By Michael Howell
Last Thursday, July 25, the Ravalli County Commissioners approved a $150,000 contribution from the Open Lands Bond Program to help fund the placement of a conservation easement on a 244-acre hay farm up the Burnt Fork east of Stevensville. The easement assures that the land will remain in agriculture providing the associated open space and wildlife habitat for future generations of Bitterrooters in perpetuity.
Gavin Ricklefs of the Bitterroot Land Trust, who helped the farm owners, Dave and Mari Laursen, establish the easement, explained how the easement would help protect and sustain the current agricultural operation as well as provide open space, wildlife habitat, and protect valuable water resources. Three creeks run through the property, including Mill Fork, Spring Creek and North Swamp Creek.
Eighty-three percent of the soils on the farm are classified as soils of importance for agriculture in the state. In fact, a large contribution to the establishment of the easement is coming from the national Farm and Ranch Protection Program (FRPP), a federal program designed to help preserve agricultural lands from development.
The appraised value of the easement comes to $585,600. With the cost of placing the easement estimated at $41,635, the total project cost comes in at about $627,235. According to Ricklefs, the project has already been awarded $284,350 from the FRPP. He said that the project ranked second in the entire state of Montana in qualifying for the program funds. $150,000 will come from the County’s Open Lands Bond Program and the remaining $191,760 comes in the form of the landowner’s contribution related to the reduction in value associated with restrictions on any future development. In this case the Laursens have left a single eight-acre building envelope on which the current home and most of the barns and workshops currently sit.
The Open Lands Board recommended approval of the OLBP funds unanimously and the project received one of the highest scores to date in the Board’s rating procedure.
The establishment of this conservation easement pushes the total land protected with the use of OLBP funds in the Burnt Fork to about 965 acres. According to Ricklefs, even more easements are currently in the works in the area. Countywide, over 2,800 acres have been protected in finalized easements with another 1,500 acres in pending easements that have not yet closed, bringing the total to over 4,400 acres countywide.
To date about 28% of the original $10 million approved in the Open Lands Bond levy has been used to help place these conservation easements and that contribution has helped leverage about $2.5 million in matching funds from other grant programs and over $5.5 million in landowner contributions in decreased development value.