Conservation of the Bitterroot Valley’s working agricultural lands received a huge boost recently with the announcement of a five-year multimillion-dollar federal grant.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) announced the award of $5.7 million to two Montana conservation projects, including one led by the Bitter Root Land Trust.
“I’m excited to announce the first RCPP awards under the 2018 Farm Bill,” said Tom Watson, NRCS State Conservationist for Montana. “Cooperating with the Bitter Root Land Trust and their many partners in this project focused on expanding contiguous conserved lands in the Bitterroot Valley will allow us to realize greater outcomes for Montana’s working lands than either of us could achieve on our own.”
The grants will be administered through service's Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP) that was first authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill. The 2018 Farm Bill made it a stand-alone program with $300 million available annually for partner-driven projects.
Nationally, NRCS is investing $206 million for 48 conservation projects in 29 states this year.
While the Bitter Root Land Trust has tapped into Farm Bill funds as a match for the county’s Open Lands Bond program in the past, this was the first year it had applied for the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
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Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs said its success in obtaining the grant is in large part due to the community's decade-long track record of stepping up and supporting the conservation of the valley’s working agricultural lands.
“The concept behind the program is you create that locally driven, locally based partnership in conjunction with NRCS and their programs to come together to do more work than anyone of us could do alone,” Ricklefs said. “We’re really fortunate to have super strong partnerships built into the community already.”
In 2006, the community came together to approve a $10 million Open Lands Bond program. The county’s Right to Farm and Ranch was instrumental in providing support for the bond and the program that came out of that.
A local working group organized by the NRCS and other stakeholders has helped bring resources to the table for farmers and ranchers who want to make certain their places remaining working agricultural lands into the future.
This dedicated pool of Farm Bill funds will help ensure that work continues at a time when interest in the conservation program in the valley continues to grow.
The Regional Conservation Partnership Program is extremely competitive on a national level.
Being selected as one of the 48 places in the country for the grant funding recognizes the Bitterroot’s effort to conserve working agricultural lands and shows “our way of life has national importance,” Ricklefs said. “It is a way to say thank you to all the ag families who are here and producing local food every single day. It’s their generations of hard work and history of stewardship that has made this possible.”
The community’s support of preserving the open lands in passing the $10 million Open Lands Bond in 2006 was instrumental in offering Bitterroot farmers and ranchers that option.
Funding from the federal Farm Bill has been used as a leverage to make that bond funding last as long as possible. The first Open Lands Bond conservation project was completed in 2008.
The Open Lands Bond has used less than $6 million over the past 12 years.
So far, Rickefs said the county’s bond has been used to leverage about 75 cents on the dollar in funding from other sources to pay for conserving Bitterroot Valley land.
If that trend continues, the county’s $10 million bond will facilitate $40 million in conservation.
That’s a testament to a number of different funding sources that have come alongside Ravalli County to help stretch those local dollars, Ricklefs said.
“The Farm Bill has been the single largest match to our Open Lands Bond fund, and what this (RCPP) creates is a dedicated pool of funding for the Bitterroot Valley,” he said. “We will know now that we have funds available to help those farmers and ranchers who are interested in conserving their places.”
The Bitter Root Land Trust and the Northern Great Plains Grassland Conservation Project were the two Montana organizations selected in this year’s RCPP funding cycle.
Ricklefs said it’s too early to know exactly how much of the $5.7 million will be dedicated to the Bitterroot Valley.
All of the federal funds will go directly to private Ravalli County landowners, farmers and ranchers who wish to voluntarily conserve their farms and ranches. The funding can’t be used to bolster the land trust’s balance sheet.
“We are still working with our partners at NRCS to finalize the specific parameters of this grant program,” Ricklefs said. “We aren’t able to utilize any of these funds yet and the specific limitations of their use will be clarified in coming months.”
The land trust is currently working with a “significant” number of farm and ranch families in the Bitterroot and more are waiting in the wings to start the process, Ricklefs said.
“The interest from local landowners is incredible right now,” he said. “We’re going to have to work hard to get these dollars on the ground in the next five years.”
At this time when good news is hard to come by, Ricklefs said this should feel like a win for the Bitterroot Valley community.
“This is great for everyone who lives and loves and the valley,” he said. “Whether you are an ag producer or landowner or whether you simply like to eat food that is raised in the valley, the agricultural heritage that we have here connects us to this place.
“This RCPP will help all of us ensure this place that we love and the quality of life that we love so much here in the valley continues for future generations,” Ricklefs said. “That is something that we can all be proud of ourselves for and optimistic for the future.”