In 2005, the Missoula Board of County Commissioners appointed 18 rural landowners to the Open Lands Working Group, a new committee to help preserve rural Montana traditions, conserve open space and protect treasured landscapes from unwise development.
The members were asked to go to the areas of the county they represented and take photos of what was so special about the land. Naturally, they brought back pictures of mountains and meadows, rivers and birds, wildflowers and children, elk and trees –- all of the things Montanans love and want to save for future generations.
But one representative from Grass Valley brought back something different. Every single picture in Jim Cusker’s slideshow featured … irrigation pipes.
“If you just saw Jim’s slideshow, you’d think there was nothing but irrigated land out there,” says Wendy Ninteman, the western director of the Land Trust Alliance who shared the story. “Jim didn’t think there was anything more beautiful than that.”
The story illustrates Jim Cusker’s unique contributions to conservation.
The 77-year-old rancher, award-winning former high school teacher and current president of the Five Valleys Land Trust is not a career environmentalist, at least not in the way environmentalism is typically conceived. But he has spent a lifetime studying, explaining, enjoying, cultivating, preserving and sharing the land and its produce.
Cusker has never been a high-profile figure. He doesn’t take credit for his accomplishments, nor does he expect everyone to share his values.
Nevertheless, through his 38 years as a science teacher at Sentinel High School and his current service on the Open Lands Citizen Advisory Committee and on the board of Five Valleys Land Trust, he has deeply influenced the shape of conservation — conceptually and practically — in and around Missoula.
“Jim is an example of how you make change in the world,” says Ninteman. “He’s not the loudest or the most visible, but as a result of his tireless work — the lives he touched in his classroom, his donation of his land to conservation, his involvement with Five Valleys, his first-person perspective on agricultural land — he has secured open space planning for all of Missoula county.”
Cusker’s efforts have been effective because he embodies an important link between multi-generational landowners and modern conservationists, observers say. His message includes a broader perspective on land value, one that goes beyond the typical emphasis on open space and lack of development. He brings to the forefront the value of cultivated land, the potential of soils to produce food and the personal memories that connect people and places.
He remembers which family owned each field around Missoula and what crops they grew. He remembers the first farming family to subdivide their agricultural land for homesites and how apologetic they were to the rest of the community. And he remembers the days when people better understood how their lives were tied to what the local soil produced.
“The further you are removed from the land,” says Cusker, “the less you’re aware of its inherent worth as far as sustenance is concerned.”
Perhaps the most effective way that Cusker works for change is through his example as one who lives out the principles of conservation on his own ranch, which lies a few miles west of Missoula, south of Mullan Road.
The Cusker family moved to Missoula from Wolf Point, Montana in 1938, in the wake of the Depression. Then six-years-old, Jim, his brother and his parents made the journey by rail.
“My dad said he bought this land from the top of the hill,” says Cusker, whose verdant, 200-acre ranch covers the flat bottom of a fertile valley, half a mile north of where the Bitterroot and Clark Fork rivers converge. “Dad stood on the hill looking down at the land and said it looked like paradise.”
The Cuskers initially raised hay, beets and corn in the valley. “Later we switched to beef cattle,” Cusker says. He still raises a few head on the ranch, all of them descended from his father’s herd.
Cusker attended the one-room schoolhouse that still stands in front of Hellgate Elementary School on Flynn Lane, behind Home Depot. “This was all part of the Flynn Ranch, which was prime agricultural land,” he says, pointing to the areas surrounding the school. “Anything could be raised on land like this — it was magnificent.”
Now the fields across from the school are covered with houses. “Won’t be raising much of anything there,” he says. There isn’t a trace of bitterness in his voice, but he is noticeably saddened by the loss.
“My parents were always afraid someone would develop this area,” Cusker says about his ranch.
“Unfortunately, highly productive ag land has great soil and is level, and it’s easy to put in infrastructure with a minimum of cost. All of that, factored in with the big bucks that land owners can realize in contrast to the relatively meager amount you get from farming, creates a lot of pressure to subdivide and grow houses.”
To ensure that the prime soils on his own ranch would be preserved, he placed it under a conservation easement — an owner-initiated deed restriction that limits development on the property in exchange for an income tax break or cash reimbursement — with Five Valleys Land Trust in 1998. Under the easement, Cusker’s 200 acres are protected from subdivision or development in perpetuity. They are preserved as farmland and wildlife habitat.
“That place is part of Jim’s being,” says Ninteman, who was director of Five Valleys when Cusker first approached the group about ways to preserve the ranch.
“My parents would be proud of my placing the ranch under a conservation easement,” says Cusker.
Long legacy of teaching
After finalizing the conservation easement on his ranch, Cusker continued thinking about ways to preserve farmlands and share his knowledge. He was a veteran in both regards.
A graduate of the University of Montana, Cusker earned a Masters degree in zoology from Montana State, and returned to Missoula in 1959 to teach biology at Sentinel High School — which he did for nearly four decades.
“Teaching worked out perfectly for me,” says Cusker. “I could teach during the school year and work on the ranch during the summertime.”
Jonell Prather, current chair of the Sentinel High science department, remembers Cusker’s passion for his students. “He truly had a way of reaching more kids than I have ever seen a teacher do in my 25 years of teaching,” Prather says. “Jim always acted with dignity and compassion — there was lots of laughter, too.”
In 1984, Cusker was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, the nation’s highest recognition for a K-12 science teacher. “Jim makes people be the best they can,” says Prather.
After Cusker’s retirement in 1997, the family ranch, which he had worked with his five children and inherited when his father died in 1986, became his new classroom — the preservation of agricultural land was his new curriculum.
In 2002, Cusker joined the board of directors of Five Valleys Land Trust. He became president of the board in 2007 — and is “the conscience of the organization,” as staffers describe him.
“Jim conveys a very sincere and earnest commitment to the land and forces us to think about the connection between people and place,” says Grant Kier, executive director of Five Valleys.
With Cusker as board president, the organization has been able to reach people who formerly tended to be suspicious of environmental organizations, says Greg Tollefson, the group’s conservation director and its former executive director.
“Jim’s involvement brought in a whole new layer of people that we didn’t have access to before,” Tollefson says. “He lent a certain amount of legitimacy to our operation.”
It was during this time that Cusker was invited by the County Commissioners to serve on the Missoula County Open Lands Working Group.
The group, launched in 2005, made several key proposals to the commissioners. The most important was the necessity of a $10 million Open Space Bond to financially compensate local landowners who give up development rights on their property in order to preserve agricultural lands, water quality and wildlife habitat. The Open Space Bond was passed in 2006 with 70 percent voter approval.
“Current support bodes well for the future,” Cusker says. “I’m really quite encouraged. There’s a groundswell of realization that, ‘Wait a minute, when this land is developed, it’s gone, and it’s gone forever – we better do something about it now.’”
In order to qualify for open space funds, proposed land must be reviewed and approved by the Open Lands Citizen Advisory Committee, of which Cusker is a member.
“The bond money is an incentive to get people to consider conservation rather than development,” explains Cusker, who received no money when he designated his own ranch as conservation land. “Donating the land works well for people whose income is high enough to take advantage of the tax breaks, but for other people, the tax deduction isn’t that big of an incentive. They could use the cash.”
In addition to his work with the Open Lands committee and Five Valleys, Cusker also works with the Community Food and Agriculture Coalition (CFAC), an organization that promotes and preserves Missoula’s local food system. Cusker serves on a CFAC committee that reviews proposed subdivisions for the city and county to determine their effect on productive lands and make recommendations for approval or denial.
Neva Hassanein, an environmental studies professor at the University of Montana and a co-founder of CFAC, took a group of students to visit Cusker on his ranch at the start of the project. At the time, she didn’t know him or what he was going to say.
“I was totally enamored with him,” recalls Hassanein. “He started talking to the students about his responsibility to this place, emphasizing the need for a land ethic, showing them what he’d done to restore the riparian zone along the river.
“He really walks the walk — and he talks it too,” she says. “He’s amazing in his grasp of these issues -– both in essence and complexity, and he’s tireless in his commitment and effort to protect the land that sustains us.”
Vision not anti-development
Cusker is not anti-development. He identifies various areas within and around Missoula as great places to grow houses, such as the hills above Big Flat Road, across the river from his ranch, or the clay hills around The Ranch Club development on Mullan Road. In short, the less suitable the land is for growing food, the more appropriate it is to build houses on, in Cusker’s estimation.
But prime farmland, as he sees it, is something that preserves the future — and holds the past. His ranch is full of memories. Like his father before him, he has poured his life into cultivating and nurturing every square inch of the property.
He’s built and mended the fences, fed the animals, eaten from the gardens, watched the old trees die and new ones grow.
He’s kept the original wagon that his parents brought over from Wolf Point. It sits next to a water measurement station on the bank of the river. Cusker says the pulp mill used to pay his mother to come down and measure the water level. “Eventually, they installed an electric meter, but they still paid mom to come down here and check it. She would sit and rest on this wagon after reading the water level. I leave it here. If she’s still roaming around, she might enjoy a rest.”
He’s watched ospreys build a “world-record nest” (over six feet tall) on top of a pole in the field next to his ranch house. Standing under an enormous maple tree that his father planted in the front yard when Cusker was a child, he recounts the tragic day a freak wind blew the giant osprey nest off its stand and killed the chicks. He points down to a blossoming sweet pea plant near his feet. “I planted that for my mother when I was in high school,” he says.
He recalls his father’s words after a particularly difficult day of working in the fields.
“I had spent all day fighting the hay baler — it kept jamming up and I didn’t get much done,” says Cusker. “Dad’s health was failing, but I always checked in with him at the end of the day. He took one look at me when I came in. ‘Had a hell of a day, didn’t you,’ said dad. I said that it hadn’t gone very well, and he said, ‘But the hay is good, and it’s a beautiful place to work.’ That was dad’s philosophy about these lands.”
“Everything is tied together,” Cusker says. “My work with Five Valleys, the Open Spaces Committee, and CFAC — they all come at the same issue from different points of view.”
“The important thing is the land,” continues Cusker, who has trouble even conceiving of himself as one who “owns” land. He prefers to see himself as a temporary steward. “Once you understand that our food source is tied to the land, you don’t destroy it by covering it up with asphalt.”