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Finding Personal Transformation In Nature's Higher Ground

At the Anderson Ranch, "learning vacations" bring people together around fun, wildlife and stories shared around a campfire

After a day of exploring at the Anderson Ranch, guests partaking in a Common Ground Project outing, gather around a campfire and discuss issues shaping the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem before climbing into a tipi.  Photo courtesy Louise Johns  (http://www.louisejohnsphoto.com)
After a day of exploring at the Anderson Ranch, guests partaking in a Common Ground Project outing, gather around a campfire and discuss issues shaping the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem before climbing into a tipi. Photo courtesy Louise Johns (http://www.louisejohnsphoto.com)
Where can urban folk go to discover what it's like for rural folk to share ground with grizzly bears and gray wolves? 

Where might hardy grandparents take their grandkids to have a memorable outing together in America's wild outback? 

Where does one possible cure reside for ending nature-deficit disorder? 

And where could a Millennial venture if she, or he, decided they wanted to know what's at stake in fighting to protect the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem? 

As a rarefied place, all of the above might consider Tom Miner Basin. Tom Miner is best known, in some circles, for incubating plenty of big-picture conservation leaders over the years. Countless individuals and dozens upon dozens of wildlife and land protection organizations have made pilgrimages there, attending retreats at the B Bar Ranch owned by Maryanne Mott and her family.

Indeed, groundbreaking concepts such as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Conservation Initiative, and American Prairie Reserve have been topics of early lively discussion at the B Bar. The ranch has been a venue for strategy sessions seeking how to, for instance, grow the land trust movement, secure better protection for endangered species, and hatching proposals for new federal wilderness.  A ranch that raises cattle, it's also been a model for showing how agriculture can be compatible with the needs of wildlife.

As a setting, it’s easy to understand why Tom Miner inspires a bold, different kind of thinking. Ascending from the banks of the Yellowstone River, just north of Yellowstone National Park in southwest Montana, it escalates for miles topographically until reaching the wildest corner of the Gallatin Mountains where all roads stop. In this rugged, natural cul-de-sac, carved by receding ancient glaciers, you’ll find grizzlies, howling lobo packs, teems of elk and—and this is the essential part—ranchers trying to find better ways of co-existing with native wildlife.

For three generations—with a fourth now emerging—one of the B-Bar’s neighbors, the Anderson clan, has been trying through trial and error, struggles and epiphanies, risk and reward, to show how, with good intentions, non-lethal co-existence can be done.  Now the family is using their working ranch to serve as a platform where outsiders can come and have their attitudes about nature transformed, complementing the B Bar’s rich enduring legacy. 
Daniel Anderson, intrepid founder of The Common Ground Project, surveys Tom Miner Basin. believes in the transformative and healing power of nature.  And he's using his family's ranch as a platform to prove his point.  Photo by Louise Johns
Daniel Anderson, intrepid founder of The Common Ground Project, surveys Tom Miner Basin. believes in the transformative and healing power of nature. And he's using his family's ranch as a platform to prove his point. Photo by Louise Johns
What the Andersons are endeavoring to do is both daring and novel. Daniel Anderson, having watched his parents, Hannibal and Julie, become leaders in discussions about place-based land stewardship, is making his own contribution by founding what he calls "The Common Ground Project."

“It has been said the most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire,” Daniel says. “Our intent is to elevate this belief by experiencing the power of wild landscapes and connectivity of campfires. We are bringing ecological and cultural education to the forefront of conversation.”
“It has been said the most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire. Our intent is to elevate this belief by experiencing the power of wild landscapes and connectivity of campfires."  —Daniel Anderson
Anderson, though just 34, seems wise beyond his years. He wants to reach members of his own generation as well as their parents and even millennials coming of age. He wants them to unplug and unwind together, to veer away from the heavily trodden path of industrial-strength tourism and find temporary decompression minus the harried, numbing cacophony of modern living.

Guests like Julie Frost have come a couple of times to bound down trails traversed by few others, rise before dawn to catch the serenades of wolves or coyotes, hear the sounds of bull elk bugles being carried on the wind, find griz tracks laid down in the mud, and then camp at night—safely, Daniel notes—in tipis. 

This isn’t Disneyland, nor NOLS nor a vacation that can be ordered up through a travel agent. The Common Ground Project features guided day hikes, overnight accommodations, working with horses as a form of therapy, wildlife viewing and facilitated discussions ranging from the ethics of land stewardship to wildlife biology and issues involved with resolving human-carnivore conflicts [read grizzlies  and wolves preying on livestock].
Top photo: a herd of elk grazes in high meadowlands on the Anderson Ranch. Photo above: grizzlies and cattle peaceably share a pasture in Tom Miner Basin. The bears are not interested in eating beef; they're foraging for timothy grass and usually leave the cattle alone. If conflicts arise efforts are made to non-lethally separate predators and potential prey. Photos by Louise Johns
Top photo: a herd of elk grazes in high meadowlands on the Anderson Ranch. Photo above: grizzlies and cattle peaceably share a pasture in Tom Miner Basin. The bears are not interested in eating beef; they're foraging for timothy grass and usually leave the cattle alone. If conflicts arise efforts are made to non-lethally separate predators and potential prey. Photos by Louise Johns
While Daniel wants Common Ground adventures foremost to be fun and foster closer connections between friends, families, social innovators, artists, or organizations and businesses that take part, he’s not endeavoring to create an uber-pricey, ultra-lux enclave for pampered glam-campers. 

The accommodations are “comfortably rustic” and the food filling, yet the focus is on maximizing outdoor time engulfed by the elements and then circling a campfire at night that is set beneath the stars. Here, people come together around an age-old medium—storytelling.

“I’m thinking about what Wendell Berry has written about enduring communities on the landscape and how the relationship between people and environment is so intertwined,” Frost says. “The Andersons are fantastic people who have a magical place. They are so devoted to their community, preserving the character of the land and dealing with issues of survival. They must earn a living, maintain their principles and yet find a way to make it all work."

Many consider the Andersons exemplars of innovative 21st-century ranching that defies traditional cowboy stereotypes, but they are not a family that craves public attention though they happily share what they have learned.

Hannibal Anderson
Hannibal Anderson
Hannibal Anderson, the family elder, wears two different hats. A graduate of Harvard, he is a lifelong educator who works in rural Alaska native communities and has a lot to say about the importance of oral tradition in keeping cultural affinities alive. As a rancher, he is ardent defender of private property rights but he suggests that dwelling in a vaulting dale like Tom Miner, resplendent with wild wonders that exist almost nowhere else, comes with responsibility to work within the structure of nature, not change it. Every day he learns new things. “Nature has been the best teacher,” he notes.

“We’re aspiring to give people deeper immersion, not in order to present them with greater hardship or challenge. But to remove those subtle layers of barriers to connectedness," he adds. "It is to break out of the orbit of our human centered world where most people reside in their head space. The goal is shifting the attention to another kind of relationship.”

As ranchers, the Andersons continue to evolve their thinking, long ago shucking hubris. They raise cattle and once had sheep after a few lambs nurtured for 4-H projects grew up and multiplied. But they removed sheep from their operation after wolves were transplanted in nearby Yellowstone in 1995 and as the grizzly population expanded its range.  To keep their cattle from being eaten, they have purchased guard dogs—losing four pet canines to wolves—enlisted range riders, strung fladry on fences at calving time to ward off predators, and still absorbed some losses. To help bolster their bottom line, they built two tiny houses and re-birthed a historic schoolhouse to serve as guest quarters. 

“Sustainability” is a term that gets bandied about prolifically these days though it’s not some fanciful abstraction. For the Andersons it is a necessity to support a way of life.  So, too, is neighborliness and cultivating friendships among those with whom they might not always agree. 
“Sustainability” is a term that gets bandied about prolifically these days though it’s not some fanciful abstraction. For the Andersons it is a necessity to support a way of life. 
Up Tom Miner, conversations flow across fence lines as well as public-private land jurisdictions. Sometimes, they happen when strands of wildlife-friendly wire need mending. “Our stories are not tales of the Old West. They are contemporary, based not on myth or fiction, but in trying to see the real world whole,” Daniel says.

All of the Andersons are college graduates who felt called home. Daniel’s sister, Malou Anderson Ramirez, co-founder of the Tom Miner Basin Association, is heading up a horse therapy program, as part of the Common Ground Project, where riders spend time with equines and can come to better understand the special sentient communication—verbal and body language—that happens between horse and rider. 

° ° °

The power of storytelling, Daniel notes, is as old in North America as the oral traditions that burned brightly around ancient indigenous fires and it’s been an instrument of survival. In more modern times, storytelling has assumed many different forms. Late in the 19thcentury, in New England, the Chautauqua concept grew into a movement adopted by many communities across America to discuss new ways of thinking about both inspiration and challenges. 

Today, storytelling is prominently featured in such forums as Ted Talks though there’s an undeniable barrier that exists between environmental topics that get discussed and the actual locations where they happen. “We’re bridging that divide, putting our guests on the front lines of some of the most fascinating stories playing out in the West. And we’re doing it within the context of adventure,” Daniel says. “It doesn’t hurt that Yellowstone is right on the other side of the mountains but you won’t find the crowds you encounter there, here.”
Storyteller Becca Frucht is working with The Common Ground Project to foster conversations across generations and cultural divides.
Storyteller Becca Frucht is working with The Common Ground Project to foster conversations across generations and cultural divides.
The Andersons are collaborating with people like Becca Frucht, a young master storyteller who has won praise for using storytelling to ignite passions for conservation in younger generations of Americans who often feel disconnected from the natural world. What excites Daniel is the prospect of conversations happening across inter-generational and cross-cultural divides.

While raised in the Southeast—Frucht graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frucht was introduced to the West through experiences with the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Lander, Wyoming.  A veteran of storytelling slams on both coasts, she became involved with The Moth, a non-profit group in New York City dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, enabling participants to have confidence in the search to find their own voice. Like Chautauqua of a century ago, Moth events have spread nationwide and Frucht aspires to bring their spirit to Tom Miner. 

Oral traditions shape culture and they’re a glue for interpersonal connection, she says. “Sharing stories is age-old and it’s at the core of what it means to be human. Getting involved with storytelling transformed my life and I’ve seen it transform the lives of others because it enables people to find not only their authentic voice but to better understand their place in the world.”
“Sharing stories is age-old and it’s at the core of what it means to be human. Getting involved with storytelling transformed my life and I’ve seen it transform the lives of others because it enables people to find not only their authentic voice but to better understand their place in the world.” —Becca Frucht
In comparison to the kind of sharing—in many cases “oversharing”— that happens via social media, Frucht says the Anderson Ranch grounds people in a place where all of the senses are activated. Gadgets are disconnected. Conversations grow out of encounters that happen in the outdoors. It could be discovering carnivore scat along a trail, listening to a thunderstorm echoing between the high peaks or smelling wildflowers or sprigs of sagebrush.

“I’ve found that when people have their first experiences with a truly wild place they bring a lot of preconceptions and inhibitions with them,” she says. “Through storytelling, you are able to reach a different state of mind and shed any fears you may have had. As a result of liberating yourself and seeing a place fresh, a whole new way of thinking about nature opens up and it travels with you wherever you go.”

Julie Frost was The Common Ground Project’s inaugural client and she plans on coming back. She now lives in Bozeman but for years the career teacher worked on a cattle ranch 35 miles south of Colorado Springs, Colo. as its director of education. The spread was owned by the state of Colorado and leased to a private operator. 

Part of its mission was allowing the public to come out and learn about prairie ecology, birding and holistic ranching. “It’s amazing the kind of transformation that occurs when you get people out learning on the land, just being there. Our visitors had no idea the prairie was like that,” she said.

The Andersons, she points out, are doing the same thing but within an ecosystem that is unparalleled for its wildlife in the Lower 48. 

Last summer, Frost invited her brother, his wife and their daughter up from Orange County, California. “We slept in a tipi and they loved it.  We saw a variety of animals but no grizzlies. As we were driving away in Paradise Valley, my niece, who is 25 and lives in New York City, said she wasn’t disappointed—that it was almost as exciting for her to see chickens as a bear. So many many people live so far away from all of that, and with the Andersons it's a ranch at the edge of rugged wilderness.”

° ° °

Lori Ryker has witnessed firsthand how immersion in nature changes lives. As the founder of Artemis Institute, one of her acclaimed programs is “Remote Studio,” in which young aspiring architects and other students are brought into pastoral/wild landscapes to ponder human footprints and whether design accentuates place or detracts from it. Some alumni of Remote Studio have gone on to work at major architecture firms and championing a new conscious awareness about the intersection between people and nature.

Many Remote Studio projects, which involve designing and building organic structures that reflect the landscape around them, have been set in remote communities and on private ranches.  She holds nothing but praise for what The Common Ground Project aims to accomplish. [Note: Ryker also is a Mountain Journal columnist].

“Stories provide a starting point for gaining others’ empathy and recognition of individual experience, knowledge and shared position,” Ryker explains. “This is what helps build community. Instead of relying on rational references, stereotypes and abstract thoughts, the simplistic notion of ‘community’ is not only challenged but expanded. It happens in the sense that you get past the idea, for example, that ‘all ranchers hate wolves.’ With your own eyes, you learn why that’s not the case.”
“This is what helps build community. Instead of relying on rational references, stereotypes and abstract thoughts, the simplistic notion of ‘community’ is not only challenged but expanded. It happens in the sense that you get past the idea, for example, that ‘all ranchers hate wolves.’ With your own eyes, you learn why that’s not the case.” —Lori Ryker, founder of Artemis Institute
In fact, Hannibal and Daniel Anderson argue that, very likely, few ranchers actually hate wolves; they just want their struggle to minimize livestock losses acknowledged, the costs of co-existence appreciated, and their work as land stewards respected. The Andersons say The Common Ground Project is intended to be a fulcrum for engendering greater empathy and understanding all around. 

“Daniel knows that sitting around a campfire and having a ‘safe’ place to discuss people’s positions—what I would call ‘worldview’ provides an atmosphere for honesty to flow and potential transformation to happen, which leads to a deeper grasp of community,” Ryker says. “It’s not the superficial notion of community that most of us are living through right now but one that is mature.”  
Daniel Anderson and Louise Johns, a young professional photojournalist who has worked with National Geographic, meet with students from Whitman College's Semester in the West program.  Anderson hopes the family ranch and The Common Ground Project can provide a rich learning environment for students, conservationists and even business and civic leaders.  Photo by Todd Wilkinson
Daniel Anderson and Louise Johns, a young professional photojournalist who has worked with National Geographic, meet with students from Whitman College's Semester in the West program. Anderson hopes the family ranch and The Common Ground Project can provide a rich learning environment for students, conservationists and even business and civic leaders. Photo by Todd Wilkinson
In autumn 2018, students from Whitman College’s Semester in the West spent a couple of days with the Andersons just after their launch of The Common Ground Project. Phil Brick, founder of Semester in the West, said the rendezvous with the Andersons left a deep impression and it’s his hope that a longer stay can become a regular part of the curriculum.

“What impresses me about the intent of the Andersons is they want to create feeling minds—that decisions can be made by people better understanding the awe that exists in us when we feel the greatness of nature and wild places—something greater than themselves and values only measured in economics,” Ryker adds. “The Andersons know the power of experience comes through personal revelation. It’s not something that can be taught. You can only hope to provide the circumstances that help someone embrace the power as their own.”

Adds Frucht: “I believe that being in open space creates and fosters open hearts and open minds. It’s hard not to feel in awe of a landscape like what you find in Tom Miner. It’s a basic, primal response that many peoplein the modern world who live in urban areas world don’t experience,” Frucht says. “Having moments of awe can lift you up, they can leave you humbled, they can move you out of your individual focus only on self to consider other perspectives”

Rural people who make their living from the land are not insulated from elemental forces that catalyze the human senses the way others are. “Being in nature reminds you of your vulnerability, even your fears that might involve weather, terrain or animals. But when you’re out in the middle of it you can overcome those things and it can be a liberating thing that adds fullness to the rest of your life.”

Fundamental, Daniel says, is that people walk away with more respects for others and feel like they’ve been in a real place where decisions have consequences and actions speak louder than words.  Yet, when it comes to words, few are more articulate than Hannibal Anderson who himself is one of the big-picture thinkers who has passed through the B-Bar.

“The themes that I keep coming back to are how much we’ve simplified our environments and landscapes, how unstable, costly to manage and unhealthy they’ve become in an existential sense,” Hannibal says. “We don’t need more heavy-handedness. We need more tender loving care of nature, and more harmony.”
Sunset at the Anderson Ranch up Tom Miner Basin. Photo by Louise Johns
Sunset at the Anderson Ranch up Tom Miner Basin. Photo by Louise Johns

Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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