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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

The Bitter Root Land Trust will celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2016.

In its first 10 years of existence, the trust worked with 10 families to help them conserve a total of 800 acres.

Earlier this month, it closed on its 30th conservation easement that pushed the number of acres preserved in the Bitterroot Valley to nearly 6,000.

The difference between the first decade and the second was a community’s decision to tax itself to preserve the land that originally made the Bitterroot Valley a good place to live.

“So many of the things that make this place special are found on private lands,” said Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs.

In 2006, Ravalli County residents recognized that when they passed a $10 million open lands bond program by more than a 60 percent margin.

A decade later, the program has spent less than $4 million of the approved $10 million bond. That funding has been used to leverage millions more from state and federal sources focused on preserving key private lands.

The county’s open lands bond pays about 25 cents on each dollar of the appraised value of the land being placed under a conservation easement, Ricklefs said.

“As the open lands program got off the ground and became more successful, we have seen a lot more willingness from other funding partners to come in and help pay for these projects,” he said. “That makes the county’s money go further. It’s exactly what we had hoped would happen and what the voters intended.”

Corvallis-area farmer and rancher Alan Maki serves as the vice chair of the county’s 14-member open lands board.

“In my wildest dreams, I would have never thought it would have been this successful,” Maki said. “I never would have thought the money would have lasted this long and that so many farms and so much acreage would have been preserved.”

Initially some landowners were hesitant to consider a conservation easement which requires them to give up development rights in perpetuity.

Much of the success of the open lands program can be attributed to the longtime Bitterroot Valley families who have stepped forward to participate in the program.

“They were leaders in our community,” Maki said. “Some owned multi-generational places. They said it was important to protect them forever. Once a few people did it and others could see that it didn’t change their agricultural practices, it began to snowball. Those people who stepped forward weren’t outliers any more. People were seeing their neighbors doing it. It wasn’t scary anymore.”

The preservation of working farmlands doesn’t stop at the border of farms under a conservation easement.

“Once neighbors know that the land next door is protected, it changes the way they look at their own land,” Maki said. “If you’re living in a place that has development all around, you might just give up and leave. If there isn’t any development, you might decide to stay put.”

The initial idea to consider an open lands program came from the county’s right-to-farm board. As the idea took root, people from a large swath of interests came together to support it.

“People interested in wildlife, fisheries, water or simply open space came together to support it,” Maki said. “It became a grassroots effort that brought a lot of different players to the table.”

People from those varied interests later formed the open lands board that was tasked to develop the criteria the county would use to decide which projects fit.

“The whole goal was to try to develop a transparent set of rules that each project would be graded on,” Maki said. “We wanted it to be transparent to the community because taxpayer’s monies were involved. In my opinion, that money has been spent incredibly wisely.”

Ravalli County Commissioner J.R. Iman said the rigorous screening process developed by the board makes the commission’s job easy.

“The process is very thorough,” Iman said. “By the time it gets to us, there’s not much left to say, but yes. Each of the projects has to stand on their own. The process has to be fair to ensure the integrity of the program.”

On average, Iman said the county has paid about $650 an acre from the open lands bond for its portion of the conservation easement.

“There’s no race to spend all the money,” Iman said. “The most important part for me has been the screening process. We want to make sure that all of these of the projects fit the criteria that are important to the taxpayer.

“I think we’ve spent the money wisely so far. I personally am in favor of it. We have a mandate from the taxpayer who agreed to allow their money to be spent for this purpose.”

“The best part of this is that it’s not Republican or Democrat,” Iman said. “The process isn’t guided by any one party or faction. People have said that they are willing to pay in advance to protect the amenities that are important to them.”

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

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.