Guest column: A lasting legacy requires big dreams and determination

By Chet Work, Gallatin Valley Land Trust Executive Director

October 19, 2023

Inspired by the brilliant colors and snowy peaks of another incredible Montana fall, I recently headed up Drinking Horse Mountain Trail to take in the views—Bridger Canyon to the east, the Gallatin Range to the south, and the Tobacco Roots to the far west.

As I admired the improvements made throughout the summer by our hard-working Trails team and passionate volunteers, I thought about Drinking Horse’s unique history, the vision of my predecessors at Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT) who created this public access for the community, and the legacy they left for us.

The dream of building the Drinking Horse Mountain Trail began in 2001 when the White family generously donated a 40-acre parcel of land including the top of the mountain to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which owned the adjacent hatchery property. With determination and perseverance over the course of eight years, GVLT spearheaded efforts with more than a dozen partners to design, permit, fund, and construct the trail, including the iconic Kevin Mundy Memorial Bridge across Bridger Creek. The trail was finally opened to the public in September 2008, thanks to the tremendous support and generosity of many local businesses, private donors, and volunteers.

Projects of this scale and complexity require a great deal of vision and blind optimism. Our current staff and board members often harken back to the grit, determination, and long view required of previous GVLT leaders to tackle some of our most notable and celebrated projects. We stand on the shoulders of the many folks who dreamed big. A community with this amount of conserved land and access to trails doesn’t happen by accident. And the work is not finished—there is more dreaming to be done.

As your land trust, GVLT is in the “forever” business. Each new trail and conservation project adds to an enduring foundation of protected land that will outlive all of us. This is a responsibility GVLT’s staff and board take very seriously. As a team, we’re united around our 30-year vision of a “future where open space and trails ensure that all species in our landscape can thrive.”

Our foot is firmly on the gas pedal and the pace of our achievement is accelerating. Our Trails program is hard at work completing critical trail connections, making significant improvements, and increasing accessibility so that everyone can enjoy impactful outdoor experiences.

The pace of our conservation work is also increasing. This summer we partnered with a landowner in the Paradise Valley to complete our largest easement ever, nearly 9,000 acres. Every year, the number of acres of forever-conserved land grows. To date, we have worked with 127 families in Gallatin, Park, and Madison counties, helping them conserve more than 65,000 acres—with more in the pipeline.

As a young family arrived at the summit of Drinking Horse with a child joyfully jumping from every rock, my thoughts shifted from the history of our work to the future. GVLT staff have welcomed three new babies this year and another is on the way. Between us, we have 17 GVLT kids growing up in the beautiful Gallatin Valley. In 30 years, what stories will our kids share about the special places we conserved and access we created? As we reflect on the incredible legacy of GVLT’s leaders, supporters, and community who dreamed of and completed these enduring projects, we ask ourselves, what will we leave behind? What will be the legacy of our generation?

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