Creating a legacy: Bitter Root Land Trust looks to expand services for landowners

Melissa Maggio-Kassner is the Bitter Root Land Trust's first-ever stewardship coordinator. She will be helping landowners address a variety of management issues, with a focus on noxious weeds and mountain pine beetle.

Fifteen years ago, a group of Bitterroot Valley citizens came together with an eye for the future.

Change was already coming to the landscape they loved and they wondered if there wasn’t a way to preserve some of the unique properties that made their valley special.

When they created the Bitter Root Land Trust, no one could have known just how important of a role it would take in doing just that over the course of the next decade and a half.

Over the past 15 years, 21 landowners have met with the trust and figured out a way to preserve 3,600 acres of mostly working farms and ranches in the valley forever.

“They are landowners who believe their properties have something special to offer to the valley,” said the trust’s executive director, Gavin Ricklefs. “They have a connection to that place. They want to make sure that it’s here for their kids, grandkids and the generations to come.”

John Ormiston of Hamilton joined the trust’s board a couple of years after it incorporated. Back then, there were no paid staff members and everything was done by volunteers.

He’s watched the community step forward and help it grow. Today, the trust has five full-time employees.

“I think it goes to show that important things can be done in spite of a downturn in the economy,” Ormiston said. “The fundraising efforts in the past couple of years have been pretty amazing. People believe in private land conservation.”

The idea of preserving working agricultural lands and important wildlife habitat caught the attention of Ravalli County citizens.

In 2006, voters passed a $10 million bond to help pay for conservation easements to preserve open landscapes.

“Those lands are important to everyone who calls this place home,” Ricklefs said. “About 75 percent of the winter range for elk in the valley is on private land.”

So far, the funding from the open lands bond has helped 10 landowners complete conservation easements. That money has also helped leverage thousands of dollars of federal, state and private funds to help pay for the easements.

“Some of the nicest stories that we get are from landowners who have just finished the process,” Ormiston said. “They are second, third or fourth generation landowners or people who have seen open lands cut up into small pieces and subdivided.”

“The landowners tell us that it turned out to be a whole lot more important to them than they ever thought it would be,” he said. “They realize they’ve left a legacy of their family’s piece of land that will be used forever for the same purpose that it’s been used for generations.”

Now, the land trust is moving into new ventures to serve the community.

Up until this year, the trust has focused its efforts on preserving working ranches and farms or important pieces of wildlife habitat.

None of the easements offered new public access to the private lands.

That changed this year when the trust purchased its first-ever piece of property along the Bitterroot River on Hamilton’s western edge following a groundswell of support from the public.

The 22-acre Tabor property is located just a short walk downstream from the Demmons Fishing Access Site. The community came together to raise almost $200,000 to help pay for the site that will be officially open to the public once some needed infrastructure is constructed.

“It was a remarkable community effort,” Ricklefs said. “I think the community is really hoping for more of these types of projects.”

In the future, the trust will be looking for other opportunities for additional recreational access for the public, he said.

The trust took another step this year by hiring its first stewardship coordinator.

Formerly with the Ravalli County Weed District, Melissa Maggio-Kassner brings a great deal of expertise to help landowners facing a variety of stewardship challenges on their property, Ricklefs said.

“We want to look beyond just helping landowners that we already are working with,” he said. “We want to find ways to provide more assistance to the community with land stewardship issues.”

Maggio-Kassner said she’s excited about the possibilities.

“This opportunity was made possible because of all the amazing landowners in the valley,” she said. “The conservation-minded private landowners here have provided the land trust with invaluable natural resources that we are privileged to aid in the conservation of, for future generations. We want to give back to them by offering assistance when it comes to land stewardship projects that reflect their property goals.”

Maggio-Kassner’s initial focus will be on noxious weeds and mountain pine beetle issues.

The trust recently partnered with the county weed district to obtain a $15,000 grant to help pay for seeding private ground burned in this summer’s Sawtooth fire.

“It’s really exciting to be able to add Melissa to our staff,” Ricklefs said. “I think having her here will allow us to continue to grow in the kinds of services we can provide to the community.”

“When you look back over the past 15 years – which isn’t a ton of time – it’s really gratifying to see what this organization has been able to accomplish,” Ricklefs said. “People are coming together to take substantial steps to leave a lasting legacy here.”

That legacy goes well beyond those families.

Ormiston is a retired wildlife biologist. He knows firsthand the importance of open space for the wildlife that calls this place home.

“If you subdivide those lands, the first thing you see is conflicts with wildlife and eventually habitat is destroyed and wildlife is displaced,” he said. “In the long term, if you don’t have the space and vegetation that’s suitable for different wildlife species, then you’re just not going to have them.”

“We’re not going to make any more open space,” Ormiston said. “We’re not going to make any more land.”

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