by Gary Noland
For the Pathfinder
January 14, 1999
|Wayne Heaton, guest ranch operator near Seeley Lake, chaired last year's highly successful banquet. He is serving as chairman of the second banquet, scheduled for June 12, 1999.||
Gary Bender, Pyramid mill superintendent and co-owner High Basin Sports sporting goods store in Seeley Lake, served as co-chairman of last year's nationally significant banquet. Bender also is serving as co-chairman again this year.
Several organizations from Helena to Missoula and Seeley Lake and scores of individual volunteers are making plans for a special celebration June 12 of this new year.
That may be five months away, but various meetings have been going on for several months now, with a group of volunteers from Seeley Lake and surrounding communities gathering almost weekly to plan a combined happening on June 12the 2nd Annual Blackfoot-Clearwater Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation Banquet in concert with the 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Game Range.
Those are the two special events converging on June 12, and as an added highlight, this year is also the 15th Anniversary of the highly regarded Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, headquartered in Missoula.
It's all become very special, and important, with mighty forces pegging June 12 as a date, hopefully, to announce specific details for land acquisition of some 7,800 acres by the Fish, Wildlife & Parks from Plum Creek Timber Company.
That land is already a part of the Game Range, Montana's largest wildlife management area consisting of 67,000 acres, but it is only on lease from Plum Creek and the future of the Game Range10 miles south of Seeley Lakeis clouded as long as that land is privately owned.
Mike Thompson, FWP wildlife biologist who oversees the management of the Game Range and has been writing a column about the area for the Seeley Swan Pathfinder for six years, announced in his September 24 column last year that the land acquisition project, in conjunction with the Game Range Anniversary, was blessed enthusiastically by the Fish, Wildlife and Parks Commission at its Sept. 11 meeting in Helena.
Immediately, a host of other organizations joined FWP in a widespread partnership to cooperate and raise funds for the land acquisitionthe Game Range Citizen Advisory Council, Plum Creek, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Five Valleys Land Trust, Bureau of Land Management, Lolo National Forest, and the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Accepting an invitation, well known wildlife artist Monte Dollack, once an employee on the Seeley Lake Ranger District, committed to paint a commemorative poster for the Game Range's 50th Anniversary Year. Five Valleys Land Trust will sell prints of Dollack's poster to raise money for the Game Range project, and they will be featured at the banquet.
In Seeley Lake, the local chapter of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), an international, non-profit organization with a mission to promote elk habitat, quickly changed it's 2nd Annual Banquet date to coincide with the Game Range Anniversary and became a key player in the land acquisition project, in addition to it's own banquet held annually to raise money for the elk foundation.
At one of its almost weekly planning meetings, Wayne Heaton, chairman of the Blackfoot-Clearwater chapter, said, "This is one of the most important things to happen in Seeley Lake, and it's all about elk habitat."
Heaton and co-chairman Gary Bender are still getting over their first RMEF Banquet held in May of last year. That banquet, quickly put together in a rushed two-month period, turned out to be one of the most successful in the nation where success is based on a net-to-gross ratio and not particularly on total amount raised.
Last year's banquet was held at Lindey's Steak House and proceeds from dinner ticket sales, raffles, games and auctions totalled $49,000 with the net 74% after costs. That put the local chapter second among RMEF chapters nationwide for first-time banquets.
Heaton and Bender, with their contingency of volunteers, some new, but many veterans of last year's successful banquet, are now focusing on an even bigger banquet this year in conjunction with the Game Range anniversary and land acquisition project.
As they did last year, they are reaching out for support from people in a half dozen communitiesCondon, Seeley Lake, Potomac, Ovando, Helmville and Lincolnwhere many people support elk habitat programs.
Several couples from Seeley Lake met with a half dozen interested volunteers at the 7-Up Pete Supper Club in Lincoln in early December where they are trying to drum up more involvement in the Blackfoot-Clearwater chapter and an understanding of the regional importance of the Game Range.
Stressing the significance of the chapter name, Bender noted that he "...just happened to be from Seeley Lake," and help from the Lincoln area was important to the group.
Expecting an attendance of more than double last year's 150, more space was needed for the banquet and the local chapter decided on the heated, indoor riding arena barn at Heaton's Horseshoe Hills Guest Ranch, which happens to be only a stone's throw from the Game Range.
The Heaton ranch, one mile east of Kozy Korner Steakhouse on Woodworth Road, will be used as a gathering point during the day for the FWP-sponsored Game Range Anniversary activities, which will include horse-drawn wagon rides for the public onto the Game Range. The RMEF banquet will follow in the evening with a sit-down dinner in the arena, followed by raffles and auctions.
The local RMEF chapter will coordinate two fund-raising events this year and the distinction might seem blurred at times, but the two projects are separate: (1) the annual RMEF banquet which is used to raise monies that go to RMEF headquarters to be used to promote and acquire elk habitat, and (2) the special project of land acquisition on the Game Range.
Funds needed for the latter will run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and will be raised nationwideeven internationallywith help from the staff at RMEF headquarters. Those funds will be set aside and earmarked for the acquisition of the 7,800 Game Range acres from Plum Creek.
RMEF also has designated the project as one that RMEF chapters across the country can adopt as their own in the organizations Adopt-A-Project program, used to raise money across the country and target it for a special purpose.
This alone will bring in thousands of dollars, and RMEF will also push the project in direct mailing solicitations from their list of supporters, according to Kirk Murphy, state RMEF director who works closely with the local chapter in Seeley Lake, attending most local meetings.
If private fund-raising efforts are successful, the FWP Commission will entertain a proposal to help with "...a contribution of $500,000 from the state's Habitat Montana program," according to Thompson in one of his columns.
RMEF chapter banquets are successful because of the popularity of raffles and auctions held at the banquets, and the quality of merchandise. Additionally RMEF promotes nationwide raffles, bringing in thousands of dollars for special projects.
Two special outfitter trips, valued at around $10,000 each, are being offered for the Game Range project in raffle tickets that will be available nationally as well as locally.
One is a four person, ten day trip into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, donated by the Rich Ranch in Seeley Lake. The other raffle offering is for a special hunt for two (husband-wife, etc.) by the East Mereno Ranch in New Mexico, whose hunts are some of the most highly regarded in the country.
Locally, two rifles went on display last week at Rovero's where raffle tickets are available.
Joe Bender, merchandise chairman for the local RMEF chapter, said the group recently placed an order for around $15,000 in merchandise that will be auctioned or raffled at the June 12 banquet. "That's a wholesale cost," he said, adding that retail would be higher.
Local chapter volunteers will be soliciting donations and underwriting for much of that merchandise in the coming months.
Last year's banquet sold out before it could be announced. Letters will be going out in January to RMEF members, offering them first chance at the June 12 banquet tickets. After that, tickets will be made available to the public.