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There’s bone-chilling cold in the wind blasting its way along the ridge line that overlooks the Burnt Fork drainage on this early afternoon.

But that’s not what’s captured the attention of the two men peering down into the valley below.

They look upon on a landscape where time has pretty much stood still. Burnt Fork Creek winds its way through a large expanse of open fields that continue to produce the same hay and livestock forage they have for generations.

They watch as a man slowly works his way along a fence line, making repairs as he goes, and smile as a bluebird dances between one sagebrush clump to another on the nearby hillside.

As the wind whips the map held tightly in his hands, Bitter Root Land Trust’s conservation director Kyle Barber points out the nearly 2,000 acres that local landowners have agreed to preserve over the last seven years by placing a conservation easement on their properties.

When a family decides to place a conservation easement on their property, they give up their rights forever to subdivide their land. In return, they receive tax benefits for relinquishing those property rights.

It’s a process that can be long and cumbersome.

“This is a place where the community has collectively come together to protect this open space,” Barber said. “It’s provided an opportunity to piece together a large amount of ground that will be preserved for future generations.”

The importance of the preservation of the watershed goes beyond those who call it home.

Just downstream lies the 2,800-acre Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge that’s famous to many for its waterfowl. Most of the water that fills the ponds and sloughs so important for the ducks, geese and shorebirds that spend of the time at the refuge comes from the Burnt Fork watershed.

That fact hasn’t gone unnoticed by the volunteer organization called the Friends of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.

As of January, the group has donated $100,000 over the last six years to the Bitter Root Land Trust to help pay for preservation efforts occurring in the Burnt Fork. That funding comes from the sales of the Friends popular license plate that celebrates National Wildlife Refuges.

Paul Hayes is a founding member of the Friends organization.

“We know how important it is for the future of the refuge to ensure that water quality is protected,” Hayes said. “This has been a good fit for us.”

There are currently four active projects in Burnt Fork that are scheduled to close in the next 18 months to two years. When those are complete, Barber said about 2,150 acres of largely contiguous land will be under a conservation easement in the watershed.

The protected swath begins on the edge of Stevensville at Logan Road and runs east almost to national forest lands on the Sapphire Mountains. The corridor, with its mix of open fields and trees, is important for a variety of species of wildlife ranging from elk and deer to several species of raptors.

“The amount of land that’s under a conservation easement in the Burnt Fork is nearing the size of the Lee Metcalf refuge,” Hayes said. “It’s just amazing to know there’s so much land here in this important watershed that’s going to remain undeveloped.”

Barber said the funding provided by the Friends organization has helped make that happen. It came at a time when interest in conservation in the watershed was nearly overwhelming the capabilities of the land trust.

The funding has been used to help pay for the Bitter Root Land Trust’s operational costs, including hiring additional staff to help meet the demand of landowners interested in learning more about the process.

“We have a lot of interest now in the Burnt Fork,” Barber said. “Landowners have watched their neighbors go through the process and now they are interested.”

The decision to place a conservation easement on a piece of land can often take years to fully develop.

“This funding that we’ve received from the Friends has allowed us to spend time with families and let them get to know us,” Barber said. “Sometimes it can take two or three or five years for that relationship to build. All that is unseen, but it’s important. People need to have that time to decide if it’s right for them.”

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Associate Editor

Reporter for The Ravalli Republic.