiasm towards ensuring Western Montana’s private conservation lands remain open, healthy, and connected.

Cathy Fischer and her partner, Leila Haack, have been stalwart Hands on the Land volunteers for a decade.

“Every time I volunteer, I learn something new. Whether that’s a new skill or about natural history. And we get work alongside volunteers of all ages and experiences to honor these lands and landowners.” - Cathy Fischer
Leila Haack and Cathy Fischer pull weeds at a Hands on the Land event in 2019. Photo by Olga Helmy.
Leila agrees. “It’s fun. Hands on the Land allows us to use our enthusiasm to give back and connect with our community,” she says. “It gives you a sense of pride to support a place you care about.”

Already, the 2023 season is off to a strong start. Five Valleys hosted two Hands on the Land events in April: removal of encroaching conifers and weeds in a historic raspberry patch on the Wisherd family conservation easement near Bonner and an Earth Day dog waste cleanup at two Missoula trailheads.

Volunteers help thinned timber on the Wisherd conservation easement, April 2023.

Interested in digging in? Five Valleys usually hosts 1-2 volunteering events per month during the field season. Check our upcoming events page for opportunities to get involved and sign up to receive email updates. We’ll see you on the land.

-By Lena Viall, Conservation and Communications Manager

Subscribe to our e-news and volunteer opportunity emails.

Header photo of volunteers on the Sundance Ranch by John Belobraidic

Volunteers work on a fencing project in Rock Creek by Five Valleys staff

Young conservationist pulling weeds by Five Valleys staff

Leila Haack and Cathy Fisher photo by Olga Helmy

Volunteers thinning timber on the Wishered easement by Five Valleys staff


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