Ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A Trip Down Memory Lane for RMEF Volunteers

Royal Teton Ranch
Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation volunteers are renowned for their ingenuity when it comes to fundraising. But every once in awhile they outdo even themselves—and leave an impression that lasts a lifetime.

The year was 1997, and some of the best conservation news in a long time had just hit Montana's Yellowstone country. In September, the RMEF had struck a deal with the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) to protect 7,300 acres of the most critical winter ranges and migration corridors on CUT's Royal Teton Ranch (RTR) through an acquisition, land exchanges and conservation easements. 

Overlooking the Yellowstone River just north of Yellowstone National Park, the RTR was purchased in 1981 by the southern California-based fellowship, who eventually came to see it as a refuge from the pending apocalypse: a place to survive nuclear war, financial collapse or famine. 

But for an amazing variety of wildlife, the RTR is a refuge of a different sort. Much of Yellowstone's northern elk herd winters there; grizzly bears give birth and raise cubs there; lynx and wolverines prowl its dark woods; and mule deer, bison and pronghorns graze its lower meadows. 

By the mid-1990s, the church had come under new leadership and was also struggling financially. After a close review of its situation, the church decided it would have better luck being headquartered in an urban center. With support from a variety of other conservation groups, RMEF began courting the church to sell its land for conservation purposes. 

When word of a deal reached Montana's lead volunteers, they began brainstorming on how they could help raise funds for the RTR. Together, they came up with a program they called "Adopt-A-Project," and encouraged every chapter in the country to jump on board. The incentive? For every Habitat Partnership they brought in to help raise money for the RTR, participating chapters were entered into a raffle that would grant up to eight volunteers from the winning committee a trip out West for five days touring the RTR and the Yellowstone area, compliments of Montana's lead volunteers. 

"The Montana volunteers took fundraising to a whole new level with Adopt-A-Project," says regional director Scott Westphal, who was Montana's state chair at the time. Besides being the brains behind the program, Westphal says the volunteers also did all the legwork, handling the logistics of compiling and mailing the package, promoting the project, tracking the dollars raised by the chapters, issuing raffle tickets, and planning the reward. 

In the end, more than 30 chapters sold raffle tickets, recruited new Habitat Partners and brought in cash donations, raising more than $227,000 that covered most of the upfront purchase costs of the $13 million deal. 

Montana volunteers meet up with the
Tulsa Chapter at the Royal Teton Ranch in 2000
Oklahoma's Tulsa Chapter—whose committee members had pooled their money toward a Habitat Partnership—won the drawing. In August 2000, seven lucky volunteers traveled to Gardiner, Montana, where they enjoyed top-notch hospitality, experienced a "behind-the-scenes" tour of Yellowstone Park, fished spectacular rivers, savored nightly barbeques and shared memorable evenings around the campfire—all the while building lifelong friendships with their Montana counterparts. 

The pinnacle of the trip for the group came on the final day when they stood together on the RTR, looking over the ground they helped protect, some with tears in their eyes. 

"It wasn't real until we got there," Floyd Luck, then-Oklahoma state chair, said later. "I didn't understand and put it together until I actually stood on the land. It came to life for us." 

Today, Westphal echoes these sentiments. "Standing there together on the RTR, knowing that this group of "Joe Citizens" had helped make something extraordinary happen for wildlife, is something I will never forget," Westphal says. "That moment is one of the highlights of my time with the foundation."
-Lee Lamb

Go here if you are interested in becoming an RMEF volunteer.

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