June 05, 2009
On a ranch in the Ruby River valley, old cow watering holes have been renovated into glistening trout streams teeming with wildlife.
Deer bound behind hedgerows, and pheasants flush from a hunter's pointing dog.
When development occurs at ranches sold by Greg Fay, it's usually not in the form of new homes.
It's usually in the form of more wildlife.
Fay helps property owners improve their properties with wildlife enhancements, from trout streams for spawning brown trout, to white-tailed deer habitat and pheasant grounds.
"Some of the most rewarding work is taking a tributary that is no longer functioning as a spawning stream, and seeing fish in there within a year," Fay said. "It's tremendously rewarding."
As an example, one spring creek that Fay worked on in the Ruby River Valley had no brown trout spawning redds last year. This year on the private ranch there were 44 redds (spawning beds).
Fay began Fay Ranches in 1992, focusing on sales of ranch properties that catered to recreation-minded buyers. He tries to sell to buyers who are not going to subdivide the land, and to that end, he helps owners develop on-property streams and ponds that not only enhance the property's value, they help attract songbirds, wildlife, and improve fisheries.
As his business in ranch sales in Montana grew, his clients soon began asking Fay to be the quarterback on site-improvement and design - from excavating "cow-pounded" streams, to stabilizing stream banks and building fish ponds.
The habitat improvements benefit species like white-tailed deer, pheasant, fish - even cattle, if that's what the owner prefers, because cattle help maintain the quality of the grass being grown on a ranch. "There are benefits to what we do, beyond the border of a ranch," Fay said. There are also benefits to humans. "Keeping a ranch in agriculture is key to the community," he said. "Ranchers are good people who care about the land."
He subcontracts his work to water-resource companies that help him do the actual improvements. Saving Montana ranches also means Fay helps build infrastructure at the ranches, from outbuildings to ranch houses, cabins and barns - even duck blinds and golf driving ranges. He tries to replicate original ranch structures, so the places look like they belong on the Montana landscape.
"We're taking something and making it better," Fay said.
When building a new pond, for instance, they'll save the sod, so that when the pond is full the landscaping around it is planted with native plants. "What we try to do is build water resources so that in one year you won't know we've built it," Fay said.
Fay encourages new owners to install conservation easements on the properties. A conservation easement means that the owner might give up the right to subdivide the property, "But the tax benefits are tremendous," Fay said.
Working through conservation organizations like the Montana Land Reliance, Fay said he has helped put "tens of thousands" of acres into conservation easements.
For a rancher to build a trout stream on their ranch may seem frivolous. But to a struggling Montana rancher, improving a stream can greatly increase the resale value of the ranch. This allows the rancher to sell the property, take the cash and often triple the cattle capacity of the next ranch he buys.
"By doing this they can expand their carrying capacity tremendously," Fay said.
For example, Fay helped a rancher in Madison County sell his 750-acre property. After improvements, and with the cash he got for the ranch, the rancher was able to buy 12,000 acres to run cattle near Forsyth, Montana.
He might have helped save that rancher from going bankrupt, and he also might have kept a Montana ranch intact - and safe from subdividing.
Because of the scenic assets and recreational possibilities, subdivisions typically follow rivers. Ranches that are on rivers are susceptible to development, and Fay said there is concern among Montana ranchers to help avoid that - even if they have to sell their place. "A rancher can go out of business for a variety of reasons," Fay said. "There can be a lot of economic pressures on them."