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Passage of Open Lands Bond renews commitment to conservation

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Exactly 16 years and over 10,000 acres and 40 miles of Bitterroot River and streams conserved later, Ravalli County voters have answered the ask from County Commissioners to consider renewing the Open Lands Program bond that was first approved by voters on the 2006 ballot.

Bitterroot Valley voters approved the renewal of the $10M Ravalli County Open Lands bond on Nov. 8, continuing a legacy of conservation throughout the county. The bond dollars will be used to preserve open land, as well as agriculture and river and stream front property.

“The overwhelming support from Ravalli County voters for the renewal of the Open Lands Bond shows that conserving open lands is important to many residents of Ravalli County,” Linda Habeck said. Habeck is a member of the Yes to Ravalli County Open Lands Committee and secretary and treasurer of the Ravalli County Fish & Wildlife Association. “It may be for the benefit of agriculture, public access, wildlife habitat on private lands, or all three. Thanks to those who supported the campaign and those who voted Yes to Ravalli County Open Lands," she said.

Designed as a voluntary, landowner-driven investment in the Bitterroot Valley’s future, the Open Lands Program works with local landowners to conserve family farms and ranchland, wildlife habitat, community access to hunting, fishing and recreation, as well as community parks and trails.

“As a community we have made the decision to maintain and protect much of what makes this such a beautiful and productive valley,” Ravalli County Right to Farm & Ranch Board Chair Alan Maki said. “And for that, I’ve never been prouder to be a member of this community. We don’t know yet the legacies that many landowners will want to leave for our wonderful valley, but we do know if the past 2006 bond successes and the broad support for the new bond are any indicator, they will be varied and many.”

And projects are already in the pipeline. One local family’s longtime vision to conserve their 540-acre ranch and provide permanent public access for the community to enjoy is one step closer to a reality, thanks to the County Commissioners’ recent approval to receive Open Lands Program funding.

At the request of the Hackett family, and in partnership with Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks, Bitterroot National Forest, and the Bitter Root Land Trust, the future Sweathouse Creek Conservation Easement will permanently provide the public with a diversity of recreational opportunities, including hunting and fishing access on private lands and recreational access to adjacent National Forest lands including the trail to the scenic Sweathouse Falls, one of the most popular hiking destinations in the Bitterroot National Forest.

Located approximately 3.5 miles west of Victor, a conservation easement on the 540-acre property, which already participates in FWP’s hunter access Block Management Program, would forever protect rolling foothills that serve as winter range habitat for elk and mule deer. The property’s shared boundary with the Bitterroot National Forest ensures that the wildlife that currently benefit from this habitat will continue to use this property long into the future. The property also includes three-quarters of a mile of Sweathouse Creek and a small stretch of Gash Creek, both of which are important westside tributaries of the Bitterroot River and serve as habitat for native westslope cutthroat trout.

The Open Lands Program is just one of the funding sources for the conservation project. This project is also slated to receive funding from federal Pittman Robertson Wildlife Restoration funds, FWP’s Habitat Montana Program, the Montana Fish and Wildlife Conservation Trust, and Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. The Open Lands Program will be contributing only 6% of the total purchase price of the conservation easement, leveraging the contributions of Ravalli County taxpayers with state and federal funding by a better than 10:1 ratio.

“We are grateful for the Hackett family’s longstanding commitment to maintaining their property as natural open space and allowing public recreational access, in perpetuity,” FWP Regional Supervisor for Fish, Region 2 Randy Arnold said. “The proposed Sweathouse Creek Conservation Easement project would conserve critical aquatic and terrestrial habitat, while also permanently securing public access for hunting, fishing, hiking and recreating. Conserving this special piece of the Bitterroot Valley would guarantee that these amenities are available for the benefit of wildlife and for future generations of Bitterroot residents, visitors, and sportspeople.”

For more information about the Ravalli County Open Lands Program, and to stay up to date with current projects, visit the county website at http://ravalli.us/189/Open-Lands-Bond-Program.

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