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Another conservation easement proposed in Burnt Fork drainage

lazy bf ce 30By Michael Howell

The Ravalli County Open Lands Bond Program board has recommended approval of using $150,000 in Open Lands Bond Program funds to help establish another conservation easement in the Burnt Fork drainage east of Stevensville. The new conservation easement would be placed on 329 acres of the Lazy Burnt Fork Ranch owned by Steve Peckinpaugh.

The 335-acre ranch is made up of five separate parcels of land. The existing home and six acres of land on which it sits will be excluded from the easement. The easement allows for the future construction of two residences on the remaining 329 acres.

According to the application prepared by the Bitterroot Land Trust, the property’s conservation value is rooted in its agricultural resources, its diversity of high quality aquatic, riparian and rangeland habitat, and its scenic open space. The primary purposes for placing a conservation easement on the Lazy BF Ranch is to preserve opportunities for agricultural use, protect the diverse wildlife habitat found on the property and maintain the scenic viewshed. The complimentary agricultural, riparian and scenic open space attributes of the property make it a strong conservation project.

Strategically located in the middle reach of the Burnt Fork drainage, the property is in close proximity to three existing or pending Open Lands Bond Program funded conservation easements, including the completed Severson’s Flying E Ranch and Sunset Bench conservation easements, and the pending Laursen Property conservation easement. Two additional conservation easements not funded by the OLBP are also within one mile of the Lazy BF Ranch.

“Given the considerable conservation progress that has taken place in this neighborhood over the past few years, BRLT is excited to have the opportunity to work with the Peckinpaughs to further add to the preservation of the historic and scenic Burnt Fork,” said BLT Director Gavin Ricklefs.

The Peckinpaughs have done a lot of rehabilitation work on the property since purchasing it in 2004, implementing numerous best management practices, including riparian fencing, irrigation improvements and noxious weed treatment. Land use around the proposed easement is currently predominantly agricultural.

The irrigated bottom ground and the native sagebrush rangeland found on the property provide important winter range for elk and mule deer. The property contains a mix of dry, relatively natural rangeland and irrigated, managed grasslands, both of which provide important habitat for winter raptors including eagles, hawks, kestrels and falcons. North Burnt Fork Creek flows through the property for over 3/4 of a mile, providing healthy aquatic and riparian habitat.

The ranchland also represents a prime piece of open space contributing to the remarkably beautiful vistas characteristic of the Burnt Fork drainage, said Ricklefs.

The preliminary appraised value of the conservation easement is $850,000. Combined with the anticipated costs of $40,985 to create the easement, the total budget for the project is $890,985. Peckinpaugh is donating $465,985 to the cost of the easement and seeking an additional cash match of $275,000 from DNRC’s Farm and Ranch Land Protection Program for a total cash match of $750,985. He is requesting a $150,000 grant from the county’s Open Lands Bond Program to complete the deal.

A minority report recommending denial of the proposed use of Open Lands Bond Program funds was submitted by Planning Board Chairman Bill Menager. Menager states that in his view “subdividing this property would not be out of character with the land use in the area and could be viewed as an infill subdivision.”

He points out that a majority of the property is not irrigated and at least a third is on a steep hillside with thin and rocky soils.

“Therefore this project has little agricultural value making spending money for this project to preserve agricultural ground a waste of money,” Menager concludes.

Although Menager found some value in the wildlife habitat on the land, he found it too small a piece to make much of a difference given the animals’ broad range.

He also noted that only a small portion of the land was actually suitable for development.

“I don’t feel that $150,000 from Ravalli County for an easement on the remaining acres is worth the cost to save it from development,” he wrote.

No date has yet been set for the County Commissioners to consider the project.

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