Sometime around 2004, economist Larry Swanson came to the Bitterroot Valley to offer an economic needs assessment to the Ravalli County Commission.
Corvallis dairy farmer Dan Huls remembers it well.
“He gave a beautiful presentation, but he never uttered the word ‘agriculture,’” Huls said. “It was a shocker to me.”
Back then, Ravalli County was one of the fastest growing counties in the state. County government was pondering a couple of mega-subdivisions that would have created communities larger than most towns in the valley.
Huls was a member the county’s Right to Farm and Ranch Board. Its members were interested in preserving that traditional use of some of best farm lands that remained.
The challenge though was finding a way that farmers and ranchers could extract some value from their land without having to develop it.
So they started looking around the country to see what was happening in other places. They zeroed on Gallatin County, which had passed a $10 million open lands bond.
“We modeled our effort after theirs,” Huls said. “The timing was perfect for it considering the explosive growth we had seen in the valley.”
In 2006, the county asked voters to approve Ravalli County’s own $10 million open lands bond to protect prime agricultural lands, preserve important waterways and keep vital wildlife habitat intact.
Nearly 60 percent of the voters who went to the polls that year said yes to idea. The final vote was 10,166 to 7,385 to approve the bond.
Since then, 19 landowners from Stevensville to Sula have taken part in the program to conserve more than 5,100 acres from development through conservation easements. Two other projects in the pipeline will push that total over 6,000 acres soon.
In that decade, the county’s open lands bond program has spent just under $4 million of the $10 million bond.
Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs said the appraised value of the conservation easements is $15 million.
A combination of generosity from the willing landowners who have stepped forward to protect their property from development forever and the vision of the land trust to use the bond monies to leverage matching state and federal dollars has gone a long way in stretching the county’s open lands bond funds.
On average, Ricklefs said the county’s open lands program pays about 25 cents on the dollar for conservation in the valley.
Ricklefs credits the success of the program to the diligence of the county’s open lands board and support of the Ravalli County commission.
The original open lands board and county commission spent nearly a year developing the criteria it would use to determine which properties were a good fit for the program.
“They took their time and their job very seriously,” Ricklefs said. “They wanted to ensure transparency throughout the process and make sure that every easement was well vetted before it came before the commission for final approval.”
Once the process was in place, it took some time before the first family stepped forward to take part in the open lands program.
The Wood family of Victor was the first to step forward.
“The reason this program has worked as well as it has is that its strictly voluntary and based in private property rights,” Ricklefs said. “It’s driven by landowners saying ‘I and my family want to make sure that our ranch stays intact.’”
It’s not an easy decision for any landowner to give up those rights to subdivide.
“It’s a decision that often takes years to make,” Ricklefs said. “As the bond had matured, people have seen friends, neighbors and people they respect step forward and do this successfully. As a result, more and more people have expressed interest in the program.”
Sharon Schroeder of Stevensville is both a member of open lands bond committee and a landowner who has used the process to preserve her family’s ranch in the Burnt Fork area.
“We feel very, very blessed that we were able to do that,” she said.
Schroeder said her husband, Jim, has always valued the land in the Bitterroot Valley where his great-grandparents homesteaded. The idea of preserving that for future generations was something very important to him.
Even with that, Schroeder said they still spent a good deal of time considering if it was the right thing to do for their children.
“The land trust is an excellent organization to help you work through a process that’s very taxing, wearisome and labor-intensive,” she said. “In the back of our minds, we wondered if this was the right thing for our kids, but that turned out to be exactly why we decided to do this. It was a decision made for our kids and their kids.”
“This land will be forever protected,” Schroeder said. “It will put food on the table for others for all time. It’s something we wished for and always wanted to do.”
What’s most remarkable for Schroeder is the fact that a small rural county the size of Ravalli County had the foresight and will to set aside $10 million to help make that possible.
“I applaud the people of this county who recognized 10 years ago that they can maintain the rural lifestyle that attracts people to the county,” Schroeder said. “We can take advantage of protecting our water and scenic views while preserving traditional family farms and ranches.”
While many of the most visible tracts of land protected by the county’s open lands program are working ranches, Ricklefs said other projects have protected important tributaries to the Bitterroot River, prime big game wintering areas, preserved block management access for hunters and created the new Steve Powell Park in Hamilton.
“The county has been getting a really high return in its investment,” Ricklefs said. “I think the community has seen that happen… .We’ve been able to preserve over 3,000 acres of winter range for elk and deer and protect fisheries that are important for the Bitterroot River.”
“When you put all of that in perspective on what the program has been able to do in a short period of time, it’s remarkable,” Ricklefs said. “And I believe this program is just now hitting its stride.”