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County funds Popham Ranch conservation easement

The Popham Ranch, northeast of Corvallis, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has been approved for conservation easement funding from the county’s Open Lands Bond program.

By Michael Howell

Following the recommendation of the Ravalli County Open Lands Board, the County Commissioners approved a grant of $189,300 from the Open Land Bond program as partial funding for the establishment of a conservation easement on the historic Popham Ranch located northeast of Corvallis. This grant covers about 52 percent of the cost of establishing the easement. The remaining costs, estimated at about $201,125, will be met by an anticipated matching grant of $175,000 from the Farm and Ranch Protection Program and $25,000 as the landowner’s donation.

According to Planning Manager Terry Nelson, about 185 acres of the 193-acre ranch would be placed under the conservation easement which will prevent further development on those acres in the future. One acre surrounding a rental house was withheld from the easement as was seven acres in the southeast corner of the property.

Nelson said that, although the property did not score as high on wildlife habitat as some previous easements granted through the program, the agricultural and historical values were very high.

The Popham family homesteaded the place in 1882 and the historic buildings on the place were constructed between 1883 and 1917.

Gavin Ricklefs of Bitterroot Land Trust, the company handling the deal for the Pophams, called the property an agricultural icon of the Bitterroot Valley. He pointed out “a number of exceptional attributes” that make the place a prime candidate for the county’s Open Land Bond program. Those attributes include the prime agricultural soils that cover the land. In fact, he said, the entire ranch consists of classified soils, about 68% prime, 15% of statewide importance and 17% of local importance. Ricklefs emphasized that the property is also located in the valley’s most important agricultural corridor. There are also thousands of acres of land already under conservation easements within a mile of the Popham Ranch.

Several people spoke in favor of the grant including Dan Huls, Chairman of the Right to Farm and Ranch Board. A letter of support was also received from the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association. Huls noted that the wildlife habit scores in the rating process were lower than some previous properties in the program primarily due to the lack of a perennial stream. He said the stream that runs through the ranch, although not officially classified as perennial, has always flowed year round and has plenty of fish.

Alan Maki, a fourth generation farmer and rancher in the area, spoke about the economic value of the agricultural operation and the need to preserve such operations to help support a diverse economy in the valley. Maki noted that the Pophams plant about 100 acres of wheat per year on the ranch, producing about 100 bushels per acre. That comes to about 10,000 bushels. He held up a loaf of bread that sells for $1.28 per loaf. He said the Pophams’ little wheat farm produces about 70 loaves per bushel or about 700,000 loaves of bread. He said that many loaves of bread would fill the commissioners’ meeting room six times over.

Taking a look at the higher priced bread that goes for $3.88 per loaf, Maki said the ranch produces enough wheat to make about $2,716,000 worth of bread. He called it a significant contribution to the economy.

Commissioner Suzy Foss said she once lived next to the property and she recognized that the wildlife values of the property, including the fishery, were significant.

Commissioner Greg Chilcott said, “I admire the 130 years of land stewardship.” He said he was also jealous of the deep topsoil. He said wildlife habitat was not a big factor for him in a county that is already 73 percent national forest.

Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher said, “I’ve got plenty of comments on the record critical of the program in general, but actually yesterday Alan (Maki) came into my office and made the best arguments I’ve ever heard, the most creative arguments for this yet. And after today’s most creative arguments, I’m not going to say any more.”

Commissioner Ron Stoltz made no comment.

Commission Chairman J.R. Iman said that he fully supports the Open Land Bond program. He said the program was set up to ensure a balance for land use in the valley and that he supported the award to the Popham Ranch conservation easement 100 percent.

The motion to award the grant was approved unanimously.

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