Karen and Mick Cheff

This story was originally published on Forbes.com, in 2018.

Mick and Karen Cheff sit side-by-side at the huge dining table facing the big picture window, talking about the developer who tried to make them sell their Montana ranch 25 years ago. Probably worth more than $1 million then, it is worth much more now, a 500-acre ranch and outfitting business nestled against the Mission Mountains.

“I didn’t even invite the two of them inside,” Mick says, remembering the developer and his lawyer standing on the porch. “He kept saying, ‘This is the place I want. Name your price.’”

The two men, probably Californians, returned when Karen Cheff was home alone, and even took a helicopter and buzzed the property.

“I was getting aggravated. He made me feel like he could buy it if he wanted it,” Mick says.

“This is the setting I want,” the developer said.

“Well, you’re not getting it,” Mick told him, and shooed him off the porch.

Mick is 72, but he’s been running cattle with his sons and grandson all day. He’s a little upset, not from the memory of the foolish developer, but because one of the cattle, spooked, crushed a calf today. That kind of thing upsets him.

Behind the lodge, the mountains frame the ranch, their presence felt even when they are unseen. In front of us the spring rain falls, like liquid gold to Montana soil.

About 50-60 hunter visit every fall, paying as much as $5,000 for the rare trips into the 2.5 million acres of wilderness nearby, where the Cheffs are among the outfitters with licenses. Many more people come for trail rides and summer packing trips, which cost from $2,625 to more than $3,000 for a trip up to seven nights.  Altogether with the cattle sales and people staying at the guest ranch, the Cheff’s businesses bring in more than $500,000 in revenue.

Twenty-five years ago, Mick told the developer that the Cheff property he’d bought from his dad, Bud Cheff, wasn’t for sale at any price. Just recently, he and Karen have made a similar decision, opting to sell their operation to two of their sons and a grandson. The deals are far below market, but the money isn’t the point.

“I want it to work,” says Karen. “I don’t want it coming back.”

It would be easy to romanticize a business like this, but that would be doing it less than justice. Founded in 1932 by Bud, Cheff Ranch has evolved over the years into one of the Valley’s most storied businesses. This is not easy work.

“It’s a calling,” Mick says. He shot his first bear when he was 12, under instructions from his dad because the bear had already raided a camp. Mick picked up his rifle and tracked it. He found it, half up a tree. Hit once, it started running down the hill toward him. The 12-year-old stood his ground, raised his rifle and shot it again.

The Bob Marshall Wilderness, named for an early environmentalist, is near Glacier National Park.
The Bob Marshall Wilderness, named for an early environmentalist, is near Glacier National Park. Credit: ELIZABETH MACBRIDE

Bud Cheff ran the company for about 45 years, selling it to Mick and Karen in 1979. Mick’s siblings also worked in the business, but Mick was the one who felt the connection to the animals and the environment most deeply, he thinks. He and Karen married when she was 17 and he was 20. They talk easily back-and-forth, clarifying what the other is saying.

Bud lived until 2011, till he was 96, often walking up from his house to prune trees, pick flowers or “sometimes I’d see him laying down there in the orchard,” Karen says. “I’d worry, but he was just taking a nap.”

Over the years, the business has evolved, especially in that more regulations have been added. Grizzlies, for instance, can no longer be hunted – though that may change soon. Fewer hunters are the top-notch outdoorsmen and women of years ago, Mick says. For the past few years, the family has been guiding a group of Chinese businesspeople who come to shoot a gun, many for the first time, and to experience the outdoors. Most hunters come for the elk, and are willing to pay thousands for the experience.

With the Cheffs, hunters ride eight hours in and stay for nine days.

One of the biggest problems is that because no mechanized equipment is allowed in the Wilderness, not even a wheelbarrow, the Forest Service, which is responsible for keeping the trails clear, has a hard time doing so, says Mick. No mechanized equipment means no chain saws. (And also no mountain bikes, which has been a point of contention in recent years).

Outfitters need a Forest Service camp permit for each camp; and since no more are being issued, you have to buy out an existing outfitter. The Cheffs aren’t opposed to the regulations – they’ve spent their lives managing land and wildlife, which requires, well, management. But the rampant forest fires in Montana damage the wilderness, and they’re worried about that.

Warmer temperatures planetwide are thought to be behind the increased number of Western forest fires, because warmer temperatures mean less snowpack, which keeps the forest watered through the summer (though this year’s snowpack is larger than usual). Managing the forest is a point of contention, too, as some people argue that there ought to be controlled burns of the low-lying brush, to avoid the huge, devastating fires that can lay a cloud of smoke so thick it’s like London fog, but harder to breathe.

These are all complicated questions, and we don’t get into them much as we sit around the table, talking. Mick and Karen Cheff aren’t ones for hard and fast rules.

Surviving in Montana as a small, family owned business has always meant a lot of flexibility and a good sense of humor. They could probably raise their revenue, if they took in a larger number of hunters, or if they added something like a spring bear hunt.

More hunts might hurt the wildlife populations near their camps in the Bob Marshall. Spring bear hunts are despised by the Humane Society because sows with cubs are more at risk, and if you kill a mother bear, the cubs will starve. Spring bear hunts tend to be road hunts, and not many outfitters in the Bob Marshall Wilderness try to hunt spring bears in it.

That’s just not what the Cheffs, with their eight-hour rides in, careful management, and good camp meals, do.

Initially, they thought to sell their three camps and the lodge to their sons and grandson as a group, but then everybody realized that it would work better with each. buying one camp. So they split up the transaction, and each will buy one camp, with the lodge still remaining to be settled. Mark and Claire Cheff will buy one; Matt another, and grandson Micky and granddaughter-in-law Kaylee the third.

As for the sense of humor, they have a good model in Bud Cheff, the family founder. He dictated a book to his granddaughter about his life as a pioneer in the Valley. Of his seven children, he wrote: “We are proud of all of them, as none of them are in jail.”

For Mick and Karen there is, of course, the one hard-and-fast rule: The Cheff Ranch is not for sale.

“Do you ever regret not selling?” I ask.

“No,” says Karen.

There are times, when you’re guiding a group of first-time hunters on an eight-hour-ride into the wilderness, when 4 a.m. comes around early. There was the day their son broke his pelvis when a horse rolled on him – he’s OK now, but still. There was that calf, earlier today.

“Fleetingly,” Mick says. “Today, I want to get rid of the cattle. But I know that’ll pass.”

This story and others on New Builders Dispatch are made possible by a sponsorship from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation is a private, nonpartisan foundation that provides access to opportunities that help people achieve financial stability, upward mobility, and economic prosperity – regardless of race, gender, or geography. The Kansas City, Mo.-based foundation uses its grantmaking, research, programs, and initiatives to support the start and growth of new businesses, a more prepared workforce, and stronger communities. For more information, visit www.kauffman.org and connect with www.twitter.com/kauffmanfdn and www.facebook.com/kauffmanfdn.

A business journalist for 20 years, am the founder of Times of Entrepreneurship and the co-author of The New Builders.