STEVENSVILLE - For five generations of Dan Severson's family, South Burnt Fork has been home.
Life there wasn't always easy.
There were times when nearly every piece of the 275-acre ranch had a lien against it. His grandfather died on this land when a shed collapsed on top of him.
His father came home from World War II to a house without glass in the windows and the main floor damaged from wandering cattle. For a time, Severson's parents raised chickens on the second floor to help make ends meet.
When Severson's son returned home to work on the ranch, cattle prices dipped to 62 cents a pound and it was a challenge to make ends meet.
Through it all, the family persevered. And with each new fence post or crop of hay or new calf, the land became a part of their heritage.
Two weeks ago, Severson signed a conservation easement that would keep his family's ranch intact for generations to come.
It was day that he'll remember for a long time to come.
"We had thought about this for a long, long time," he said. "The day that we signed the deed was a really happy day. It made you feel like you've done something good.
"It made you feel that you had done the right thing."
The Seversons were the latest Bitterroot Valley landowners to participate in Ravalli County's Open Lands Program.
Surrounded by most of his family in the same barnyard where generations of his family toiled, laughed and cried, Severson offered a history lesson Wednesday morning on the ranch that dates back to 1860 when a pioneer named John Robertson homesteaded the place.
Back then, there weren't any foundries in western Montana so Robertson had bricks transported from Fort Benton to build his home.
In 1908, Severson's great-grandfather, Burchet Logan, bought the place and it has remained in the family's ownership ever since.
Burchet's son, Ralph, died when a shed collapsed on him in 1918. Severson grew up hearing the story that his grandfather had been killed saving a little girl from the falling shed.
It stopped being a story years ago when a woman came by his Stevensville business, Valley Drug and Variety, and asked to speak to him.
"She asked me if I had ever heard the story about my grandfather saving a little girl," Severson said. "She told me the story was true. She said she was that little girl."
His grandmother, Toilung Logan, took over the operation of the family ranch after her husband's death.
She put herself through school and then became a teacher at a nearby schoolhouse. She rented out the land to neighbors to help pay the bills. She did well enough to keep the creditors at bay while coming up with the cash to put her daughters through college.
"She was known around here as a pretty tough business lady," Severson said. "She was one of my idols."
In the 1940s his father, Elmer Severson, returned to the ranch after serving time as a prisoner of war in a German World War II camp.
The house his parents moved into had been used as a cattle loafing shed for years. There was one window that still had glass when they first arrived.
"They obviously had no money," Severson said.
So they pushed up their sleeves and went to work turning that loafing shed into a home.
In between serving in the state Legislature, Severson's father raised Guernsey cattle and registered sheep that were appreciated throughout the valley. He was the first president of the state's dairy association.
"Obviously, agriculture is in our blood," Severson said. "I give dad credit for that."
When people ask Severson why he decided to forgo the possibility of ever subdividing his land, he points to those who came before.
"My grandmother worked way harder than I ever had to keep this place. My father did too," he said. "We've had our struggles as well and there have been times where it wasn't easy, but we've always survived here as a family.
"All through the years, we've worked hard and we kept this place together as a farm," Severson said. "I believe agriculture will continue to play a very important role here in this valley. It needs to be protected."
In 2006, Severson said residents of Ravalli County decided so too when they passed a $10 million bond by an overwhelming margin to protect open spaces in the Bitterroot Valley.
"Passing that measure by pretty large margin told me that people valued agriculture here in the valley," he said. "For a time, you almost felt guilty if you weren't considering subdividing your land, but that vote showed that other people appreciated agriculture too."
Severson's family isn't alone in the South Burnt Fork.
There are others considering placing conservation easements on their properties following meetings over the past year around Severson's kitchen table to explain the process.
In the past year, two other families have placed easements on their properties off Middle Burnt Fork Road. Jim and Sharon Schroeder placed 360 acres under easement and Paul Kink and Diane Thomas-Rupert preserved 99 acres. Including existing conservation easements that predate the open lands program, about 5,500 acres up the Burnt Fork are under easements.
"We're fortunate to live in a community where there are so many people who care about the future of their lands," Severson said. "There is definitely a mindset here that says it's important to retain open space and agriculture."
Bitterroot Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs said there are pockets of landowners around the county who are taking notice of what's happening in the South Burnt Fork.
They're too looking at community projects where landowners come together to protect larger sections of the landscape, Ricklefs said.
In the future, Severson said these lands that have been protected from development will be at a premium.
"People are beginning to appreciate that," he said. "They understand that these open spaces are important for us in so many different ways."
Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.