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How fly-fishing can save the West's ranchers

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As Tom Milesnick drives his pickup truck along a dusty road in the middle of Montana's Gallatin Valley, he sizes up the fruits of his round-the-clock labors.

With beef cows grazing beside him and giant bales of hay dotting the pasture, he heads toward another crop growing inconspicuously between the grassy banks of Benhart Spring Creek.

Here, where the water meanders toward the East Gallatin River, Mr. Milesnick is standing not just at the confluence of two fantastic trout streams, he's also entering the headwaters of a pioneering venture that's helping folks like him stay on the land.

By charging fly-rod-wielding anglers $50 a day to fish the ribbons of water running through his MZ-Ranch, he's finding a way to keep his mom-and-pop business alive.

It is a marriage of American Gothic agrarianism with New Economy values, as ranchers add mountain-biking trails, convert old bunk houses into bed and breakfasts, and offer hayrides that ferry city slickers to pumpkin patches at harvest time. Beyond dude ranches, these cattlemen are turning to innovation to supplement their increasingly inadequate incomes.

"The traditional agricultural economy is in trouble throughout America, but a lot of ranchers and farmers are looking at their land in a different way than in the past," says Lill Erickson, executive director of the Corporation for the Northern Rockies, which works with ranchers to identify environmentally friendly business opportunities.

On the other side of the Gallatin Valley, for instance, in the tiny community of Willow Creek, George Kahrl has started a different kind of secondary business. The owner of the Sarah Faith Ranch hosts clinics for new landowners to teach them, horse-whisperer style, how to develop a personal bond with their horses.

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