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CORVALLIS - Family heritage is more than just a couple of words for Bob and Jane Popham.

Living in the perfectly preserved white house that his grandfather built on the farm presided over by the same towering barn where his family toiled for generations, the Popham family can't wake up each day without feeling connected to those who came before.

"This has been my family's home for generations now," Bob said. "It's a good feeling to know that it's going to be here for generations to come."

The Pophams are the latest to participate in Ravalli County's Open Land Program. Sometime in the near future, they'll sign a conservation easement that will conserve forever the 185 acres of prime agricultural lands that were homesteaded by the family close to 130 years ago.

The Popham family came to the Bitterroot Valley more than a century ago with no intention to stay.

It was 1882 when Popham's great-grandfather arrived in the valley on his way from Missouri to what many early settlers considered to be the promised land in Oregon.

But that homesteading Popham must have liked what he saw on the sagebrush-covered flats just northeast of the community that would come to be called Corvallis.

He stayed put and laid down roots that continue to this day.

Within a year, there was a square-sided granary built from pine boards and heavy timbers. More than a century later, that now historic building still stands. So does the original house and the one that followed, where Popham's father was born.

To take a walk around the neat-as-a-pin farmyard at the Popham place - right off the edge of Popham Lane - is to take a step back into time.

The perfectly preserved ranch is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Pophams have always been farmers who raised their share of livestock to keep the freezers full and some extra money in the cookie jar.

Bob can tell you about crops of sugar beets and dried peas that his father raised. Upstairs in the barn, he'll show how his relatives used block and tackle to raise tons of hay into the dry storage area each winter.

He'll also show you the two basketball hoops where he and his brother spent countless hours perfecting their layups and dribbles.

"My brother and I worked pretty steady on the farm," Bob remembered. "There was a lot of hard work, but we also tried to participate in most of the activities that went on at school too."

"Back then," he said, with a smile, "it was a long ways to town."

The cars now careen down the paved road, a stone's throw away from the couple's front porch.

"Sometimes they drive a little too fast," said Jane.

These days, a neighbor leases the farmland for hay production.

Retaining the agricultural use of the property was one of the chief reasons the couple chose to place a conservation easement on the land.

"That was my chief interest," Bob said.

His wife just couldn't let herself imagine the land being subdivided and paved over.

Popham's father was forced to sell off 160 acres of the original homestead to pay his siblings their share of the property's value. Today, Bob said there are 30 homes on that piece of ground.

"We could see what would happen if this property was sold," Jane said.

Even so, the Pophams said they didn't take the notion of placing the land off-limits forever lightly.

"It's been a five-year or longer process," Bob said. "As soon as the county passed its open lands bond, we really started talking about the possibility. We knew this was forever and ever."

Some fellow Ravalli County residents weren't convinced they were making the right choice. Some asked if they didn't consider a conservation easement as a way of legislating from the grave.

It all comes back to family.

When the Pophams considered what's at stake, neither could imagine there being a Popham Lane without the Popham home place.

"We wouldn't be here now if it wasn't for agriculture, open space and irrigation," Bob said. "Without all of that, my family wouldn't have come here and they certainly wouldn't have stayed.

"It's really all about family heritage and for that matter, our valley's heritage," he said. "We think that's important enough to preserve. We both feel like it's the right thing to do."

Bitterroot Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs said the Pophams aren't alone.

"We're talking to a lot more people than we have in the past," Ricklefs said. "There are more landowners wanting to learn more about their options. It seems like the momentum is growing."

Everyone comes with their own reasons.

Some, like the Pophams, are interested in preserving agriculture in the Bitterroot Valley or have a strong connection to their piece of property and don't want to see it subdivided.

"Some want to see those cultural values that have been here for 100 years still be here for the next generation," Ricklefs said. "With real estate values low and commodity prices high, for some landowners this looks like a good alternative right now."

By the end of the year, the Bitterroot Land Trust will hold conservation easements on about 3,500 acres with 20 different Bitterroot Valley landowners.

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or