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For almost half a hundred years, the Evans family dreamed of the day when their 160 acres of mostly river bottom land would be preserved for perpetuity.

On Thursday at 9 a.m., the Ravalli County commission will let Bea Evans know if that dream will become a reality.

“There’s been a lot of loss in their family,” said Bitter Root land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs. “The long and short of it is that (Bea’s husband) Keith wanted to see this place protected. The entire family wanted to see it protected.”

“Bea is the last one left,” he said. “She understands how important this property is. We have this window to help her realize this legacy.”

The KBK River Property is located south of Hamilton. It’s bordered by the Bitterroot River on the south and east, Highway 93 to the west and mostly by Lost Horse Creek to the north.

It includes about one and a half miles of river frontage and nearly a third-mile of Lost Horse Creek.

When Trout Unlimited commissioned Missoula’s famous Monte Dolack to create a print, he used the property’s Lost Horse Bend for inspiration.

“It provides one of those iconic views of the Bitterroot from both the river and Highway 93,” Ricklefs said. “From a fisheries standpoint, it’s a really, really beautiful piece of property. It’s really hard to imagine a better project for the open lands program.”

The county’s 15-member open lands board recommended approval, with two dissenting votes from Bill Menager and Jim Ellingson.

Menager often votes no on proposed open lands projects.

Ellingson has been a member of the board since its inception. He has voted against only one other of the 15 projects that have been approved so far.

Each member uses specific criteria to develop a point score for the projects. For approval, the board is looking for projects with 50 or more points.

Ellingson graded this project a 40.

After being contacted by the Ravalli Republic, Ellingson said his concerns center on the fact the project didn’t have a strong base in agriculture. He also doubted the development potential for the property.

“If there is not a high development potential for this property, is it the type of land we should be trying to protect?” he said.

Ellingson said he didn’t see a lot of wildlife sign on the day he toured the property. He said the commission has told them they weren’t interested in straight wildlife projects.

“I think it’s going to have a tough go,” he said. “It’s a pretty conservative commission. I think these commissioners will think long and hard before passing this one.”

Fellow board member and retired wildlife biologist John Ormiston disagreed, saying the property was “wonderful wildlife habitat.”

“Nationwide, riparian habitat amounts to less than 10 percent of the landmass,” he said. “In the Bitterroot Valley private land corridor, the figure is less than that. Protecting that riparian habitat is important for the future of the valley and people who live here.”

Ravalli County’s $10 million open lands bond passed in 2006 with 58 percent of the vote.

“That didn’t happen without a large coalition of diverse groups of people coming together to do the right thing for the land,” Ormiston said.

So far, the Ravalli County commission has not denied any open lands projects recommended by the open lands board.

“That’s because this program is set up so well,” Ricklefs said.

The land trust works with landowners considering applying under the program. Ricklefs said there have been some properties that just wouldn’t work under the criteria established by the open lands board and approved by the county commission.

“The open lands board is not a rubber stamp,” he said. “They look very close at all the projects that come before them. In this case, they overwhelmingly said it was a great project.”

Voters approved the open lands bond to preserve open lands for very specific purposes. Those included preservation of working farms and ranches, as well as protecting water quality and wildlife habitat.

Ricklefs said the proposed project is different from earlier projects in the amount of river frontage it preserves.

Agriculturally, the land is important because two large irrigation ditches originate on the property. Daly Ditches and the Ward Ditch Company transport water to over 7,000 acres in the Bitterroot Valley.

Both companies sent letters in support of the project.

Ward Irrigation District president Cody Lee said the Evans family had always welcomed the ditch company’s employees on their property.

“Keith (Evans) always indicated he wanted the property set aside as special conservation lands,” Lee wrote. “This land has always been wonderful habitat for a variety of animals and viewed as a sanctuary.”

“The KBK property would add another link to the increasing number of river frontage land owners who see the significance in preserving the river’s value to wildlife and fisheries with conservation easement,” wrote Lee. “It would greatly simplify the district’s ability to deal with one landowner rather than a number of separate landowners.

“We applaud the Evans family for their land stewardship and recommend the commission to support their recommendation.”

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

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