It’s not often that the complexities behind the myriad of decisions that go into that unique marriage between public and private entities needed to create a conservation easement become so crystal clear.
For a moment last week, that clarity happened through the narrow view offered via a spotting scope set up in Brien and Gayle Weber’s kitchen.
Once your eye found that perfect spot behind the tripod-mounted scope, the very first thing that popped into view was a rusted 1911-vintage tractor perched a top a nearby ridge.
Brien Weber’s grandfather, James, must have been proud when he purchased the first gas-powered tractor in the Bitterroot Valley.
That piece of history so visible for anyone who cares to look is a steady reminder of the Webers' century-long connection to this piece of land just west of the Calf Creek Wildlife Management Area.
But there’s more there to be seen.
As the eye tracks back just beyond the rust-colored tractor, the large elk herd bedded down in the sagebrush-covered hillside pops into view.
Most of the winter range for elk and deer in the Bitterroot Valley is found on private lands along the edges of the surrounding mountainsides. Much of that has become fragmented as those traditional family farms were sold and subdivided.
“The elk come through here on a regular basis,” Gayle Weber said. “They spent some time this winter out on top of the manure pile just up behind the house. They’ve been around quite a bit over the last month.”
That’s something that will never have to change.
Recently, the Webers signed the remaining papers that put their 467 acres of land at the end of Hamilton Heights Road southeast of Corvallis into a conservation easement that will forever preserve the family farm as open space.
The idea of putting the land adjacent to the wildlife management area had actually been broached back in the 1980s when Weber’s father, Milt, was still alive.
Weber remembers his father thought the idea was crazy.
Back then no one knew a whole lot about conservation easements, and for many land-rich, cash-poor family farmers, the idea of giving up development rights wasn’t prudent.
Over the past decade, the Webers watched many of their friends and fellow family farmers take that step to protect their heritage that had been handed down through generations.
“We saw that it had worked for them,” Brien Weber said. “We started thinking about preserving this land that had been in our family for so long.”
The couple had been talking about the idea for the last couple of years with the Bitter Root Land Trust, but the process went into overdrive last fall when they received notice that a project slated for U.S. Farm Bill funding in eastern Montana had fallen through.
With that funding suddenly available, the Webers decided the time was right.
An appraisal of the conservation easement value of their land adjacent to the popular wildlife management area was $1.04 million.
That value is what the Weber’s would give up by agreeing never to subdivide the property.
The Ravalli County Commission agreed to contribute $200,000 from the county’s open lands bond program. The Farm Bill's Agriculture Land Easement program contributed $525,000.
In return, the Webers donated $315,000 of the easement value.
Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Directer Gavin Ricklefs said the Weber easement is a perfect example in how the community’s investment in open land works to protect wildlife habitat and the valley’s farming and ranching heritage.
The county’s Open Lands Bond funding provided the catalyst for securing the Farm Bill funds, which helps stretch that local funding even further.
“This is one of the most highly leveraged Open Lands Bond projects,” Ricklefs said. “The Open Lands Program paid less than 20 percent of the total appraised easement value, while the Farm Bill conservation program paid over 50 percent.”
Beyond that, Ricklefs said the Webers generously donated nearly one-third of the appraised value of the conservation easement.
Ricklefs said the land trust also received generous support from the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association to help make conservation possible on critical winter range properties like the Weber Ranch.
“RCFWA recognizes how much of our elk and winter range is located on private land here in the valley, and the Land Trust is extremely appreciative of their investment in projects like this that help private landowners keep that winter range intact for healthy wildlife populations.”
The Weber Ranch has been and will continue to be part of the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks' block management program, which provides public hunting access to local hunters.
The Webers both agree that going the process can be an emotional roller coaster.
“On the day that we closed, we knew that was right for us,” Brien Weber said. “Sometimes I think people think that you do this for the money, but that’s really the last reason that anyone takes this step.
“I think that people who say that probably don’t own land that’s been in their family for generations,” he said. “You could sell this land for far more, but once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
“All my memories are here,” Brien Weber said. “It’s nice to know that this place will stay the same forever.”