Sterling Wetzsteon poses next to his favorite East Fork of the Bitterroot River fishing hole with his three daughters, Keri Churchich, Julie George and Jill Applebury. The family is working to put together a conservation easement on their historic Sula area ranch that will protect it forever from development.

SULA – On a hillside overlooking meadows just down the road from the wide spot in the road called Sula is a small farmhouse with a big picture window.

For years, Edgar Wetzsteon, kept watch over the Lazy J Cross Ranch from there.

“He knew every car in the county who came down that road,” said Edgar’s granddaughter, Julie George. “With his binoculars, he oversaw everything that was going on down below.”

And when something needed tending, he’d hop in his green Ford pickup truck with the shovel stuck straight up in the air from its bed and zoom down through the field.

His three grown granddaughters couldn’t help but smile when they remembered that.

The old truck had a long-handled shifter and whoever had the misfortune of sitting in the middle had to keep close watch to avoid a bruised knee.

On a fine spring morning last week, the three traveled the same dirt two-track road across the meadow to the favorite fishing hole on the East Fork of the Bitterroot.

They remembered catching grasshoppers and putting them in old Band-Aid cans for bait or turning over cow pies to find the worms that worked well too.

They remembered family outings, float trips and things about their grandfather that made them laugh.

They made the ride with their father, Sterling Wetzsteon, who sat in the front to enjoy the view.

“That’s where I grew up,” Wetzsteon said. “Right up there. This has always been home.”

The Sula Basin has been home to the Wetzsteon family since 1888, when a passel of them gave up on the mines at Marysville and decided to try to their luck with agriculture.

“We’ve been around for a long time,” Wetzsteon said.

On Friday, the Sterling Wetzsteon family made one important step forward to ensuring that their family will be around for a long time to come.

After hearing from a supportive public, the Ravalli County Commission agreed to spend $350,000 from its open lands fund to help pay for a conservation easement on the 1,079-acre Lazy J Cross Ranch. Private, state and federal funds will help pay for the remainder of the $900,000-plus project.

When it’s completed, the conservation easement will be the largest ever done by the Bitter Root Land Trust.

“There are so few places left in the Bitterroot Valley where you can work with one family on a single ranch and make such a huge impact,” said the trust’s executive director Gavin Ricklefs. “We normally have to work with multiple landowners to get that kind of conservation result.”

It’s been a long time coming for the Wetzsteon family. After Sterling’s brothers died, there was a time it appeared the ranch would have to be sold.

It took negotiation and patience to make this approach possible.

Neither Sterling nor his daughters live on the ranch. The ranch is leased out to a relative, Bob Wetzsteon, who still runs cows on the land where generations of Wetzsteons have done the same.

Dan Huls of Corvallis was a member of the Right to Farm and Ranch Board that helped develop the idea of creating an open lands bond in Ravalli County.

The bond passed with 60 percent of the vote in Nov. 2006.

Protecting this working ranchland in Sula for its agricultural, wildlife and fisheries values was just what the people of the Bitterroot envisioned when they voted for the bond, Huls said.

“Driving through the Sula Basin is like stepping back in time,” Ricklefs said. “It’s like what this whole valley used to be. Having a place like this preserved is important to a lot of people.”

Generations of Bitterrooters have hunted and fished on the Wetzsteon ranch. The ranch will still be open for hunting through the state’s block management program.

“That’s the way it’s always been here,” Wetzsteon said. “It’s what I grew up with. I didn’t want to see that change.”

For them all, saving this place for the future to preserve a piece of past was important.

“This was dad’s home,” said daughter Keri Churchich. “To see it go to someone else was never what he wanted. It would have been important to grandpa and great-grandpa too.”

“It’s all dad has ever wanted,” said daughter Jill Applebury. “He just wanted it to stay in the family. We had to find a way to make that happen and ensure that it didn’t end up being sold off to a big dollar person from out of state.”

In a note to the commission about the family’s hopes for ranch, Wetzsteon wrote: “As a tribute to past generations of our family, our goal is to ensure that the land remains intact and continues as a working ranch. We look forward to offering the public, the residents of the Sula basin and the wildlife in the area the opportunity to enjoy its true value as open space.”

On this warm spring afternoon, Wetzsteon looks across the meadow and toward that big picture window where his father spent so many hours.

“He would have been a happy camper about this,” he said. “I know he would have had a hard time if it had gone the other way.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com or 363-3300 ext. 30.