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Two conservation easements awarded funds from Open Lands Bond Program


By Michael Howell

In back to back meetings last week, the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners gave approval to grant some of the county’s Open Lands Bond Program (OLPB) to help fund the establishment of conservation easements on two family ranches that have each been in operation for more than a century, the Holloron Ranch located in the heart of the Bitterroot northeast of Corvallis and the Lazy J Cross Ranch located along the East Fork of the Bitterroot River near Sula at the south end of the valley. The voters passed a $10 million Open Lands Bond Program by initiative in 2006 to help fund such efforts.

A conservation easement is being placed on two parcels of land totaling 168 acres by Jerry Holloron and Mike and Amanda McArthur. The land was homesteaded in 1908 and Libbie Holloron raised 10 children there, five daughters and five sons, through two world wars and the Great Depression. Now Holloron and the McArthurs want to see the ground protected from subdivision and development forevermore by placing a conservation easement on the property with the help of the Bitterroot Land Trust.

The property appraised at $445,000 and the production cost of placing the easement was estimated at $44,675, bringing the total value of the easement to $489,675. They were asking for a $151,000 grant from the Open Lands Board Program and are aiming to provide the matching $338,675 by landowner contribution and some funding from the federal Farm and Ranch Protection Program.

“Our goal is to see that the land remains intact, not only as a tribute to the earlier generations of our family, but so that the public can continue to share in its value as open space,” stated Jerry Holloron and the McArthurs.

Gavin Ricklefs, Executive Director of the Bitterroot Land Trust, told the commissioners about the public values being protected. They include not only preserving open space, but preserving some valuable agricultural soils as well. It also ensures the land will remain in agricultural production. The acreage is also located near other easements in the area, referred to by Ricklefs as “the Corvallis agricultural corridor.” It benefits wildlife not only by providing pasture but by providing habitat, down Holloron Gulch, that includes springs and associated wetlands including areas of cattails.

Ricklefs also noted that the proposal was a little short on its potential to be subdivided due to slope and hydric soils. This issue may have contributed to the lone dissenting vote on the OLBP recommendation for approval.

Several people spoke in favor of the proposal. Alan Maki pulled a frozen steak from his lunchbox and told the commissioners that by his calculations, the ground could feed enough cattle that the frozen steaks from that number of cattle, if used as bricks, could equal the number needed to construct the county’s administration building. He emphasized the economic value of the land if used for agriculture and its contribution to the valley’s economy.

So did former county commissioner and President of the Bitterroot Land Trust, Steve Powell. Powell spoke about the importance of saving agricultural land from development, not only for economic reasons, but also to maintain a heritage and culture that is tied to the land. He recalled how, years ago while working as a consultant on a subdivision in the area, they decided that they would call it Holloron Subdivision, since it was near Holloron Gulch.

“It wasn’t two days before I heard from the Hollorons,” said Powell, “and I realized it was not going to be named Holloron Subdivision.”

Several others spoke in favor of the proposal, most emphasizing the need to preserve agriculture and the historical and cultural traditions associated with it.

Although there was one dissenting vote on the Open Lands Bond Program Board in making the recommendation for approval, the Commissioners were unanimous in approving the request for funds.

Next on the agenda was consideration of the request from Sterling Wetzsteon, flanked by his three daughters, Keri Churchich, Julie George and Jill Applebury, to grant about $350,000 from the OLBP to help secure about 1,080 acres of open space near Sula. That open space includes 300 acres of dryland pasture and 335 irrigated acres. The remaining 445 acres is upland range. It’s called the Lazy J Cross Ranch.

Gavin Ricklefs, of the Bitterroot Land Trust, told the commissioners all about it.

The Wetzsteon family settled here in 1889. The ranch lies about two miles east of the Sula Store in Ross’s Hole. It is the site of a famous painting by Charlie Russell of the meeting between Lewis and Clark and the Salish Indians. It is a viable agricultural operation and a cultural historical gem. It also encompasses a mile of the East Fork of the Bitterroot River. Besides all those trout in the river, the ranch harbors mule deer and bighorn sheep in abundance, not to mention all the other wildlife from mountain lions to osprey. The ranch is open to public hunting and fishing, it participates in the state’s Block Management Program. Sterling Wetzsteon and his daughters want it to stay that way in perpetuity.

The Wetzsteons wrote a note to the commissioners, saying, “As a tribute to the past generations of our family, our goal is to ensure that the land remains intact and continues as a working ranch. We look forward to offering the public, the residents of the Sula Basin, and the wildlife in the area, the opportunity to enjoy its true value as open space.”

The ranch was appraised at a value of $1,273,500. The production cost of putting the easement in place comes to $44,675, bringing the total worth of the conservation easement to $1,318,175. The Wetzsteons are asking for $350,000 from the OLBP. The remaining $968,175 would come from landowner donation and other grants, including grants from the Natural Resource and Conservation Service, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, some non-profit organizations, and other private donors.

Several people spoke in favor of the proposal. Members of the Bitterroot Land Trust gave the proposal a high rating for preservation of agriculture, wildlife, water quality values and the scenic views. Dan Huls, a member of Right to Farm and Ranch committee and ???, the President of the Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife Association, both praised the proposal as did retired Extension Agent Rob Johnson.

Bob Popham, who also placed a conservation easement on his ranch near Corvallis using some OLBP funds, said, “Our valley is one big community and we need to save our ag land.”

Alan Maki, without pulling a frozen steak from his lunch box, made the same point about the value of agriculture production.

His brother, Andy Maki, also agreed, stating, “I think we are better off keeping the ranches running.” He said the market place does not capture the true values of fishing, hunting and recreation.

The OLBP board recommended unanimously that the Commissioners approve the grant, citing high scores on their rating criteria.

The Commissioners unanimously approved the proposal on the condition that it would happen when the funds became available. Or, if the bond cannot be issued in time, then when interim financing, either through a loan or by use of reserve funds, is put in place.

A meeting has been scheduled for Wednesday, April 10 from 2 to 3 p.m. to meet with CFO Klarysse Murphy about the sale of Open Lands Bonds.

Asked if he wished to comment, Wetzsteon said, “I’m glad we’re getting it done as soon as we can. I probably won’t live to see it, but that’s okay.”

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