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Creating a family legacy
Carrie and Joe Grover have agreed to preserve their 840-acre Sawtooth Ranch under a conservation easement funded by Ravalli County’s Open Lands Bond program. PERRY BACKUS - Ravalli Republic

Bud Grover knew about hard work and its rewards.

When he was young, he did a stint in the Butte mines. When he and his brother decided there had to be a better way to make a living, they enrolled at the University of Montana’s fledgling pharmacy program. They paid their way through school with money raised by trapping beaver, mink and other critters.

After he graduated, Grover settled in Deer Lodge and built a successful pharmacy business, but he never lost his love for all things wild.

He decided early on that someday he was going to own a ranch where he could run a few head of cattle. Just as important, it needed to be a place where wildlife roamed, streams coursed and solitude beckoned.

“He knew what he wanted,” his son, Joe, remembered. “We spent a lot of summer vacations looking at different ranches all over the state.”

None of them were just quite right.

And then one day - back in the early 1960s - Joe and his mother, Hazel Grover, decided to take a look at a hard-scramble place a real estate agent said wasn’t worth seeing just outside of Hamilton.

After negotiating a rough swamp-lined road, the two found themselves at the edge of a big meadow with sweeping views of the Bitterroot Mountains. They stepped out of the car to hear the murmur of Sawtooth Creek. The air tasted good. There might have even been a cow elk staring down at them from the treeline.

“I took a look around and knew that this was it,” Joe remembered. “I called my dad and told him we’d found it.”

It was 1963 when the Grover family struck a deal on the property that would become the Sawtooth Ranch. Ever since that day, three generations of the Grover family have worked, explored and loved the 840-acres of timber and grass.

Other than a new house, a caved in old barn and a few new steel-post fence lines, not much has changed over the decades since then.

“We’ve tried to keep it without changing it that much,” Joe said.

Earlier this year, Joe and his wife, Carrie, decided they wanted to ensure this piece of ground that’s played such an important role in their family’s lives would never be developed.

This week, the Ravalli County Commission approved using $550,000 of the county’s Open Lands Bond monies to help purchase a conservation easement that will keep the Sawtooth Ranch intact forever.

The Grovers donated $350,000 toward the cost of the easement. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation chipped in another $20,000.

“It was really, really great,” said Ravalli County Commission Chair Carlotta Grandstaff about the meeting. “Everyone who was there spoke in favor of the project … it’s a beautiful piece of property.”

The Sawtooth Ranch project is the third - and the largest - to be funded under the county’s Open Lands program.

Ravalli County voters approved the $10 million bond program to help preserve open land through the purchase of conservation easements in 2006. The county is one of four - including Missoula, Gallatin and Lewis and Clark - in Montana with similar open lands bond programs.

Gavin Ricklefs, executive director of the Bitter Root Land Trust, said protecting the Sawtooth Ranch from future development “was a unique opportunity in the Bitterroot Valley. There aren’t that many parcels of that size left on the west side.”

The ranch is adjacent to another 160 acres already protected under a Montana Land Reliance conservation easement. There are two other landowners considering easements on their adjacent properties.

“We could end up protecting about 1,200 acres from the Forest Service boundary to the West Side Road of contiguous elk winter range and over two miles of Sawtooth Creek,” Ricklefs said.

The first three projects under the county’s Open Lands program have exemplified what the voters wanted to conserve when they passed the bond measure, Ricklefs said.

A 265-acre easement for the Wood family ranch between Corvallis and Stevensville protected agricultural lands. A 144-acre easement on the Bell family place south of Hamilton protected waterways on Skalkaho and Sleeping Child creeks. Important elk winter range, wildlife habitat and water will be conserved at the Sawtooth Ranch.

Ricklefs said there are other projects in the works.

“I think it’s quite reasonable that we’ll be able to conserve 2,000 acres in 2009 alone,” he said. “It’s really been thrilling for me to see that people are willing to help landowners conserve these important areas in the valley.”

Joe Grover said it took time for his family to come to terms with putting a conservation easement on their property.

“The idea of preserving this wasn’t that difficult,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been doing all along. What was difficult was the idea that you give up the right to do anything you want with your land and that somebody else enters the picture.

“It takes time to build the trust that’s necessary for you to feel good about that,” Grover said.

The couple said they’ve appreciated the efforts of the Bitter Root Land Trust in putting together the easement.

“They have been wonderful to work with,” said Carrie Grover.

The ranch has never been a moneymaker. These days - with his father gone - Grover does most of the work around the place.

“I do it because I like to do it,” he said. “It’s my exercise program.”

But there will come a day when he can’t do it anymore and that’s where the money the family received from the county’s Open Land program will help out.

“There’s always some kind of maintenance that needs to be done here,” Grover said. “The last time my dad was up here he was 93. He was working with a chainsaw and he cut his Achilles’ tendon. He walked back to the jeep and drove himself to the hospital.

“He was a tough old guy.”

Bud Grover’s ashes were scattered on the ranch after he died at 97 years.

“It’s good to know that this place is not going to change,” Joe said. “I think he’d be happy about that.”

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Editor Perry Backus can be reached at 363-3300 or