By Michael Howell
The County Commissioners agreed last week to provide funding from the county’s Open Lands Bond Program (OLBP) to help place a conservation easement on 160 acres of land along the Bitterroot River.
The KBK Ranch property is located along the Bitterroot River about eight miles south of Hamilton. It consists of two separate parcels of land totaling 160 acres situated between Forest Service land to the east and west. The Ward and Daly Ditch companies both have head gates located on the property. A three-acre building envelope has been designated for a potential new residence. The cost of placing the easement on the property will be covered by a $112,725 grant from the OLBP and $189,535 in landowner’s contribution.
In its evaluation by the Open Lands Board, the property scored well in the areas of conserving wildlife and wildlife habitat but was a little short on agricultural use. Although the property is used for grazing cattle, no crops are planted and raised on the property.
Joanne Evans-Hinman, niece and representative for the property owner, 90-year-old Bea Evans, told the commissioners how Bea and her late husband Keith bought the property when they moved here from Illinois in the 1960’s. She said that Keith’s passion for the place was tied to the wildlife and the wildlife habitat on the place. Their daughter Kathy continued to operate the place with the same care and aim of preserving the natural habitat and the wildlife until she died last May. It was then that Joanne and her husband Dwayne began assisting in keeping that vision alive and began considering the placement of a conservation easement on the land to preserve those values in perpetuity.
Gavin Ricklefs, Director of the Bitterroot Land Trust, told the commissioners that the proposal has been in the works for about 10 years. He stressed the wildlife values of the property which is situated between Forest Service land on the east and west sides, making it a valuable wildlife corridor. He noted that the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Comprehensive Strategy Plan identifies the Bitterroot River as a Tier 1 of importance/critical habitat within the state of Montana and briefly spoke about the Audubon findings of five important bird species in this area which include the bald eagle, the Lewis’ Woodpecker, the Red-eyed Vireo, the Red-naped Sapsucker and the Willow Flycatcher. He talked about the Natural Resource Policy adopted by the County in 2012 pertaining to water resources and the Bitterroot River and noted the importance of irrigation ditches and how many acres is supplied by irrigation systems via this property through the Ward and Hedge Ditch diversions. He said the community stood to benefit from conservation of water resources and riparian habitats, wildlife habitat, scenic open space and the proposal also supports recreational tourism and agriculture in the neighborhood.
Both the Open Lands Board and the Ravalli County Park Board recommended approval of the project. Public comment was completely in favor of the proposal. Bitterroot Audubon expressed support as did various river fishing outfitters including Fred Weisbecker, Eddy Olwell and Jenny West. Olwell mentioned the enormous economic benefits that fishing and floating provide to the local economy. In all, thirteen members of the public spoke in favor of the proposal.
Commissioner J.R. Iman requested that a statement be added within the easement that there will be an over and across the land easement for access, operation, maintenance and repair for the existing structures (head gates and channels and siphons) for the ditch companies.
Ron Porter, a member of the Ward Ditch Irrigation Company, noted that the Evans family has always been cooperative in allowing maintenance of canals and all moving parts. He said Ward Irrigation is currently working with the Evanses on future easements and they are trying to get them in writing for existing and future irrigation needs. Ricklefs said that the Bitter Root Land Trust is working with the parties to arrive at a written agreement but may not accomplish that in time to include it in the easement. He said it would be completed one way or another, either before or after the easement is placed.
Commissioner Suzy Foss spoke about the importance and necessity of the irrigation portions of this property and how it serves over 7000 acres within this irrigation district. She also found value in the wildlife and the wildlife corridor in the area. She said that she would like to see a more aggressive approach on weed control before it gets out of hand. But she also wanted to acknowledge the importance of river frontage and the fishing industry in the county.
Commissioners Greg Chilcott and Ron Stoltz expressed concern about a letter from the Montana Department of Transportation (MDT) about an interest in gaining a right of way for future highway widening in the area. They wondered how that might affect any access point from the property out onto the highway from the proposed building envelope.
Stoltz had a series of other questions related to the proposal as well that led him to vote against the proposal. Besides the question about MDT plans and how it would affect access, Stoltz said later he voted against the proposal because he believed a written agreement about access to the head gates and ditches was needed prior to granting the easement. He also believed that there should be something in writing about cleaning up the garbage dump located on the property as well as a weed control plan. He was also not willing to accept such a large building envelope and thought an actual building site should have been chosen. He said that a site could now be chosen that would conflict with concerns about the view from the highway and the river.
The vote was 4 to 1 to approve the proposal. Commission Chair Jeff Burrows said, “It was a tough one to vote for,” but he did. He said that he shared most of Stoltz’s concerns, but felt that they had been mitigated enough for him to go along with the proposal.