Strand died in 2016, and now the ranch is for sale for the first time since 1944, meaning the future of this legacy is up in the air per se. “Every year, the foundation is compelled by both federal law and the articles of the foundation to pay 5 percent of the fair market value of the assets to qualified charities,” says Gary Bjelland, an attorney for the Strand Foundation. “In this case, that means that the recipients of foundation grants must be in the local community; that is, right around Geyser, Montana.” Bjelland notes that when the ranch sells, all of the proceeds would go into the foundation, creating a permanent endowment for that charity distribution. “For the sake of the math, let’s say that the sale of the ranch puts $30 million into the foundation coffers,” he adds. “Five percent of $30 million means that $1.5 million would be distributed throughout the local community. That’s money for search and rescue, rural fire departments, that sort of thing.”
The conservation easement stipulates that half of the property is immune to development or subdivision, thereby ensuring that Strand’s conservationist vision will endure. “This truly is a magnificent property,” Bjelland says. “The easement preserves it as an operating cattle concern with contiguous, open space, and the foundation reinvests Leroy’s estate into the community.”
Kendall Van Dyk, of the Montana Land Reliance, concurs. “Leroy Strand had a vision for what he wanted up there, and the Land Reliance has a very positive relationship with the foundation,” he says. “My sense is that the foundation is pretty community-minded, and will be selective in who buys the ranch.” Van Dyk explains that the ranch is much more than a cattle operation. “That area holds world-class elk and upland bird habitat.” He also notes that the conservation easement does not provide for public access, although Square Butte itself is public land.
Lennie McDonald, who worked for Strand on the ranch and is now on the foundation’s board of directors, extols the virtues of Strand’s conservation ethic, but also his acumen in improving the operation. “This ranch is so well-developed and its watering systems so streamlined, that really only two people could run the ranch for the most part,” he says. “You’d have to hire some hands for some aspects of the operation, but even moving the cattle around is mostly a matter of controlling the water — the cattle will move on their own to the water.” McDonald also points out that the hay itself is all native grass.
Strand’s life spanned eight decades of the 20th century, and a decade and a half of the 21st. Throughout that time, he witnessed incredible changes to the agricultural and economic climate in Montana. In creating the Strand Foundation, he sought to preserve the best aspects of a classic large cattle ranching operation, and at the same time to ensure that the surrounding community — of which he had been an exuberant member since he moved west from Iowa in 1967 — would continue to benefit from his estate. The next chapter in the Strand Ranch legacy is destined to be a great one.