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Preserving lands: Lazy J Cross Ranch conservation easement completed

The Lazy J Cross Ranch is the largest, most complicated and most expensive conservation easement completed under Ravalli County's Open Lands Program. The program has currently preserved a little more than 4,500 acres at a cost of nearly $3 million.

Provided photo

Jim Ellingson wasn’t always an advocate of the Ravalli County open lands bond program.

When people first started talking about the idea of asking residents to pass a bond to help landowners offset costs of placing a conservation easement on their property, the longtime rancher thought it was a case of government overstepping its bounds.

“Initially, I wasn’t for it,” Ellingson said. “I really believe in minimal government intervention. When you tax people and then reallocate those funds, I really have problems with that.”

Fast forward almost a decade and Ellingson will tell anyone who asks that he believes Ravalli County’s open lands program is “by far the best one out there.”

Ellingson is one of the founding members of the county’s open lands committee and now serves as its chairman. He helped create the process the county uses to evaluate projects.

“The most important thing for me is the preservation of working farms,” he said. “Saving those is not only good for the people who own them, but for everyone in the valley. Open land everywhere is getting more and more scarce.”

“I hate to see every little bit of good dirt that we have left have houses planted on it,” he said.

Ravalli County passed its $10 million open lands bond by a 60 percent margin in 2006.

The monies were set aside to help willing landowners pay for placing a conservation easement on their property.

When a landowner places a conservation easement on their property, they agree to give up the right to develop that land forever. While landowners often donate a portion of the difference between what the land could sell for development and agricultural use, most require some compensation to make the change pencil out for their families.

It took the open lands committee nearly two years to craft its bylaws and the scoring criteria it uses to evaluate potential projects.

Since 2008, more than 4,500 acres of working ranch and farmlands have been preserved from development through conservation easements, at a cost of just under $3 million from the open lands bond.

Other entities from outside Ravalli County have matched the county’s funds with another $2.5 million.

Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs said the success of the county’s open lands program can be gauged, in part, by the growing number of entities willing to invest their money here.

“The program has been able to leverage money from outside the area,” Ricklefs said. “Every time that happens, we’re able to make the open lands bond go a little further. It’s really been remarkable. People from other places have seen this community stepping forward to say that we value these resources and they’ve been willing to help.”

This summer, the open lands program finalized its largest and most complex conservation easement when the last papers were signed on the Lazy J Cross conservation easement, which preserved 1,080 acres in the Sula Basin.

“It was our largest project to date in terms of acreage and complexity,” Ricklefs said. “It was also our most expensive. We had to raise about $1 million to do the project, from 10 different sources.”

The finished easement not only ensures the ranchlands along the East Fork of the Bitterroot will remain in agriculture, it also retains the opportunities for public hunting that the Wetzsteon family has allowed for generations.

“This is one of those projects that hit on almost every reason for the open lands bond approved by the voters,” Ricklefs said. “The conservation easement will ensure the agricultural heritage of the place will remain intact. It also protects good soils and habitat for elk, bighorn sheep and deer. And it maintains open space and public access for hunting.”

Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks set aside money for the project from funds that mostly come from sales of various licenses because of its interest in public hunting access and wildlife habitat. The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Travelers for Open Land and the Michael J. Connell Foundation also chipped in funds, due to their interest in maintaining traditional hunting access to the property.

The NRCS Farm and Ranchland Protection Program provided a major contribution to conserve farmland. The Mule Deer Foundation and both the state and national Wild Sheep Foundations donated because of their interests in preserving wildlife habitat.

And the Wetzsteon family donated $800,000 of the land’s value as their part in completing the final conservation easement.

The total project cost was $1.8 million.

“Without all of these entities coming together, a project like this doesn’t work,” Ricklefs said. “Every one of them has a different focus, but they work together to preserve the resource that’s really important to all of us.”

Nearly all of the outside funding sources require some kind of matching funds.

“To be able to apply for those funds, let alone be successful in obtaining them, you need to have access to those matching funds,” Ricklefs said. “Over the past 10 years, that’s what has made the Ravalli County open lands program a real success story. People throughout the state and the country have come to see this as a place where the community has decided to make an investment for its future.”

Preserving working ranches, wildlife habitat and open lands is a long-term investment that helps retain the qualities that can attract new people and business to the valley, Ricklefs said.

Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott was on the commission when residents agreed to pay for the open lands bond.

“This program has exceeded my expectations in its implementation,” Chilcott said.

He gives credit to both the dedicated people on the open lands board and the professionalism exhibited by Ricklefs and the Bitter Root Land Trust.

“The open lands board does its due diligence in everything they do,” he said. “It took them almost a year to get the criteria and bylaws in order. They have been very cautious and I think that’s led to the program’s success. It’s become a passion for them. I appreciate that.”

The Bitter Root Land Trust has played an important role in listening to concerns from the commission and citizens, and then counseling potential landowners about what to expect.

“They have been very honest and forthcoming with potential landowners about what their chances are on being accepted as a project,” Chilcott said. “I think that’s made the process very successful. The open lands meetings we have are some of the most enjoyable meetings that we have. I think the citizens are enjoying a good return on their investment.”

Ellingson said the board is always open to new ideas on how the process could work better.

A few years ago, it reviewed the open lands programs in Missoula and Gallatin counties to see if anything needed to be changed.

“Afterward, I came away thinking that Ravalli County’s program is by far the best one out there,” Ellingson said. “It’s tailored to our valley. The scoring criteria is great. I think we are very transparent. And we’re very, very careful.”

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

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.