Ravalli County commissioners approved yet another conservation easement in the Middle Burnt Fork area east of Stevensville on Thursday.
An easement for the White Feather Ranch approved by the board at a Thursday morning meeting is three parcels totaling 99 acres. It lies in the Burnt Fork drainage, east of Stevensville off Middle Burnt Fork Road.
Commissioners voted 3-1 to approve the application. Matt Kanenwisher cast the dissenting vote and Ron Stoltz was absent.
The easement will be funded by the Ravalli County open lands bond, a $10 million bond passed by voters in 2006. So far, the bond has funded 10 easements equaling about 2,700 acres.
The White Feather Ranch easement will receive nearly $146,000 from the bond. The entire project is valued at more than $452,000.
The White Feather Ranch is the third conservation easement off Middle Burnt Fork Road to be approved by the county through the open lands program. Jim and Sharon Schroeder put an easement on 360 acres on Sunset Bench. And Dan and Debbie Severson placed an easement on 354 acres that adjoins the Schroeders' property in the Burnt Fork drainage.
Including existing conservation easements that predate the open lands program, about 5,500 acres up the Burnt Fork are under easements.
"There's a neighborhood trend here that is encouraging long-term conservation," said Gavin Ricklefs, executive director of the Bitter Root Land Trust.
"This is really exciting," said Severson, who received commission approval for his easement in December. "It really encourages us all to know other people are appreciating agriculture."
The White Feather Ranch is owned by Paul Kink and Diane Thomas-Rupert. The two bought the property in 1985, but at the time it was in disrepair.
"We did a tremendous amount of cleanup on this place," Thomas-Rupert said. "As time went on and things improved, we were able to do more and more with agriculture. We've done a lot of work here."
Kink said the idea of putting an easement on their land has been in the works for many years.
"We always felt that we wanted to leave a legacy for the future of this valley," he said.
Some of the qualities of the White Feather Ranch that make it a perfect candidate for the open lands program include agricultural use, for hay and livestock, and wildlife habitat that includes three ponds and stream and riparian habitat, as well as proximity to other conservation easements.
"I think this is a project that is emblematic of why voters voted for the open lands bond," Ricklefs said.
The ranch also employs Dan Kerslake full time. The 23-year-old started out working part time on the ranch, but that has evolved into full time. Kink said hay production on his property has tripled since Kerslake has come on board.
"It isn't just for us. We see the next generation coming down the road," Kink said.
The project also received unanimous approval from the Open Lands board.
In his dissenting opinion, Kanenwisher called into question the open lands program, saying despite it being approved by a citizen vote, he does not support the program.
"A lot of things have changed since 2006," Kanenwisher said. "Given what the program does, I don't know how much support it would get (today)."
Kanenwisher said he questions the benefits that citizens as a whole receive from conservation easements.
"I don't know if from a government point of view we can choose one industry over another," he said. "What is the taxpayer getting that they don't already have?"
Commissioner Greg Chilcott argued that the citizens do get benefits from open land.
"Having those aesthetic qualities does protect land values valleywide," Chilcott said. "This was a citizen project. The citizens voted for it with a solid majority."
Commissioner Suzy Foss said she thinks the White Feather Ranch easement is a good project.
"It's a beautiful piece of property," Foss said. "I support the project. You guys have done a good job on it."
Reach reporter Whitney Bermes at 363-3300 or email@example.com.