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At a crossroads: Bitter Root Land Trust launches 'Keep it Bitterroot' campaign

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At a crossroads: Bitter Root Land Trust launches “Keep it Bitterroot” campaign

A fly fisherman tests the waters of the Bitterroot River Friday morning. Fly fishing is just one of the things that makes the Bitterroot Valley a special place to live. Against a backdrop of rapid development in the valley, the Bitter Root Land Trust is asking the community to join forces in protecting valley resources through its "Keep it Bitterroot" campaign.

The Bitterroot Valley is at a crossroads.

Since the beginning days of the pandemic, people from all over the country have discovered the unique valley and have decided they want to call the place home.

Against that backdrop of rapid development and a skyrocketing real estate market, the phones at the Bitter Root Land Trust have been ringing with calls from landowners who want to preserve their properties for generations to come.

“People have realized that this is one of the best places in the world to live, but that rapid growth puts a real stress on our way of life and all the things that make this place so incredible and such a wonderful place to live,” said Bitter Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs. “At some level right now, it feels like conservation in the valley is a race against time.”

As part of its strategic plan in 2019, the land trust envisioned a campaign they would call “Keep it Bitterroot” that focuses on increasing the pace of conserving working farms and ranches, important wildlife and fishery habitat and creating new recreational opportunities.

Back then, Ricklefs said they figured they had a 10-year window to get a lot of important work done.

“And then the pandemic hit,” he said. “It was like all those assumptions just got fast-forwarded five or 10 years…We’re in a position right now that things are changing faster than anyone could have imagined. Now is the time to really put that additional effort and resources into conservation or it will be too late to do so and this place changes beyond recognition.”

Since its inception in 1997, the land trust has partnered with nearly 50 local families to conserve over 9,000 acres of land, including iconic family farms and ranches as well as create new public parks like Skalkaho Bend, Steve Powell and White’s Memorial.

Lauren Rennaker, the trust’s development director, said the “Keep it Bitterroot” fundraising campaign is driven by the fact that families are asking for help in conserving their land.

“We have landowners who are seeing all this change and realizing that they want to protect their land before it’s too late,” Rennaker said. “They are coming to us and saying we are ready to do this. Right now, we have a couple of dozen landowners who are interested in conserving their land.”

The land trust is focused on raising the remaining $150,000 of a $600,000 “Keep it Bitterroot” capital campaign. The money will be placed in the Steve Powell Opportunity Fund where it will serve as bridge funding for new projects and to pay for additional employees the trust needs to speed up the pace of its conservation efforts.

A conservation project can take up to two years to complete from start to finish and cost $30,000 to $40,000.

In the past, Ricklefs said the land trust has been fortunate in its timing and willingness of landowners to wait long enough for the process to work. Today’s sky-high real estate market with offers of large amounts of cash can change that equation.

“To ask landowners to hold off while the land trust figures out how the funding is going to is not very credible in this market,” Ricklefs said. “Being able to put up some earnest money in a show of good faith that we can get to closing in short order is important. You can’t do that on a handshake and a promise in this real estate market.”

“The reality has changed in how we do business now,” he said. “This fund will give us the horsepower we need to be a player in this market because if we don’t, then it’s all going to be gone. The opportunities that are in front of us are going to be gone.”

Local businesses and community members have already started to step up to show their support. The Hamilton Downtown Association helped with the Bitter Root Land Trust banners that now hang in Hamilton’s downtown. Bitter Root Brewing released a special brewed Keep it Bitterroot ale and is donating a percentage of the sale. Big Creek Coffee is releasing special bags of Keep it Bitterroot coffee this month. And Bob Wards Sports and Outdoors is selling campaign stickers.

The MAPS Media Institute of Hamilton developed a video for the campaign. It can be viewed at bitterrootlandtrust.org/bitter-root-land-trust/keep-it-bitterroot/.

“Keep it Bitterroot means protecting our natural environment, but also our small town Montana lifestyle as well,” said Bryan Dufresne, a Darby teacher and land trust Next Generation committee member. “We want to continue to enjoy the very reason we live here for years to come.”

For more information and to learn how to support the Keep it Bitterroot campaign, people can visit bitterrootlandtrust.org or call 406-375-0956.

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