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

Friday, August 22, 2014

Back to the Future: RMEF Returns to Its Roots

Tour members arrive at RMEF headquarters
It was only fitting. In the same year marking its 30th anniversary of conserving some of America’s finest elk country, two of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation’s co-founders hosted a two-day bus tour that traced the conservation organization’s humble beginnings through the scenic mountains of northwest Montana.

It began at RMEF national headquarters on a beautiful late July evening in Missoula. A cross-section of RMEF volunteers and members around the nation gathered to join staffers for an opening night welcome reception. 

Charlie Decker
Bob Munson
“When you see where we started you will know it’s a miracle that we made it where we are today,” said Charlie Decker who shared the tour spotlight with fellow co-founder Bob Munson.

“It was truly miraculous and we appreciate so many people. I believe God had his hand on this thing. It’s his landscape and it’s pretty awesome to be involved in that,” added Munson.

Approximately 50 people boarded the bus bright and early on a Friday morning to begin the trek north. The tour covered a total of 454 miles (see map below) and featured 11 different nearby highlighted RMEF projects (see bottom of post) ranging from conservation easements, land donations and elk research sites to prescribed burns, noxious weed treatments, forest thinning, aspen restoration and other habitat enhancement work.

You can ask anyone who took part in the tour and they'll tell you, without a doubt, that the trip's true highlight was the non-stop, back and forth, finger pointing, story swapping, tongue in cheek bickering, and yes, even some truthful tales provided by Munson and Decker. They each took turns behind the on-board microphone to share story after story about how they came up with the idea to form an organization dedicated to elk and how they severely struggled to keep it afloat.

“All four of us attended the same church. Our pastor (Dan Bull) picked up a copy of a magazine about wild sheep,” related Munson. He said ‘This is simple. Nobody is helping elk right now. This has to happen!’ 

“I was in real estate. Charlie was a logger and an avid elk hunter. My brother Bill owned a little drive-in in Troy. Dan said ‘There’s potential here.’ We started thinking about it, talking about it and then pretty soon it got serious. We talked with an attorney. 

“We love the country, the landscape and the critters so why not? That’s exactly how we took off. Charlie later robbed his oldest son’s college fund of eight grand. Several of us did the same. Vicki (Bob’s wife) said the only reason we became a non-profit instead of a for-profit was because the cost of stamps was cheaper. And that’s the story of how the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation got started.”

(As a side note, Bull later moved to Alaska with his family. He made an appearance at RMEF’s 10th anniversary but since tended to his own family and business matters. Bill Munson left Montana to go into business in San Diego and now lives in Seattle. Both remain supportive of RMEF, but neither is currently actively involved.)

Lunch at Bighorn Lodge

After lunch in Noxon, the tour continued north alongside the Cabinet Mountain Wilderness. Charlie took the mic and talked about RMEF’s first-ever habitat enhancement endeavor located in the Kootenai National Forest (see #5 at the bottom of page). 

“Elk Creek is where we did our first project—1,100 acres—a prescribed burn. There’s no way to get a bus up there. We had about $30 in the bank and we cut this deal. The Forest Service put in about 90 percent of the money.” (RMEF contributed $4,000 toward the project.)

The bus eventually rolled into Troy and stopped at Roosevelt Park along the banks of the Kootenai River for a community celebration and key ceremony. Troy Mayor Darren Coldwell welcomed Munson, Decker and the tour attendees.

Roosevelt Park in Troy
“Thirty years ago four men –Charlie Decker, Bob and Bill Munson and Dan Bull– came together to form the RMEF,” said Coldwell. “They had a passion for hunting, a passion for hiking and the Northwest and for one of the largest game animals—that being elk. Thanks to hard work, borrowed money and volunteered time, they created the RMEF. 

“Through the years RMEF basically outgrew Troy. From a small little doublewide here in Troy, they now have more than 200,000 members. To say they have been a success is an understatement. They have one of the largest foundations in the country and it all began here. 

“I’d like to say to these two. What a great idea they had and I’d like to thank them for coming back to where they began and not forgetting the roots that helped them start. To you I say, thank you and I welcome you and I give you the keys to the city of Troy.”

Coldwell then presented Munson and Decker with keys—two very LARGE keys.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had a key bigger than this,” Munson chuckled. “Troy is a special place to us. We had two of our children grow up here. It was home from 1977 to about 1988 when we did move to Missoula. Why did we move? We rented three different buildings in Troy. We had a dozen employees and probably another dozen volunteers and people that were part-timers so we were a big employer at the time but most importantly we had volunteers that were part of this community. 

“I agree with your mayor, Darren. This community knows how to give. We appreciate that so much. That volunteer involvement and the way you give is so important because it created the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation—the largest non-profit in the state of Montana. We’ve been blessed with the ability to travel to many of the more than 500 RMEF chapters throughout this great country and not one of them do I leave without telling them about Troy, Montana."

“Troy really is the birthplace of the RMEF,” echoed Decker. “It’s something the community can be very proud of. I don’t think a lot of the folks that live in the Libby-Troy area realize how big this outfit has gotten and what kind of credibility we have across this state and nationwide. 

 “Last night we had a little deal at headquarters in Missoula and it boggled my mind as people introduced themselves and the states they’re from. We have a spectrum of folks from the East Coast, the West Coast and the middle part of the country. To travel to see where this thing started shows a lot of character in our people but I always say as we go to banquets, Bob and I mention Troy. 

“We thank you so much. We’re so proud of the Libby-Troy area and the folks that were there in the beginning. Thank you again so much for recognizing this organization because I guarantee we recognize the town of Troy. Thanks!”

Mayor Darren Coldwell, Decker, Councilwoman Kimberly
Rowse, Munson, Councilman Dallas Carr
(left to right)
Bob and Charlie then reciprocated by presenting smaller keys to Mayor Coldwell and two members of the Troy City Council.

“I’d like to begin by thanking the RMEF for their ingenuity to even think of something so wonderful and it takes wonderful people to come up with great ideas and make it come to fruition,” said Kimberly Rowse, Troy City Council member. “Secondly, I’d like to thank them for their continued support especially in this particular area. I personally own some property in the Yaak. I know they’ve been very supportive in helping with the elk population in that area. To look out every spring and see the beautiful area where we live and see the elk coming down to calf. It’s just a gift. We do live in the last best place. I just thank all of you who support and I thank all of you who continue this wonderful foundation.”

”What I see is a miracle of sorts in the development of the organization and where we’re at today,” said Lee Swanson, RMEF chairman of the board. “Charlie showed me the balance sheet and said ‘Look at where we used to be and where we’re at today.’ For two men, well four actually but these two shouldered this organization and when you hear the stories about how it developed and how it got to where it is today it’s nothing short of a miracle. Again thank you guys for coming from Troy and always being from Troy.”

“We have found a vintage 1970s doublewide trailer in case you want to move back,” Coldwell quipped. “We are more than happy to donate it to you.”

After a bit of mingling under the welcoming Montana sunshine, folks again boarded the bus for a more intimate tour through town. Munson and Decker pointed out two of the buildings that once housed RMEF offices. One of them was an old medical building that actually had stirrups still attached to the work desks. The other was the left portion of a mini-mall of small businesses.

From there, the bus stopped at a vacant lot on the edge of town and everyone got out. The site marked the old address of Route 3 Wilderness Plateau, site of RMEF’s first world headquarters.

RMEF's original home as seen in 2014
“We were tighter than bark on a tree in there. One of our workers needed an office so we ripped the door off a closet and put his desk in it even though his chair was outside of it,” said Munson. “We got to the point that we were operating out of three different buildings and I was traveling a lot, which was treacherous in the winter because of the bad roads. It soon became evident that we needed to move. Charlie was a real proponent of keeping us in Montana. Missoula offered us $10,000 so that tipped the scales.”

Standing on the spot where RMEF first sprouted its roots brought back a flood of memories for the co-founders. It also brought back recollections about the reality of how difficult it really was to survive.

RMEF's original home as seen in 1984
“We had 233 members after a few months—those were some dark days in Troy. We did a lot of praying in those early days and a lot of deep thinking” added Munson. “We had commitments from those 233 people and said ‘We gotta go on!’ We didn’t have any money and nobody wanted to loan us any.

“Without our wives we would not have made it. Vicki handled all the membership services, finances, and many other duties. We hired 12 people in Troy because we were growing so fast. Vicki was in charge of administration. She deserves a great amount of credit. Charlie and Yvonne were incredibly supportive. We met as couples every weekend to determine what to do going forward.”

Munson and Decker also promised those early members who faithfully paid membership dues to the fledgling organization that they would deliver a magazine that focused on elk and elk hunting. That in itself was a monumental effort.

“The Bugle was Bob’s idea. It was expensive but also the right idea,” said Decker. “The people we had with us to start this organization were absolutely critical. Bob and I travel today and 99 percent of the people credit Bugle magazine with solidifying their commitment to RMEF."

“Talk about something that came together miraculously,” Munson chimed in. “We didn’t get our loan to start Bugle until the middle of August in 1984 and we had to put out the magazine before the hunting season. We begged and borrowed and sold a few ads for a 52-page issue. Getting whatever ad revenue we could get was like manna from heaven. We assembled the magazine and laid it out. The $25,000 loan got us 32,000 copies. 

“We picked up five pallets of magazines in Missoula, then sat down on a box of them and busted one open to look it over. Nobody said anything for the longest time until one of our friends who was helping us said ‘Holy crap. That’ll never sell!’ 

“We distributed the first Bugle at the Town Pump in Thompson Falls. I said ‘If you sell these, we’ll send you more.’ He sold every one of them and called us. We sold about 5,000 to locations that distributed hunting licenses. 

“Then we got a call from Colorado asking ‘Is this Bugle? How fast can you get me (another) 2,000 copies? Denver News just took 2,000 copies and they’re selling like hotcakes.’ 

“It was a landmark decision to build a magazine. By the end of ‘84 we had about 2,000 members. We also had a lot of outfitters. We contacted every outfitter from British Columbia and Alberta to across the West. They were quick to jump on this. We would give them a free magazine and they’d give us their lists of clients.” 

As the bus rolled out of Troy, Charlie took over the lion’s share of microphone duties by relating tale after tale about northwest Montana, his youth and many, many “war stories” from his past. (Some of which may be true.)

Kootenia Falls and the swinging bridge

The next stop offered breathtaking views at Kootenai Falls. Marking the largest undammed falls in Montana, the Kootenai River loses 300 feet in elevation over just a few hundred yards. In addition to providing some great fishing, the immediate area is home to bighorn sheep, mule deer, whitetail deer, black bear and other critters. A swinging bridge located downstream from the falls offers access to the other side of the river.

After rolling into Charlie’s hometown of Libby, the tour again returned to the banks of the Kootenai River and stopped at Fred Brown Pavilion. RMEF volunteers from the local Lincoln County Chapter greeted attendees who all sat down to dinner. Afterwards, everyone pulled their chairs together and took part in a testimonial meeting of sorts. One by one, members explained what drew them to RMEF and what the organizations means to them.

Saturday was a day split on land and at “sea.” The return trip to Missoula was broken up by a stop in Lakeside. With the theme from “Gilligan’s Island” blaring over the loudspeakers, tour members boarded a boat on Flathead Lake for a lunch cruise on the largest freshwater body of water west of the Mississippi. Several sun-drenched hours later, it was back on the bus for a return trip to Missoula.

A guided tour of RMEF headquarters that evening was followed by a farewell dinner to cap things off. As folks sat down to eat they found Troy, Montana, souvenir keys by their plates—a perfect memento of a trip into RMEF’s past. Decker and Munson led the group in singing “Amazing Grace,” shared more laughs, thanked all who organized and took part in the tour, and especially expressed sincere gratitude for RMEF volunteers, members and other supporters from one end of the country to the other for helping what began as a Herculean effort in the small Montana of Troy transform RMEF into the conservation powerhouse it is today.

Yep, the RMEF Montana Founders Tour was quite a ride!

The Founders Tour trek began in Missoula (1), headed north, turned west at
the National Bison Range, continued north to Troy, east to Kalispell and then
south past Flathead Lake before returning to Missoula

See the map above to find the corresponding numbered projects

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