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Joni and Don Lodmell have lived on 55 acres just a few miles southwest of Hamilton for 40 years.

The land held irrigated pastures, 2 miles of frontage along Sawtooth Creek, and prime elk and mule deer habitat.

The land also represented a fantastic opportunity for development - something the Lodmells did not want to see happen.

"We love the property," Don Lodmell said last week. "We don't want to see it destroyed."

Thanks to Ravalli County taxpayers, it won't be.

The Lodmells have placed a conservation easement on their property to protect it from development in perpetuity. The county purchased the easement and will give it to the Bitter Root Land Trust to manage. County commissioners approved the deal on Thursday 5-0.

The deal approved Thursday amounts to a magnificent step toward both open space and wildlife habitat protection, said Gavin Ricklefs, director of the land trust.

The Lodmell land shares borders with the Sawtooth Ranch and the Grant conservation easement to produce a continuous protected area in excess of 1,000 acres - one which protects miles of stream critical to native trout species, elk winter corridors - and with access into the National Forest.

That connectivity was readily apparent to Brock Selig, a neighbor to the Lodmells, who sees elk come out of the Lodmell land to graze near his home.

"This is something protecting that scene for this generation and the next," he said.

Not only is the deal a significant one for wildlife, it's a heck of a deal for taxpayers, who purchased the development rights through the purchase of open lands bonds.

The Lodmells asked only for $34,430 - just 8 percent of what they were allowed to ask for based on the write-down value of the loss of development rights, Ricklefs said. The amount requested covers legal and recording fees, mostly, Ricklefs said.

"We could have asked for 90 percent more," Don Lodmell said. "We chose not to do that so more money would be available for future applicants."

Ricklefs noted the process took just 60 days from application to approval.

The land had been in five parcels, four of which were subdivided for development and one which held the Lodmell's private home. The easement codifies the lots into a single holding and allows only for the expansion or replacement of the existing family home.

Commissioners, who visited the property in April, were practically gushing over the deal.

"I commend the Lodmells and their foresight and ability to think about those that come after us," said commissioner Jim Rokosch. "With this I get a real sense of hope we can prosper in the here and now and provide opportunity for the future."

Commissioner Kathleen Driscoll noted her years as a real estate agent and how too often she saw great parcels of land subdivided into homesites.

"When you see these put back together," she said, "you thank God for it."

Reporter Jeff Schmerker can be reached at 363-3300 or