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Forever preserved: Yoder family decision keeps agricultural land intact

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Jake Yoder grew up hearing his father say: “When everyone is running, you need to walk and when they’re walking, you need to run.”

And so now, when Yoder walks over the 150 acres on Illinois Bench that his family recently placed under a conservation easement, he can’t help but remember his father’s advice.

Everywhere he looks from that island of green, there are houses on parcels of land that have been subdivided over the years. Yoder had heard from developers anxious to do the same thing on the land he owned.

“My dad was telling me to be different,” he said. “It’s how I decided we needed to do something for this piece of land.”

The Yoder family relocated to the Bitterroot Valley from the St. Ignatius area, where they ran a cow-calf operation for years. Yoder operates a gravel pit in the growing commercial complex owned by Amish-Mennonite families just north of Stevensville.

The family wanted to continue its ranching operation.

They started with 80 acres on Illinois Bench about 3.5 miles northeast of Stevensville in an area that has been heavily developed over the years.

“I remember when I first drove back here and I saw all these houses,” Yoder said. “I wasn’t so sure but then I popped up over the top and I saw this land. It was like ‘whoa, maybe I will do this.'”

Right after he purchased that first 80 acres, he went to his neighbor to ask about the potential of buying the adjoining 70 acres of undeveloped farmland. The seed was planted and when the time was right, Yoder purchased the other half of the ranch and placed both properties under a conservation easement.

“I never dreamt that in five years we would have been able to put this farm back together,” Yoder said. “I think about that every day when I come over the top of the hill and look around. I know this is the way it will stay now. There’s no threat. If I die tomorrow, there’s no threat that it will be sold and developed.”

Yoder worked with Bitter Root Land Trust’s Kyle Barber to put together a conservation easement that would preserve the land for development forever.

“Jake cares a lot about the land,” Barber said. “He has a really great land ethic. He’s on the cutting edge of holistic farming and uses a lot of high-intensity grazing that relieves the need for fertilizers and herbicides.”

The conservation easement helped Yoder double his ownership and then conserve every inch of it, Barber said.

When a landowner places a conservation easement on their property, they give up their right to develop anything more than what’s specified in the easement. Some of the value they chose to give up is returned in part through federal, state and county funds, including the county’s Open Lands Fund.

Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs said some landowners, like the Yoders, use some of those proceeds to purchase additional land that allows them to expand their operations and retain an agricultural footprint on the landscape.

Yoder had three developers call him before the easement was completed.

“They were like, ‘Mr. Yoder, we can help you do something with your property,” he said. “To me, that was a rude awakening. There is something about being respectful to your ground … There’s nothing wrong about a little cow manure and a little bit of green grass and being outside on your saddle horse.”

“I knew if I didn’t do this today, it wouldn’t happen,” Yoder said.

Barber remembers being skeptical when he first drove through all the development on his way to the Yoder property.

“I wasn’t sure that an easement was the right fit there, but it clearly was,” Barber said. “The character of the ground, the agriculture, the wildlife and Jake’s motivations were all the right fit for it.”

“It’s like this gem of open space in amongst a bunch of homes that are going to benefit forever for the agriculture and wildlife that use the place,” Barber said. “It’s a cool little pocket that I would have never guessed was there in amongst all the development that’s happened there.”

In most cases, the Bitter Root Land Trust works to piece together multiple properties in a corridor for preservation under conservation easements. That’s the case on both sides of the Yoder property, where numerous easements have preserved open space in the Burnt Fork to the south and a half dozen conservation easements protect both large and smaller properties to the north and east.

A large herd of elk occasionally migrates down from the Sapphire Mountains and the Iron Cap Hills onto the Yoder place. Other wildlife also take advantage of the well-cared-for land.

“It’s kind of like an island of open space and an important anchor of the Sapphire wildlife corridor,” Barber said. “The location of this property is why it’s so important to preserve.”

Jake and Fannie Yoder have three children. He can remember that his children were quiet when he first told them about what he planned to do.

“What they looked at right away was the value that we were giving up,” Yoder said. “There’s no joke. We could have made millions off this property by developing it.”

But Yoder believes that view is shortsighted.

In the future, he thinks ranch land with water and room to roam a bit will gain value. There is only so much of it left.

“To me, this was doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing,” he said, with a smile. “I’m following my father’s advice. I want to be different. I want this land to be there for my children. It’s kind of a dream come true kind of deal to be able to keep it that way.”

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