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STEVENSVILLE – Spend some time talking to Dave Laursen and it’s likely you’ll come away thinking that here’s a man who has found his dream.

That dream came by way of a small ranch that once had more than its share of rocks in its fields, broken-down barbwire fences and overgrazed stream banks.

That was back in 2002.

A lot of calluses, blisters and sweat later and Dave and Mari Laursen’s 244-acre hay ranch in the Burnt Fork drainage just east of Stevensville couldn’t be more beautiful.

The meadows look like manicured golf courses. There’s a striking home and a bright white barn. Just down the road, a huge red hay shed stands empty now awaiting this year’s hay crop.

On this blustery day with its occasional spits of rain, Laursen is filled with the kind of optimism that all farmers feel when the mountains are full of snow and the promise of a good crop is in the air.

“We could be looking at the kind of crop we had three years ago,” he said. “It’s a lot different than what we had last year.”

Unlike some of his neighbors whose families have been on their places for generations, Laursen didn’t start out to be a hay farmer.

He once owned a successful insurance business in Missoula. When he and his wife first considered moving to the Bitterroot, they hoped to find a 10- or 20-acre place to call home.

They found something bigger than that.

“It was a train wreck when we bought it,” Laursen remembered. “We must have taken out a couple of miles of old fence. There was a lot of rock picking too. That was the pain before the gain. I think we have it pretty well tamed now.”

All that time and hard work brought both a sense of accomplishment and a connection to this piece of ground.

It became a place for the Laursens that was worth saving.

On Valentine’s Day this year, the couple signed off on a conservation easement that will ensure that this working ranch remains just that forever.

“We were never in the mind to subdivide this anyway,” Laursen said. “We don’t feel like we lost anything … between ourselves, we’ve said we’d like to die here.

“I suppose in the end we could sell it, but that would only be OK if it stayed in agriculture,” he said. “That’s what this place is and always should be.”

The Laursens’ easement was the third that landowners working through the Bitter Root Land Trust have completed in the Burnt Fork watershed.

Standing on a sagebrush covered hillside just east of the Laursen place, Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs points down into the valley below.

From here he can see the open bench that belongs to the Schroeder family and Severson’s white barn. Not far north of there is the red hay shed of Laursen’s.

“All of that is just under 1,000 acres of contiguous properties under conservation easement,” Ricklefs said. “It’s pretty remarkable when you consider that all of it has been driven by landowners with a commitment to preserve this really unique portion of the Bitterroot Valley.”

The land trust’s efforts to help provide landowners with the opportunity to consider placing their land under a conservation easement has been helped by funds from both the federal farm bill and Ravalli County’s Open Lands Bond, as well as a number of individuals.

“The Friends of the Lee Metcalf Refuge have been huge in helping us through donations that have helped us carry costs for the period it takes to complete an easement,’ Ricklefs said. “These are labor intensive and expensive. They can take 18 months or longer to complete. It’s difficult for a small nonprofit like ours to carry those kinds of costs.”

The easements are often paid in part through the county’s $10 million open lands bond that was passed by a large majority of county residents.

At this point, Ricklefs said the county has committed about $3 million in open lands funds toward 15 projects that protect over 4,500 acres.

“The open lands bond investments have been about 25 cents on the dollar,” he said, with a good deal of that match coming from federal farm bill funds.

Ricklefs is enjoying the view from land that may be the next to be protected from future development by a conservation easement.

The county’s open lands board will soon be making a site visit to Steve Peckinpaugh’s 350 acres that is just south of the bare hill called Iron Cap.

That land serves as an intersection between the wild lands of the Sapphire Range and the lands on the valley floor.

“What you are seeing happen in here in the Burnt Fork is this amazing push to ensure that this place remains virtually intact and a part of the local agricultural community,” he said. “There is really a unique synergy going on directly between landowners.”

For people like Dan Kerslake that attention to protecting working farms and ranches is crucial.

The 25-year-old hopes someday to have his own farm and ranch in the Bitterroot. Until then, he leases about 700 acres of ground to raise his 30 head of Black Angus cows and to raise the hay he sells to local outlets.

“It’s really challenging when you don’t own your own land, but right now it’s the only way that I can get a start,” he said.

Kerslake knows that land owners could choose to subdivide their property and make more money than leasing it. He’s also met a good number of people who want to see agriculture survive in the Bitterroot.

The Bitter Root Land Trust has gone about providing that option in a way that landowners can respect, Kerslake said.

“Relationship is the number one thing,” he said. “They showed farmers and ranchers what’s possible and have been careful not to impose any kind of agenda on them.

“They have worked hard at building those relationships,” Kerslake said. “They have showed landowners that they can be trusted and that’s paying off. They’ve got my full support.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.