Frank Mogen is no stranger to hard work.
He’ll proudly tell you that he owns what he believes is the oldest fencing company in Montana. His folks bought their first yellow pages listing in the Billings phone book back in the early 1960s.
Many driving by the Fort Owen Ranch north of Stevensville over the past few months have likely marveled at the perfect oil field pipe fence he’s been building there over the past few months.
Mogen’s parents settled in the Bitterroot Valley on a 20-acre parcel just north of the Lone Rock School in the mid-1960s. When they first arrived, people were scattered far and wide. Mogen remembers there were three students in the school’s first grade.
“For 10 or 15 years, we were known as the new people,” Mogen said. “Now every day new people are coming here.”
It’s been nearly 20 years now since the day that Mogen learned that a small ranch near his folk’s place had gone into probate with the state. He was building fence at the nearby Wheelbarrow Ranch when it came up for sale.
The former owner had died and didn’t have any heirs. She had shared her house with about 60 cats. At the time, the place was a bit of a mess. Mogen thinks that might have scared other potential buyers off.
So he took a chance and bought the land. Not long after that, a neighbor who had been about to subdivide his property offered the parcel to Mogen. On a handshake deal, he bought that land too.
All the while, he just kept working and making the payments.
With sweeping views of the Bitterroot Valley and its snowcapped mountains, Mogen initially thought the small ranch he purchased would be the perfect spot for million-dollar homes. But that was before his mother took her first walk up the portion of Threemile Creek that winds its way through the property.
“My mom came over to take a look,” he said. “After she took one walk up along the creek, she fell in love with it. From that day, I knew this wasn’t going to be a money-making thing.”
Twelve years ago, Mogen met with the Bitter Root Land Trust’s Steve Powell and Gavin Ricklefs to talk about the possibility of putting the land he had acquired under a conservation easement. At the time, Mogen was too far in debt and the banks weren’t willing to go along with the idea.
And so he just kept working, making his payments and holding on to the land that meant so much to his family and him. After getting his debt restructured and learning that his neighbors — the Gates family — were putting their adjoining 160 acres under a conservation easement, Mogen decided the time was right.
About three years ago, he started working with the Bitter Root Land Trust’s Kyle Barber to try again.
In December, Mogen signed off on the easement that will preserve 161 acres along the Three Mile Road from development forever.
“Three Mile is one of those areas in the valley that is seeing rapid development,” Barber said. “We don’t look to stand in the way of development, but when two landowners at the same time want to preserve 320 acres of prime farm ground, it’s a no-brainer for us.”
“Frank’s place is special,” Barber said. “It’s in that area that’s kind of a buffer between where the development is occurring and where the landscape starts to open up as it gets closer to the mountains.”
Mogen was committed to preserving that place for future generations, Barber said.
“We can all see that the Bitterroot is changing quite a bit,” Barber said. “It’s landowners like Frank that give me a lot of hope for the future of the valley. He has worked himself to the bone to pay for this place.”
Sharon Schroeder serves on the county open lands board that recommends projects for funding the county’s open land bond. She and her husband were among the first to place a conservation easement on their ranch in the Burnt Fork area east of Stevensville.
“It’s not an easy decision,” Schroeder said. “It doesn’t work for every landowner…It takes a lot of soul searching. You end up asking yourself ‘am I doing the right thing’ over and over again.”
Conservation easements offer landowners an alternative to selling their land for subdivision. In return for agreeing to preserve the land from development, landowners receive cash and tax benefits to offset what they’ve given up by selling to the highest bidder.
Standing on the hilltop with stunning 360-degree views at Mogen’s ranch, Schroeder said this place is a jewel.
“This is just what the voters wanted to keep when they passed the open lands bond,” Schroeder said. “It’s a beautiful expanse of land that’s valuable for agriculture. The land will be preserved and the waters protected.”
Robert Jackson has been leasing the land to hay and pasture for his cattle since before Mogen owned the property. He recently leased the Gates’ ranch next door.
Having access to both places help ensure that he can keep his ranching operation going.
“With the amount of subdivision that’s occurring, it’s getting tougher to find places to run your cows and put up hay,” Jackson said. “It’s nice to know that this won’t ever be subdivided.”
Ranchers and farmers are often land-rich and cash-poor.
Schroeder said the land is often their retirement fund. The Bitter Root Land Trust has been successful in leveraging the funding in the county’s open lands fund to acquire other federal, state and private funding to help pay landowners for giving up their rights to develop the land.
At this point, Schroeder said there has been a four-to-one match, which has resulted in more money coming into the county to preserve working farms and ranches, preserve wildlife habitat and acquire recreational parcels like the recent W.W. White Memorial Fishing Access Site near Connor and Hamilton’s Skalkaho Bend Park.
“If we didn’t have the open lands bond program, we would all be looking at a far different landscape,” Schroeder said.
Ricklefs said places like Mogen’s are becoming hard to find.
“There aren’t many places like this left in the valley,” Ricklefs said. “With all the development pressure we’re seeing here in the valley right now, it’s important that we do what we can to preserve these special places that make this valley what it is.”
Mogen doesn’t have any second thoughts.
“It makes me feel great,” Mogen said. “It wouldn’t give me satisfaction if this had been developed with million-dollar homes and turned into a city. This creek and the cottonwoods are important to wildlife. And now they are always going to be there.”
“I was lucky,” Mogen said. “I’ve always had all the work that I needed to make the payments, even during the recession. Sometimes it meant that I had to travel to places like Park City, but I always had the work.”
Mogen knows that this place could have made him rich, but that wouldn’t buy him happiness.
“The previous owners — the Kolhaze family — farmed and raised animals on the property,” Mogen wrote in a letter to the land trust. “The decision to conserve this property is an opportunity to continue their legacy, and I believe they’d be happy with my decision.”
“I now realize that my ownership of this land is not about maximizing my return on investment, but rather an opportunity to maintain what is special about this country,” he wrote. “I feel a spiritual connection with all the animals, domestic and natural, and the decision to conserve this land is an opportunity to do right by them. For the rest of time, I want this property to be open space left untouched for wildlife and productive agriculture.”
Standing there on that hilltop on a recent morning, Mogen smiles as he keeps a tight hold on his new German shepherd pup.
“I think I could have been worth millions in a heartbeat,” he said. “But I don’t think I would have been any happier than I am now.”