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Preserving the land
Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs and cattle rancher Reed Trexler look over the Wood family ranch north of Corvallis. The ranch is the first property to be protected by a conservation easement under the county’s Open Lands bond program. WILL MOSS - Ravalli Republic

More than a century ago, the Wood family started farming and ranching in the fertile bottomland of the Bitterroot Valley.

That was long before sprawl started to gobble up the landscape, turning open spaces into subdivisions, blacktop and shopping strips.

On Monday, two descendents of the original Wood settlers ensured that the remaining 265 acres of the family’s homestead would remain undeveloped forever.

“We’re very pleased,” said Laurie Wood-Gundlach, who along with her sister, Janet Wood Farley, became the first landowners to sign a conservation easement under Ravalli County’s Open Lands bond program.

Wood-Gundlach, who lives in California, returned to Hamilton to witness the county commission’s unanimous vote to approve the easement.

“As the owners of this historical and productive ranch, we believe that preserving the family heritage and protecting the agricultural way of life in the Bitterroot Valley is the best legacy that we can leave to the valley,” she said.

About two dozen people showed up in solidarity, which open space advocates took as an encouraging sign that more landowners will look into conservation easements to preserve the valley’s farms, ranches, wildlife habitat and water quality.

After the public hearing, Wood-Gundlach e-mailed her sister, who moved from the Bitterroot to Hawaii two years ago.

“I was almost in euphoria,” Wood-Gundlach said.

Gavin Ricklefs, executive director of the Bitter Root Land Trust, which will administer the Wood family’s easement, said public support for the project was heartening, especially in the wake of controversy over the county’s defunct growth policy and derailed zoning and streamside setback proposals.

In November 2006, Ravalli County voters approved a $10 million bond program to help preserve open land through the purchase of conservation easements.

Conservation easements restrict most development rights in exchange for cash payments, tax breaks or other financial benefits.

“A lot of people want this” Open Lands bond program to succeed, “and now we’re finally coming together as a community to protect this valley,” Ricklefs said.

The Wood family started ranching and farming in the Bitterroot Valley in the 1890s when two cousins, Albert and George Wood, bought nearby parcels of land along the Eastside Highway between Corvallis and Stevensville.

Albert Wood, who was the Wood sisters’ great-grandfather, and his descendents farmed their land until the 1950s when they sold it outside the family.

George Wood and his descendents farmed his land until the Wood sisters’ father, Clyde, bought it in the 1950s. He worked the land until he died in 1988.

It is that 265-acre ranch, known as the George Wood ranch, that the Wood sisters are putting into a conservation easement, which is to be finalized in the next few months.

Wood-Gundlach, 57, and Wood Farley, 59, who are Bitterroot natives, spent their early childhood on the Albert Wood ranch before moving to Corvallis and later to Missoula.

They didn’t spend much time on the George Wood ranch, so they don’t have an emotional connection to that land like their father and mother, Dora, who died in August.

But the George Wood ranch is the last of any Wood property in the valley, and Wood-Gundlach said she and her sister were committed to preserving it for agriculture and open space.

Two generations of the Trexler family - first Larry, now Reed and Kari - have leased and operated the ranch for about 15 years.

Wood-Gundlach said she started thinking about preserving the ranch about 10 years ago when she heard a National Public Radio story about a conservation easement in Gallatin County.

She learned more about easements from the Nature Conservancy and a Missoula friend who is a land-use attorney before deciding two years ago to work with the Bitter Root Land Trust to put the family ranch into an easement.

“The financial part of this is secondary for us,” said Wood-Gundlach, who along with her sister will get a payment of $265,440 in exchange for permanently giving up most development rights on the ranch. “What’s important is the land itself.”

Wood-Gundlach said she and her sister never used to consider the ranch as developable. “But then we thought: What if we died and it gets sold to someone with no emotional attachment to the land whatsoever,” she said. “There would be nothing to prevent a new owner from carving it up into home sites, which would be awful.”

Farms and ranches “are the cornerstones of the Bitterroot Valley and it’s our family’s background, so this is a way to preserve, in essence, nature’s artwork and still have it be viable in terms of agricultural production.”

Wood-Gundlach and Ricklefs said the conservation easement came about because of a partnership between private and public parties, especially the county’s Open Lands Board.

More ranchers and farmers might sign easements tailored to their needs if the Wood family ranch easement works out the way the Woods and the Trexlers expect, they said.

“There’s an innate wariness about encumbering your right of ownership,” Wood-Gundlach said. “You lose some of your flexibility and, in essence, devalue your land, so you have to be willing to make that commitment to protecting agriculture and open spaces.”

Reed Trexler, 30, who raises beef cattle and horses and grows some grass hay and alfalfa, said he initially worried an easement would hamper his ability to run the ranch.

Now, he thinks it will help by guaranteeing that the land won’t be sold off to developers.

“At first, I didn’t like it,” he said. “I thought it was like selling your land to the government, but the more I learned about it, I got to thinking it would be just fine.”

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Reporter John Cramer can be reached at 363-3300 or jcramer@ravallirepublic.com.

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