Bitter Root Land Trust raising money to purchase land for future park

A view from the 22-acre parcel that the Bitter Root Land Trust is working to acquire for the public.

Provided photo

Fundraising for the acquisition of 22 acres along the Bitterroot River on the edge of Hamilton has reached a critical juncture.

The Bitter Root Land Trust has raised $170,000 of the $230,000 it needs to acquire the property envisioned someday to become parkland for the enjoyment of the public.

The deal on the property is set to close on July 1.

“We have a great opportunity to create a lasting community amenity along the Bitterroot River,” noted Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs. “This is the largest undeveloped riverfront parcel near the city of Hamilton and the response from the community has been nothing short of amazing. Right now, we’re really concentrating on raising money to ensure this land can be enjoyed by community members and visitors for years to come. We’re very close to meeting our goal, but we’re not there yet.”

The property is owned by the daughters of John and Helen Tabor. The couple always envisioned the land on the western edge of Hamilton be preserved in its natural state in perpetuity.

The Bitter Root Land Trust is working with Jeannie Taber Green and Lynn Taber Sherwood in acquiring the land that’s a short walk downstream from the Demmons Fishing Access Site.

This project is a first for the land trust.

In the past, the trust has focused on working with willing landowners looking to conserve working farmland, scenic views or important wildlife habitat.

“This project is different,” Ricklefs said. “We are working to purchase the property from some very community-minded landowners to secure as an area the public can use and enjoy forever.”

The money raised so far has come from a variety of sources, including local businesses, individuals, foundation grants and other sources. The donations have ranged from $50 to $50,000.

“Several generous community members have pooled resources and challenged the Land Trust to raise $11,000 from members of the community,” Ricklefs said. “If we can do so, these folks will match that $11,000. It’s a great way to double the next $11,000 we receive and get us close to completing our fundraising for the project.”

The land trust will soon present an application to the Ravalli County Open Lands Board requesting $35,000 toward the purchase price.

If that is accepted, Ricklefs said the trust is about $25,000 short of the budget for the project after other commitments are considered.

“We’ve had a chance to speak with members of the open lands board and they seem to be really excited about the potential of this project,” Ricklefs said. “They see this as a great deal for the community.”

Since the passage of the county’s open lands bond in 2006, Ricklefs said hundreds of acres of valuable farmlands have been conserved, which has helped protect watershed values and important wildlife winter ranges.

So far, the program has not spent any money on land acquisition.

“The program has done a great job of doing everything that it was designed to do,” Ricklefs said. “With its focus on conservation of productive farm and ranchlands, we’ve been able to leverage a lot of outside dollars.”

“So far, the board has yet to have an acquisition project with a focus on public recreation,” he said. “It seems they might be ripe for a request.”

If the land trust acquires the property, Ricklefs said they plan to put a conservation easement on it to ensure that it will remain open space forever.

“This is a big step for us,” Ricklefs said. “It’s a role that we can play where there are voluntary, market-driven opportunities to help create some more amenities that help connect people with the landscape that is the reason they live here. We’re really excited that we’re able to do that.”

Recently, Ricklefs met with residents of the Sapphire Lutheran Home, which is adjacent to the property. Many have already committed funds toward the acquisition.

“This really impacts their lives in a big way,” Ricklefs said. “Many of them spend time watching wildlife and the changes in seasons on the property. It has a huge value for them.”

One resident reminded Ricklefs that this wasn’t a done deal.

“He told me that all we have now is an opportunity,” Ricklefs said. “That we can’t pretend that it is done and it’s going to happen. So far the community has done a great job, but this is still just an opportunity. We’re not there yet.”

Anyone interested in donating or learning more about the project can call the land trust at 375-0956 or mail donations to Bitter Root Land Trust, P.O. Box 1806, Hamilton, MT 59840, or stop by the office, 307 State St., Hamilton, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Ricklefs cautioned that the Land Trust’s acquisition of the property is step one of many before the property is available for public use.

“It’s important to note that right now the land is very much private property and not available for public use,” he said. “We are working to purchase the land to ensure the important wildlife habitat and opportunities for public use are protected for the future. Buying the land is really just the first step in the process, but with the generous support of our community, we are very close to securing the land and moving to step two.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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