The Don Aldrich Award
Jim Cusker - 2014
Guided by his family history, Jim Cusker lived with forethought for the land and for the people who would come after him.
Born in Wolf Point, Montana in 1932, Jim moved at age 6 with his family to Missoula, where they established a family ranch west of town in the Grass Valley. His parents included Jim in the hands-on work of ranching, and encouraged him to work hard at his education also. From this upbringing, Jim developed a strong sense of integrity and a deep appreciation for the stewardship of interconnected agricultural land and natural ecosystems.
Jim earned a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from Montana State University in Missoula (today known as the University of Montana). After his military service, Jim earned a Master’s degree in Zoology at Montana State University-Bozeman with a teaching certificate. Jim’s teaching career brought him back to Missoula where he was a beloved biology teacher at Sentinel High School for 38 years; it also brought him home to the family ranch where he grew up and where he would raise his family.
Upon his return, Jim began to see and feel the effects of changing land use west of Missoula that would continue throughout his life. As ranch family descendants sold off land for development, Jim lamented the loss of a community and way of life, as well as the ecosystems on the land. Dismayed by these changes, Jim became actively involved in agricultural land conservation in Missoula. In 1998, Jim’s family placed 200 acres of the Cusker Ranch in a conservation easement with the Five Valleys Land Trust.
In retirement, Jim continued this work, co-founding Community Food & Agriculture Coalition in 2005 and serving on their board and the board of Five Valleys Land Trust. He also served on Missoula’s city and county open space committees and was recognized by the Missoula County Commissioners and the Missoula Conservation Roundtable for his long-term dedication to protection of agricultural land.
In his charming, humble manner, Jim could talk to landowners about conservation easements by sharing his personal experience and the values underlying his own decision. Jim was also proud to be on the Grass Valley French Ditch Board of Directors, as his father was before him. In retirement, he continued to mentor student teachers in Missoula County.
In a 2019 oral history, Jim said, “one of the most important characteristics you must follow if you’re dedicated to the conservation of natural resources, is patience.” Jim understood that patience is not complacency. Patience is being level-headed and building strong relationships. Above all, you must tenaciously love the places for which you care.
Jim’s legacy continues in his family, in the countless students who remember his classes and field trips, and in Western Montana’s mountain valleys, where his advocacy for agricultural lands conservation shaped the land we enjoy today.
Biography by Liam Cody
Photo by Nelson Kenter