People aren’t just coming to the Bitterroot Valley to enjoy the hiking, biking, climbing, fishing and hunting and then heading back to where they came from anymore. They are coming to stay, it seems, and they are coming in droves. It seems like every old subdivision in the valley is suddenly filling in and, if you look around, stand-alone new homes are springing up all over like mushrooms in a cow pasture.
In the midst of this deluge of construction and skyrocketing property values the Bitter Root Land Trust (BRLT), a local non-profit that has helped place conservation easements on lands in the Bitterroot for the last 23 years, is now racing to meet increased demand for their services before the surge in population, the surge in development and the surging property values serve to gobble up the last of the valley’s open lands.
As Bryan Dufresne, Darby Middle and High School teacher and a BRLT Next Generation Committee member, notes, although much of this growth shapes our community in positive ways, it may also threaten the very values that draw people here, the sprawling open lands, the working farms and ranches, the free flowing Bitterroot River, the diverse wildlife, and the vibrant small-town feel of the communities, that is, the very essence of the Bitterroot.
Through the placement of easements that limit development through the purchase of development rights the organization has, since its inception in 1993, protected 9,190 acres from future development, including iconic family farms and ranches and public parks and river access sites, like Skalkaho Bend Park.
“Keep It Bitterroot means protecting our natural environment, but also our small town Montana lifestyle,” said Dufresne. “We want to continue to enjoy the very reason we live here for years to come.
According to BRLT Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs, there has been an upsurge of conservation interest from local landowners and the need and opportunity for conservation is stretching his organization’s capacity to the limit. It is this growing need in the face of unprecedented growth in development that led the BRLT to launch the Keep It Bitterroot campaign. The group set a goal of $600,000 and is looking to raise the final $150,000 with this campaign. Ricklefs said the funds will help increase the number of landowners the land trust can partner with, while creating funds to compete in the significantly inflated local real estate market.
BRLT has partnered with over 50 families over the last 23 years conserving over 9,000 acres. but now has over 10,000 acres waiting to be conserved over the next five years.
BRLT Communications and Development Coordinator Stephanie Sipe said that community engagement was a key success factor in the organization’s campaign. She said local businesses all over the valley have already started to step up to show their support for the cause, from offering roundups at the checkout register to brewery pint nights and special coffee batches named in honor of the campaign.
“There are many opportunities for community members to support Keep It Bitterroot, big or small,” said Sipe.
“It’s important to us to maintain our valley’s land and agriculture,” says Kari Trexler, a conservation easement landowner. “We’re trying to keep a small part of that piece of the Bitterroot viable to leave it for our children, and even our great-grandchildren someday.” She and her husband Reed are carrying on the family ranching business on a conservation easement protected ranch.
The elder Trexlers, Larry and Peggy, came to the Bitterroot Valley in 1958 and began raising Angus cattle and horses.
“It’s nice to see Reed and his family keeping it going,” said Peggy, “but without the Bitter Root Land Trust I don’t think it would have happened.”
The Friends of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge has issued a challenge grant of $10,000 to the Keep It Bitterroot campaign. If the campaign can gather $10,000 in donations the organization will match it with another $10,000. The Friends have donated generously to the Bitter Root Land Trust over the years, focusing their donations on development of easements within the Burnt Fork watershed, which they consider a wildlife corridor for birds traveling from the Sapphire range to the Refuge along the river and back.
For more information, and to learn how you can support the Keep It Bitterroot campaign, visit www.bitterrootlandtrust.org or call (406) 375-0956.