For Tom Heyneman, conservation and responsible land stewardship run in the family. Growing up outside Fishtail on the Bench Ranch, Tom remembers conversations around the family table about “open space, land integrity, and the concept of conservation” as ideas that were “always just around”. This should come as no surprise given his parents, Jack and Susan Heyneman, were important voices in Montana conservation at the time. Jack was a founding member and former chair of Northern Plains who also helped found the Stillwater Protective Association (SPA), our local affiliate in the Stillwater Valley. On the Bench Ranch they were early Montana adopters of holistic ranch management practices and conservation easements on their property.
Tom still has memories of early Stillwater Protective Association and Northern Plains events and issues, recalling community gatherings such as SPA annual picnics in Roscoe and fundraising auctions. He best remembers discussions during his childhood about the Signal Peak mine up in the Bull Mountains and the Stillwater Mine, near his own home, in Nye.
Back then, Tom was sitting in on the early conversations that led to the formation of the Good Neighbor Agreement (GNA), the legally binding contract between Northern Plains, SPA, Cottonwood Resource Council, and the Stillwater Mining Company that established a process for citizens to regularly meet with company representatives to address and prevent problems related to mining impacts, reclamation, wildlife, and other issues. Tom’s father, Jack, was one of the key players in the original negotiation of the GNA contract over 20 years ago.
Despite this legacy, Tom himself was not always the deeply involved member of SPA or Northern Plains that he is today. Though a long-time dues-paying member of both organizations, Tom lived and worked out of state for a few years and served in the US Marine Corps. When he came back to Fishtail and began managing Bench Ranch, what initially drew Tom into a more active role with SPA was the organization’s initiative, begun in 2014, to establish a zoning district in Stillwater County to protect areas from oil and gas activities along the Beartooth Front through citizen-initiated zoning.
Though the citizen-initiated zoning campaign eventually grew beyond Stillwater Protective Association, members, including Tom, continued to stay involved during the years-long struggle with local officials. Tom says that he joined the campaign initially because it seemed like a “no-brainer” and was surprised that the zoning effort came up short.
That didn’t keep Tom from staying involved with his local Northern Plains affiliate, though. In fact, his involvement has only grown. Tom first joined the Northern Plains Board of Directors in 2021 as one of the SPA representatives; in 2022 took on the role of Stillwater Protective Association President; and earlier this year he became deeply involved in helping maintain the Good Neighbor Agreement. Tom says his motivations are a combination of continuing the family legacy and taking seriously his responsibility to the land. As a second generation rancher in Stillwater County, whose sons are already perpetuating that legacy into a third generation, Tom believes that his duty is “to treat and improve the land [the] best he can, and leave it better.” The time and energy he puts into Northern Plains and SPA is “a small price to pay to get to live here.”