In the early 1970s, Huey Johnson, working with The Nature Conservancy, was approached by a young man 17 years of age, who asked him to help preserve a 35,000 acre family ranch from development. It was an unexpected request that eventually came to fruition. Bill Milton tells the story of the generous donation that seven siblings all under the age of 21, made to protect their family ranch for wildlife conservation.
Bill is an anomaly: he is a Buddhist, a rancher, and a philanthropist. He is a man who is as spiritual about the land as he is practical. As an idealistic young man of 17, he approached Huey Johnson at the Nature Conservancy and told him that he and his other young siblings, all under the age of 21 – wanted to protect their father’s 35,000-acre ranch, which was tangled up in probate court. Huey helped the children and was able to protect the land which created a legacy for the Milton children, an act that that protected the Beartooth Ranch as a wildlife refuge.
Bill Milton: My father bought this amazing ranch when I was 7 years old. And probably I took as much interest–as one of the kids, there’s 7 of us– in actually working, cowboying and riding and spending time up at the cow camps. And so probably as a lot of us, in various ways, develop our relationship to land based on place and association and work and relationships.
The Bear Tooth was–the family ranch was–the family ranch– sort of that pivotal place in which growing up, it was my contact. And to have a contact of a large piece of space that was very beautiful, in Montana, with all kinds of wildlife, working very close to the land, dealing with a lot of characters, you know, in that part of the world, I developed a deep love, appreciation, relationship, kind of visceral connection with that space. And when my father died when I was only 17–and none of us kids were over 21, of legal age, and the probate system… And so as young, very green as you observed, idealists, we had a love for place, we actually challenged the family and the probate system…probate process– that we didn’t want it to be sold to this person, and we wanted something, a refuge or something like that made from it. And that led to – I walk into the door in San Francisco, saying “Hi, I’m Bill Milton. We have this 35,000 acre ranch, can you help?” And I think, Huey, I think somehow you thought, “I think this is an opportunity.”
Huey Johnson: Like waving a steak at a shark [laughter].
Bill Milton: It was like; it was like, oh my god. And I think at our age, we didn’t appreciate as well as you did, that this simple, idealistic act of protecting the piece of place would only have a lot of interesting impacts on a lot of different people in both our neighborhood, in the state, politically. And so the project got done, and yes, there was a story written up and it was an exciting project, but really the legacy of that project was a lot more interesting than the project itself.
Huey Johnson: The remarkable good fortune that America has enjoyed from philanthropy of individuals giving land for parks or refuges or open spaces, that we as we’re setting very near a place called Muir Redwoods given by a local family. Its one of the most visited places in the country. And Jackson Hole Wyoming and the Everglades donated by the Rockefeller family and an endless list of just wonderful happenings where people like you and your family donated something, so I want to thank you for that.