Creative Countryside

A tour around the Rocking Z Ranch and land under a PPLT conservation easement—an excerpt from our 2018 Fall Newsletter.

Creative Countryside

Patty and Zack Wirth touring PPLT staff and board through their property.

Tucked back in the hills of the Little Prickly Pear valley you’ll find the Rocking Z Ranch. As you pull into the dirt driveway you pass horse pastures on either side before approaching the main ranch complex. The old ranch house, which has hosted the Wirth family for many decades, is surrounded by several outbuildings, stables, and a farrier station. At this operation, horses are front and center.

And that’s how Zack and Patty Wirth started. They moved their family, six kids in all, to a little cabin on Zack’s family ranch, where his ailing mother still lived in the main house. Before the family even had reliable running water, they picked up the ranching duties and began outfitting trail rides on the side. All the proceeds were reinvested in the ranch operations (and indoor plumbing). Though the enterprise is still ranch forward, it now has a few more creature comforts. Behind the main ranch house, there is a guest cottage, fire pit, and garden. Zack even admits that there is a keg of beer at the horseshoeing stable. 

Just before our first snow a couple weeks ago, Zack and Patty guided a handful of PPLT staff and board around the Rocking Z and the portion of it under PPLT conservation easement. This couple doesn’t sit still for long. The ranch house has been fully renovated and can now host the entire extended family. Underneath the farrier building, Zack has a state-of-the-art greenhouse that grows 1,500 lbs. of barley grass a week for winter feeding. After touring the facilities, we hopped in the ranch van and mosied our way across the property under PPLT easement, stopping to learn the story of a dilapidated barn near one of the haying fields. The barn serves as an ideal vantage point for appreciating the untouched steep hills on both sides of the valley encircling the ranch. The massive cottonwoods that line Big Sheep Creek, a tributary of the Little Prickly Pear, were in full fall color. Zack asserts, “I make sure to stop and eat my lunch at this spot when I’m out here.” An old rusty pipeline sat next to the barn, the last remnant of a natural gas pipeline that extended from northern Montana to Anaconda, traversing the length of the ranch. Zack took several years to remove the pipe, piece by piece, and even took care of some of it on the neighbors’ parcels. Constantly experimenting with different energy sources, the Willow Creek wheat strain, and crop rotations, it’s obvious the Wirths take their stewardship of the land and the health of the local environment seriously.

Patty and Zack Wirth, owners of the Rocking Z Ranch.

But the success of the ranch wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Patty and Zack have worked very hard. In the 90s they completed their first conservation easement with the Montana Land Reliance, and as their ranching operations expanded, the need for more land was apparent. The neighboring lands, however, were out of reach with their limited funds. They approached their neighbor, Don Johnston, who was interested in protecting the property from subdivision. He purchased the 507 acres, placed them under easement with PPLT using Lewis and Clark County Open Space Bond funding, and then sold half to the Wirths. Waving to the impressive hills, prime black bear habitat, dotted with granite outcroppings, Patty exclaims, “Why more people don’t take Sunday drives out here, I don’t know.”

Before wrapping up the tour, Zack drove us down to a 1924 vintage Sears and Roebuck house where he spent the first nine years of his life. The site will soon host Rocking Z’s ranch hands. Pointing to the red building, he says, “I was potty trained in a coffee can here.” Patty had a similar upbringing, learning how to handle horses at a young age on her father’s ranch. Her dad always had horses because they were fun and a good motivator to keep the kids around. The horses now help to keep Zack and Patty’s kids around. This connection to the land, a knack for being good (and fun) neighbors, and a little resourcefulness will keep this ranch going for a long time.