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Along the river: Bitter Root Land Trust set to acquire land for new public park

Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs took some time recently to stroll across the 22-acre Taber property that the land trust is considering to purchase. The acquisition would be a first for the Hamilton-based land trust. "It's the kind of opportunity that doesn't come around too often," Ricklefs said.

Perry Backus - Ravalli Republic

John and Helen Taber were in love with their backyard.

It was 22 acres of wetlands filled with waterfowl and moose, forests of towering century-old ponderosa pines and the soft murmur of the crystal clear waters of the Bitterroot River.

The couple spent their twilight years watching nature unfold there from their backyard deck or out the window.

“They were always thrilled with the amount of wildlife that they saw,” said Jeannie Taber Green, the couple’s daughter. “They both dreaded the idea that anyone might build on this piece of land or develop it commercially.”

Green said her parents realized the land on the western edge of Hamilton was one of a kind and needed to be preserved in its natural state.

John died in 1997. Helen passed away in 2010.

“My mom always told us that she didn’t want to even consider the possibility of something happening to this piece of land when she was gone,” Green said. “Our parents had a vision that this place would remain pristine forever for the public to enjoy.”

The Bitter Root Land Trust shares in that vision.

That organization is now working with Green and her sister, Lynn Taber Sherwood, on purchasing the property that’s just a short walk downstream from Demmons Fishing Access Site.

“It’s the kind of opportunity that doesn’t come along too often,” said Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs.

The parcel is the largest undeveloped riverfront parcel adjacent to Hamilton and would provide a special amenity to the Bitterroot community, he said.

“The Bitterroot River is a critical resource in Ravalli County and providing additional opportunities for residents and guests to enjoy it is a smart long-term investment in the health of our community,” Ricklefs said.

The land trust has been working with the family for months to negotiate a deal that would ensure the property would retain its open space character, continue to provide habitat for wildlife and offer new opportunities for public recreation.

It would be the first land acquisition for the land trust well known for its conservation easement work in the Bitterroot Valley.

“The land trust shares our vision for the land,” Green said. “This is something that has been in our sight for a long time.”

The sisters were raised in Hamilton. They agreed that the community is important to them both.

“Hopefully, with this sale, community visitors will be able to enjoy this property for many generations to come,” the sisters said in a press release.

The details of the purchase agreement are still being completed. Once that’s finished, Ricklefs said the land trust will disclose the purchase price and begin fundraising for the park project in earnest.

“We are going to need to do a whole lot of fundraising to make it happen,” Ricklefs said. “Everything that we’ve heard so far from the public has been positive. People seem to be very excited about the potential of this project.”

A unique statewide program has already pledged $7,500 toward the project.

Travelers for Open Land is a partnership amount the Montana Lodging and Hospitality Association, Montana Association of Land Trusts, the Montana Community Foundation and other tourist-related businesses and the traveling public.

It collects voluntary donations from travelers in Montana who use businesses involved with the program. The money raised is used to fund competitive grants among land trusts for land conservation projects.

Travelers for Open Land is the only statewide program of its type in the county, Ricklefs said. Over the past three years, the program has awarded $60,000 to 14 different private land conservation projects in Montana.

“We’ve really just begun raising money for this project and are thrilled that Travelers for Open Land has seen the value of this project and provided a substantial early investment,” Ricklefs said.

The land trust has already raised $50,000 toward the purchase price.

“We have been amazed to see this much response so early in the process,” Ricklefs said. “It seems to be a project that people can get excited about. So far, we’ve had a hundred percent positive response from people we’ve talked to.”

Right now, the land remains private property and is not open to the public. There are private property signs on the parcel, which some people have chosen to ignore.

“It’s been kind of a de facto park for people for a long time,” Green said. “It’s kind of a secret one for people. We think it’s a good time to formalize it and protect it.”

Ricklefs said that will be part of the challenges that a new ownership will bring.

“We are working to purchase the land to ensure the important wildlife habitat and opportunities for public use are protected for the future,” he said. “Buying the land is really just the first step in the process. We will also need to ensure that the land is managed in such a way that maintains its important natural attributes, while ensuring public use doesn’t infringe on the rights of neighboring private landowners.”

For more information about the project or make a donation, people can call the land trust at 375-0956 or email office@bitterrootlandtrust.org.

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

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