Conservation easement protects 55 acres near Hamilton
A pond on Don and Joni Lodmell's property draws ducks and geese every year. It's part of the 55-acres now protected forever under a conservation easement. Photo courtesy of Bitter Root Land Trust

Don and Joni Lodmell came here looking for water.

They found so much more than that.

It was in the late 1960s when the scientist and teacher with deep Montana roots decided to settle in the Bitterroot Valley. They'd hoped to find a place along the river, but couldn't find a parcel there that interested them.

Somebody mentioned a new subdivision - perhaps one of the first in Ravalli County - up along Sawtooth Creek just west of Hamilton.

So the couple took a drive and then a stroll through irrigated pasture and woods filled with aspen and pine. They listened to the creek and watched the birds dart between the trees.

And they fell in love with this piece of land that was to become their home.

They built their house, planted trees, fixed the fences, but most of all, they enjoyed this refuge filled with nature's finest on the edge of town.

Both are retired from successful careers, he as a scientist from Rocky Mountain Laboratories and she as a teacher from Hamilton High School.

And as they pondered the future of their 55-acre parcel, both knew what they had to do.

"We wanted to protect it forever," Don said. "We have a lot of years and blood, sweat and tears invested in this place ... we knew that we wanted it to stay the way it is."

Last month, that desire became reality when they closed on a conservation easement funded by the Ravalli County Open Space Bond.

The easement was inexpensive as easements go. The Lodmells asked only for $34,430, just 8 percent of what they were allowed based on the write-down value of the loss of development rights.

Under the terms of the easement, there will never be another house on the land except for in the location their home now occupies.

The rest of the land will remain wild for the deer, elk, bear and the Steller's jay that was looking for a snack on their back porch on a recent afternoon.

"It's the wildlife that we really enjoy," Don said. "You see everything imaginable here. We've had bear, wolves, elk, moose, coyotes and fox. In the spring, there are ducks and geese that land on the pond."

Joni smiled at the thought as the couple's pair of black labs wrestled on the couch.

"It just feels like you are in the middle of a private little refuge," she said. "It's quiet and always beautiful."

And it's the perfect fit for the local conservation effort funded by Ravalli County residents through the $10 million open space bond passed by voters in 2006.

"This easement fits like a puzzle piece," said Gavin Ricklefs, Bitter Root Land Trust's executive director.

The Lodmell easement shares borders with the Sawtooth Ranch and the Henry Grant conservation easement to protect an area in excess of 1,000 acres just west of Hamilton.

In Ravalli County - where land ownership patterns are fragmented - this model of neighbor working with neighbor to protect a larger landscape is likely the future for land conservation, Ricklefs said.

"We have neighbors who are coming together to decide what the future of their neighborhoods will be," he said. "It's a model that is really catching on."

Ricklefs is often left humbled by the connection people feel for the land.

"These are willing private landowners who are deciding to protect their properties at a great cost to themselves," he said. "All of us get to enjoy the benefit of having these great stewards on the land."

"It will probably be two or three generations from now when people will really look back and see the gift these landowners have left," Ricklefs said. "They want to say then ‘thank you for doing this.' "

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or