Craig and Conni French of Malta are the 2020 recipients of the Montana Leopold Conservation Award®.
Given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold, the prestigious award recognizes farmers, ranchers and forestland owners who inspire others with their dedication to land, water and wildlife habitat management on private, working land.
Sand County Foundation and American Farmland Trust present the award in Montana with the Office of Governor Steve Bullock, Montana Department of Agriculture, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Rangeland Resources Committee.
Craig and Conni French own and operate C Lazy J Livestock in Phillips County. They receive $10,000 and a crystal award for being selected.
“Recipients of this award are real life examples of conservation-minded agriculture,” said Kevin McAleese, Sand County Foundation President and Chief Executive Officer. “These hard-working families are essential to our environment, food system and rural economy.”
“Congratulations to Craig and Conni French for winning the Leopold Conservation Award for their rotational grazing techniques and holistic approach to land management,” said John Piotti, president and CEO of American Farmland Trust. “Setting themselves apart, the Frenches are rancing in sync with the soils, vegetation, insects and wildlife they steward alongside their operation and for the benefit of their community, sharing their experiences with others.”
“Montana Farm Bureau is so proud to have Craig and Conni French receive this prestigious stewardship award,” said Montana Farm Bureau President Hans McPherson. “We work hard to get the message out that farmers and ranchers care for their land. The Frenches exemplify that fact and are absolutely deserving of this honor. Congratulations.”
Earlier this year, Montana landowners were encouraged to apply (or be nominated) for the award. Applications were reviewed by an independent panel of agricultural and conservation leaders.
Among the many outstanding Montana landowners nominated for the award were finalist Pete and Meagan Lannan of Livingston in Park County. The 2019 recipients were Bill and Dana Milton of Roundup in Musselshell County.
ABOUT C LAZY J LIVESTOCK
Craig and Conni French always considered themselves good land stewards, but six years ago things really began to change. They came to see their cattle ranch’s fate was tied to healthy soils and grasses.
Their introduction to holistic ranch management techniques called into question long-held, traditional ways of thinking. The drastic changes that followed required a leap of faith for the fourth-generation ranchers. They traded harvesting hay for grazing methods that let their cattle harvest the forage themselves. Such changes didn’t happen overnight, and each came with its own risk and learning curve.
The use of cell grazing (a form of rotational grazing that moves a large herd frequently to new pastures) allows more recovery time for perennial vegetation to flourish on a semi-arid, brittle environment of short prairie grass. This results in better forage and wildlife habitat.
The Frenches make decisions not just with their cattle herd’s health in mind, but also the impact on soil, insects and wildlife. Temporary electric fence has replaced permanent fencing to reduce conflicts with wildlife. Targeted grazing of non-native grasses has improved habitat for grassland birds and sage grouse.
With assistance from the NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, they moved livestock water tanks and windbreaks away from a creek. Beaver Creek flows through three miles of the ranch and its health is a conservation priority for the French family. The return of willow trees along the creek’s banks is a sign their efforts are paying off.
The Frenches collaborate with federal and state agencies, non-profits and other ranchers to achieve conservation success.
Their voluntary 30-year conservation lease with Montana’s Fish, Wildlife, and Parks ensures their land’s native grassland and sagebrush will remain uncultivated and undeveloped. Likewise, hunters are allowed access to their ranch’s thriving wildlife populations through enrollment in the state’s Block Management program.
The Frenches have also agreed to sustain and improve habitat for four species of imperiled grassland birds and sage-grouse, and have their numbers surveyed.
As long-time members of The Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, a rancher-led conservation group that aims to educate within and outside the ranch community, the Frenches share their experience with holistic management, cell grazing and other innovative conservation practices.
The Frenches, who farm with their three children, aren’t ones to rest on their laurels. They plan to treat 320 acres of recently purchased farmland as a demonstration site for the soil health benefits of cover crops. As they steward a ranch homesteaded by Craig’s great grandfather in 1910, the Frenches understand the importance of passing on a land ethic to the next generation.
The Montana Leopold Conservation Award is made possible through the generous support of American Farmland Trust, Sand County Foundation, the Office of Governor Steve Bullock, Montana Department of Agriculture, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s Rangeland Resources Committee, Northwest Farm Credit Services, Sibanye-Stillwater, World Wildlife Fund, USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service, McDonald’s, Montana Farm Bureau Federation, Montana Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative, Ranchers Stewardship Alliance, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Society for Range Management – Northern Great Plains Section, Soil and Water Conservation Society, and The Wildlife Society of Montana.
In his influential 1949 book, A Sand County Almanac, Leopold called for an ethical relationship between people and the land they own and manage, which he called “an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity.”
Sand County Foundation and American Farmland Trust present the Leopold Conservation Award to private landowners in 21 states with a variety of conservation, agricultural and forestry organizations. For more information on the award, visit www.leopoldconservationaward.org.
LEOPOLD CONSERVATION AWARD PROGRAM
The Leopold Conservation Award is a competitive award that recognizes landowner achievement in voluntary conservation. Sand County Foundation presents the award in California, Colorado, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, Wisconsin, and in New England (Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont). www.leopoldconservationaward.org
SAND COUNTY FOUNDATION
Sand County Foundation inspires and enables a growing number of private landowners to ethically manage natural resources in their care, so future generations have clean and abundant water, healthy soil to support agriculture and forestry, plentiful habitat for wildlife and opportunities for outdoor recreation. www.sandcountyfoundation.org