Ag Mag Summer 2022

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M A G A Z I N E In this issue

Preserving Our Past: Ravalli County Open Lands Program

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in this issue Celebrating Open Lands Program........... 5 Our best soils..................................... 8 Forever preserved.............................. 10 Fence builder preserves land............... 13 Preserving family farm forever.............. 15 Wild saved...................................... 17 Saving history................................... 19 Passing the torch............................... 21


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Celebrating the success of the Ravalli County Open Lands Bond Program ALAN MAKI & DAN HULS for the Ravalli Republic

Thanks to the citizens of Ravalli County, almost everyone traveling anywhere throughout our beautiful Bitterroot Valley has a good chance of driving by acres of open space that will remain protected forever. The vast majority of these open lands are family farms and ranches producing food and fiber and anchoring our local economy, but also include two wonderful new riverside parks (Steve Powell Park and Skalkaho Bend Park) in the City of Hamilton, a permanent fishing site/boat launch in Conner and trail joining up to USFS land (C. Ben White Memorial Fishing Access site), and permanent access to both private

and public lands for big game hunters in Sula (Lazy J Cross Ranch). I invite you to flip through this summer’s Agricultural Magazine to read the stories behind the families who have protected the land that is home to our local agriculture, native wildlife, clean river and streams, and open space for recreation – none of which would have been possible without community support for the Open Lands Bond program. History of Growth in Ravalli County There have been a few notable population “booms” in Ravalli County that stand as outliers to our otherwise mostly continuous population growth. According to the US Decennial Census, Ravalli County’s population increased by 49.1% from 1900-1910, coincid-

ing with the “Orchard Boom” - an important time when tens of thousands of acres were subdivided into 10-acre parcels, forever setting the tone of development of Ravalli County. From 1970 to 1980, a 56.1% population increase occurred, and from 1990 to 2000 a 44.2% increase. It was in the early 2000’s after seeing the latest census data that many citizens were concerned about the changes that came with such a significant pace of growth and resolved to proactively protect some of the most important resources in the valley. A Way to Preserve Open Space in the Bitterroot Valley: The Conservation Easement In 2005, Ravalli County Right to

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Farm and Ranch board (serving as an advisory board for the Ravalli County Board of Commissioners) spearheaded a study of the importance of agriculture in the valley. In addition to showing the direct economic importance of agriculture in the valley, the study also identified the many indirect benefits of working farms and ranches, including wildlife habitat, well water recharge, and scenic open space. Ultimately, the study suggested Ravalli County create a voluntary, non-regulatory, landowner driven tool providing local farmers and ranchers an option to keep their working lands working: the conservation easement. Open Lands Bond Program: The Beginning At the request of the Right to Farm and Ranch Board, the Board of Ravalli County Commissioners, the Ravalli County Open Lands Bond was placed on the November 2006 ballot, with ballot language that included, “… manage growth, preserve open lands, protect water quality of streams and the Bitterroot River, maintain wildlife habitat, protect drinking waters sources…” It passed with near 60% of the vote. A citizen’s advisory board was set up to help initiate the new program and applicants were vetted by the commission for seats on the newly created Open Lands Board. It wasn’t until 2009 when all the criteria for a transparent, objective process was met that the first applicant was finally approved by the Ravalli County commissioners. What Has the Open Lands Bond Program Accomplished Today? Since that first project, The Wood Ranch in Corvallis (now owned by the Trexler family), 38 more projects have followed with even more on the way today. As of April of 2022, the Open Lands Program has approved projects conserving 10,367 from Florence to Sula, consisting of agricultural land and soil, big game winter range, riparian areas, wetlands and over 40 miles of streams. Some of the accomplishments

of the program are readily seen up, down and across the valley, and many are discreetly pointed out by the owners with a small sign proclaiming “OPEN LANDS PROGRAM RAVALLI COUNTY: This land conserved for future generations,” the logo of which was created by Corvallis students in an art class. It is important to note that the easements do not change the amount of property taxes collected on the property. Its productivity is valued by Montana the same, whether it has an easement on it or not. Fortunately, for the taxpayer the conserved open lands require much fewer services from the county - open fields rarely require more asks for money than schools, roads, police, fire and other necessary services that are needed by a growing community. Easements also do not change the ownership nor prevent the ownership from changing, or require public access. Easements are voluntary, they are a legally binding document, and are tailored to made to fit each owners’ unique circumstances. More Growth Means More Need for Open Land Protection While the census data isn’t in yet for the growth from 2020 on, so far it is suggesting a continued need for the Ravalli County Open Lands Program. Of the original $10 million bond, over $7.5 million has been spent at an average cost of only $725 per acre. This county taxpayer money was matched by over $8.5 million in non-county funding sources and over $13 million in landowner donations of the appraised easement value or fee title value. The remaining $2.5 million of the bond is set to service the potential of roughly another 3,000 acres of open lands conservation easements that are currently working their way through the county process. Although Ravalli County is only 24% privately held land, that

still equates to over 365,000 acres. According to the most current 2017 Census of Agriculture, Ravalli County has just shy of 71,000 acres of irrigated farmland. To put it into perspective of how much room there really is for growth, the City of Los Angeles proper is approximately 320,000 acres. The 2017 Census of Agriculture reports that almost 42% of producers in Ravalli County are 65 years or older. That statistic suggests that there will be a lot of land changing ownership in the near future. A common thread with many of the landowners that have placed conservation easements on their land is that they wanted to see it remain relatively unchanged (read about Wood/ Trexler easement and Farrell/Kerslake easement inside this magazine). In these instances, a driving force for conservation for older landowners is protecting the land to sell to a new generation of producers to carry on a tradition of Bitterroot agriculture. Reader, please think about your favorite places that you have lived or visited in your lifetime. Please ask yourself, are they better now than your earlier recollections of them? The Open Lands Bond program was designed to help keep some of the best attributes of our valley for future generations to enjoy. Now and into the future, it will be known that there will continue to be local agriculture, wildlife, water and open lands for the enjoyment of all. We sincerely hope that you can appreciate many of the wonderful benefits that your support of the 2006 Open Lands Bond has generated! These lands and waters are the legacy we pass down to future Bitterroot generations.AG Alan Maki is the Ravalli County Right to Farm and Ranch Board chairman. Dan Huls is a Ravalli County Commissioner.

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Perry Backus Photo

Bob and Laurie Sutherlin stand in front of some of the registered Red Angus cattle they’ve raised on the farm they built over the years. The Sutherlins recently preserved 378 acres of their farm holding under conservation easement to ensure it can raise crops and livestock for generations to come.

‘Our best soils’: Longtime Bitterroot ranch family preserves farmland forever Perry Backus Ravalli Republic

This article orignally appeared in the Ravalli Republic on Jan. 23, 2022. It’s not every man who gets to live out his childhood dream. But every day that Bob Sutherlin gets to crank up his tractor or care for his cattle on the family ranch between Corvallis and Stevensville, he does exactly that. “I grew up in Stevensville,” Sutherlin said. “Ever since I was little, I wanted to be on a tractor or doing something that had to do with agriculture.” When he was little, he was thrilled when the neighbor let him drive a tractor. He was a sophomore in high school when he first started buying cows. For

years, he and his wife, Laurie, rented ground to run his cattle and farm until they could afford to buy their own place. Over the years, they built a herd of registered Red Angus that now has seed stock scattered all over the world. As they could, they increased the size of their landholdings. “We were fortunate that we could piece it all together,” Sutherlin said. “When you grow up not having ground and have to put it together yourself, you take a different look at that land. It’s something you worked for your whole life and wanted.” And it was that connection — with the knowledge that their son, Chad, wanted to follow in his folks’ footsteps — that helped the couple decide to

recently put almost 378 acres of some of the richest farm ground in Ravalli County into a conservation easement that will ensure it remains agricultural ground forever. “We wanted to keep it in ag,” Sutherlin said. “It’s all we have ever wanted to do with the ground and don’t want to see anything else done with it.” The funds that will offset the value the family gave up by placing an easement on the property will go toward adding additional land in the Bitterroot to raise crops and cattle. “We’re going to add to the farm with what we got from the land trust,” Sutherlin said. “We’re not going out and buying a new Cadillac. We’re going to add land to it. We want to farm. He (their son) wants to farm and I have

Agriculture Magazine, Summer, 2022 - Page 9

three grandsons who might want to farm too.” “When you put 30 years into building a cow herd, you need to be sure that you have ground to put them on,” he said. “It takes good productive ground to raise enough hay to winter these cattle. You just can’t let it go away.” With real estate prices rapidly on the rise in Ravalli County, the Sutherlin family knows it could have sold out and purchased more land somewhere else. But they know from experience the Bitterroot Valley has always been a good place to raise crops and cattle because of its dependable irrigation water supply. “It’s not a bed of roses in other places except there’s more land,” Sutherlin said. “In the Bitterroot, you can have a dry year, but it seems like it always takes care of you and you can always raise a crop. For the 45 years I’ve been raising cattle, I never had a year where we didn’t get a decent crop. Maybe not a bumper one, but a decent crop.” And that water stored and used for irrigation helps more than those in agriculture. “You have to have a certain amount of agriculture to maintain the aquifer here,” he said. “If you don’t have some irrigation in all these ditches to put some water back into the ground, the water table would drop to where people don’t have any well water.” The valley would also quickly turn brown once the weather turned warm. “Most of the ground is two weeks from a drought if we don’t have the water,” Sutherlin said. “In the summertime, it’s green and beautiful. It’s why people come here.” Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs said the land preserved by the Sutherlin family is some of the most productive farmland in the state. “They are on our best soils,” Ricklefs said. “That area between Corvallis and Stevensville on the Eastside Highway is some of the best ground in the state of Montana.” “At a time like this when land values are so high and the opportunity to convert that to a different use is there for all

of our ag families, it makes the decision to do this that much more difficult from a financial standpoint,” he said. “But it also makes it that much more laudable and appreciated. It’s a challenging decision to limit development on your land permanently. There’s not more important ground in the valley for production.” “We can all recognize the value of what the Sutherlins and their neighbors have done now more than ever with the way the valley is growing and changing,” he said. “It’s really evident how important it is to be able to conserve some of our best ground and really make sure it’s the Bitterroot we all know and love.” “Who is really going to appreciate and feel it is our kids and grandkids 50 to 100 years from now when there is still agriculture and we can still grow our food here and still drive the Eastside Highway and see that open space,” Ricklefs said. Fourth-generation Bitterroot Valley rancher Allen Maki serves as chair of the county’s Right to Farm and Ranch Board and has been on the Open Lands Board since its inception. Conservation easements like the Sutherlins are a demonstration to others in agriculture that the industry will continue in the valley. “No one wants to be the last guy standing,” Maki said. “You need neighbors who support the industry and there have to be people involved to ensure that it continues.” Subdivisions are easy to do in the Bitterroot. Much of the land was subdivided into 10-acre orchard lots in the early 1900s. “People might see an 80-acre place but what they don’t know is that it’s already been divided into eight 10-acre parcels,” Maki said. “We already have pre-subdivided farms here in most places. That’s a problem here in our valley.” The 2017 agriculture census showed 42% of ag producers in Ravalli County were over 65 years old. About 74% were over 55. “That gives you an idea how important these conservation easements are

in transferring family farms to the next generation,” he said. “Without an easement in place, there’s a temptation to sell it all off in 10-acre parcels.” Ravalli County has about 370,000 acres of private land. As of 2017, only about 70,000 are directly being used for agriculture. “That leaves about 275,000 acres already developed or forested,” Maki said. “You hear people say that the open lands program is locking up all the land for housing, but only a quarter of all the private land is still in production.” “Once that’s gone, it’s gone forever,” Maki said. “There is a lot of infill where houses can be built without having to develop open farmland.” Maki said the county’s open lands program has provided some hope for those who want to continue to produce crops and livestock in the valley. “Twenty years ago, that wasn’t the case,” Maki said. “People used to say there was no future in agriculture here, but you don’t hear that anymore. The main reason for that is the open lands program.” Chad Sutherlin supported his parents’ decision to preserve their family farm. “I thought it was the right thing to do for down the road,” he said. “It’s tough to keep stuff in agriculture in this valley.” Laurie Sutherlin said the decision wasn’t an easy one, but the family, in part, took the long view. “The one thing I said is that I sure wish I could be here 100 years from now to see what the rest of the valley looks like compared to these easements,” she said. Her husband believes the larger places protected by an easement will gain value in the future. “Maybe today it’s not worth as much but a big piece of ground will have a really good value in years to come,” he said. “I don’t think we lost anything if you look down the road. It’s nice that there are so many pieces getting put into the land trust. There is a lot of people who want to preserve this ag in the valley.”.AG

Perry Backus Photo

With the Bitterroot Range as backdrop, Jake Yoder takes a walk by his Black Angus cattle that graze on the 150 acres he and his family recently placed in a conservation easement. The land is one of the few intact larger agricultural parcels in the area.

Forever preserved: Yoder family decision keeps agricultural land intact Perry Backus Ravalli Republic

This article orignally appeared in the Ravalli Republic on Nov. 26, 2021. Jake Yoder grew up hearing his father say: “When everyone is running, you need to walk and when they’re walking, you need to run.” And so now, when Yoder walks over the 150 acres on Illinois Bench that his family recently placed under a conservation easement, he can’t help but remember his father’s advice. Everywhere he looks from that island of green, there are houses on parcels of land that have been subdivided over the years. Yoder had heard from developers anxious to do the same thing on the land he owned.

“My dad was telling me to be different,” he said. “It’s how I decided we needed to do something for this piece of land.” The Yoder family relocated to the Bitterroot Valley from the St. Ignatius area, where they ran a cow-calf operation for years. Yoder operates a gravel pit in the growing commercial complex owned by Amish-Mennonite families just north of Stevensville. The family wanted to continue its ranching operation. They started with 80 acres on Illinois Bench about 3.5 miles northeast of Stevensville in an area that has been heavily developed over the years. “I remember when I first drove back here and I saw all these houses,” Yoder said. “I wasn’t so sure but then I popped

up over the top and I saw this land. It was like ‘whoa, maybe I will do this.’” Right after he purchased that first 80 acres, he went to his neighbor to ask about the potential of buying the adjoining 70 acres of undeveloped farmland. The seed was planted and when the time was right, Yoder purchased the other half of the ranch and placed both properties under a conservation easement. “I never dreamt that in five years we would have been able to put this farm back together,” Yoder said. “I think about that every day when I come over the top of the hill and look around. I know this is the way it will stay now. There’s no threat. If I die tomorrow, there’s no threat that it will be sold and developed.”

Agriculture Magazine, Summer, 2022 - Page 11

Yoder worked with Bitter Root Land Trust’s Kyle Barber to put together a conservation easement that would preserve the land for development forever. “Jake cares a lot about the land,” Barber said. “He has a really great land ethic. He’s on the cutting edge of holistic farming and uses a lot of highintensity grazing that relieves the need for fertilizers and herbicides.” The conservation easement helped Yoder double his ownership and then conserve every inch of it, Barber said. When a landowner places a conservation easement on their property, they give up their right to develop anything more than what’s specified in the easement. Some of the value they chose to give up is returned in part through federal, state and county funds, including the county’s Open Lands Fund. Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs said some landowners, like the Yoders, use some of those proceeds to purchase additional

Perry Backus Photo

Myron Yoder looks over the Black Angus herd his family raises on the 150 acres of land they recently preserved forever through a conservation easement.

land that allows them to expand their operations and retain an agricultural footprint on the landscape.

Yoder had three developers call him before the easement was completed. “They were like, ‘Mr. Yoder, we can

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help you do something with your property,” he said. “To me, that was a rude awakening. There is something about being respectful to your ground … There’s nothing wrong about a little cow manure and a little bit of green grass and being outside on your saddle horse.” “I knew if I didn’t do this today, it wouldn’t happen,” Yoder said. Barber remembers being skeptical when he first drove through all the development on his way to the Yoder property. “I wasn’t sure that an easement was the right fit there, but it clearly was,” Barber said. “The character of the ground, the agriculture, the wildlife and Jake’s motivations were all the right fit for it.” “It’s like this gem of open space in amongst a bunch of homes that are going to benefit forever for the agriculture and wildlife that use the place,”

Barber said. “It’s a cool little pocket that I would have never guessed was there in amongst all the development that’s happened there.” In most cases, the Bitter Root Land Trust works to piece together multiple properties in a corridor for preservation under conservation easements. That’s the case on both sides of the Yoder property, where numerous easements have preserved open space in the Burnt Fork to the south and a half dozen conservation easements protect both large and smaller properties to the north and east. A large herd of elk occasionally migrates down from the Sapphire Mountains and the Iron Cap Hills onto the Yoder place. Other wildlife also take advantage of the well-cared-for land. “It’s kind of like an island of open space and an important anchor of the Sapphire wildlife corridor,” Barber said. “The location of this property is why it’s

so important to preserve.” Jake and Fannie Yoder have three children. He can remember that his children were quiet when he first told them about what he planned to do. “What they looked at right away was the value that we were giving up,” Yoder said. “There’s no joke. We could have made millions off this property by developing it.” But Yoder believes that view is shortsighted. In the future, he thinks ranch land with water and room to roam a bit will gain value. There is only so much of it left. “To me, this was doing the opposite of what everyone else is doing,” he said, with a smile. “I’m following my father’s advice. I want to be different. I want this land to be there for my children. It’s kind of a dream come true kind of deal to be able to keep it that way.” AG

Perry Backus Photo

Working with the Bitter Root Land Trust, the Yoder family recently completed a conservation easement on their 150 acres 3.5 miles northeast of Stevensville on the Illinois Bench. “I want this land to be there for my children,” Yoder said. “It’s kind of a dream come true kind of deal to be able to keep it that way.”.

Agriculture Magazine, Summer, 2022 - Page 13

Perry Backus Photo

Through hard work and sacrifice, Frank Mogen earned enough to buy some land north of the Lone Rock School. In December, Mogen signed off on a conservation easement that will preserve forever 161 acres along the Three Mile from development.

Untouched: Bitterroot fence builder preserves land in Three Mile area Perry Backus Ravalli Republic

This article orignally appeared in the Ravalli Republic on Jan. 31, 2021 Frank Mogen is no stranger to hard work. He’ll proudly tell you that he owns what he believes is the oldest fencing company in Montana. His folks bought their first yellow pages listing in the Billings phone book back in the early 1960s. Many driving by the Fort Owen Ranch north of Stevensville over the past few months have likely marveled at the perfect oil field pipe fence he’s been building there over the past few months. Mogen’s parents settled in the Bitterroot Valley on a 20-acre parcel just north of the Lone Rock School in the mid-1960s. When they first arrived,

people were scattered far and wide. Mogen remembers there were three students in the school’s first grade. “For 10 or 15 years, we were known as the new people,” Mogen said. “Now every day new people are coming here.” It’s been nearly 20 years now since the day that Mogen learned that a small ranch near his folk’s place had gone into probate with the state. He was building fence at the nearby Wheelbarrow Ranch when it came up for sale. The former owner had died and didn’t have any heirs. She had shared her house with about 60 cats. At the time, the place was a bit of a mess. Mogen thinks that might have scared other potential buyers off. So he took a chance and bought the land. Not long after that, a neighbor who had been about to subdivide his

property offered the parcel to Mogen. On a handshake deal, he bought that land too. All the while, he just kept working and making the payments. With sweeping views of the Bitterroot Valley and its snowcapped mountains, Mogen initially thought the small ranch he purchased would be the perfect spot for million-dollar homes. But that was before his mother took her first walk up the portion of Threemile Creek that winds its way through the property. “My mom came over to take a look,” he said. “After she took one walk up along the creek, she fell in love with it. From that day, I knew this wasn’t going to be a money-making thing.” Twelve years ago, Mogen met with the Bitter Root Land Trust’s Steve

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Powell and Gavin Ricklefs to talk about the possibility of putting the land he had acquired under a conservation easement. At the time, Mogen was too far in debt and the banks weren’t willing to go along with the idea. And so he just kept working, making his payments and holding on to the land that meant so much to his family and him. After getting his debt restructured and learning that his neighbors — the Gates family — were putting their adjoining 160 acres under a conservation easement, Mogen decided the time was right. About three years ago, he started working with the Bitter Root Land Trust’s Kyle Barber to try again. In December, Mogen signed off on the easement that will preserve 161 acres along the Three Mile Road from development forever. “Three Mile is one of those areas in the valley that is seeing rapid development,” Barber said. “We don’t look to stand in the way of development, but when two landowners at the same time want to preserve 320 acres of prime farm ground, it’s a no-brainer for us.” “Frank’s place is special,” Barber said. “It’s in that area that’s kind of a buffer between where the development is occurring and where the landscape starts to open up as it gets closer to the mountains.” Mogen was committed to preserving that place for future generations, Barber said. “We can all see that the Bitterroot is changing quite a bit,” Barber said. “It’s landowners like Frank that give me a lot of hope for the future of the valley. He has worked himself to the bone to pay for this place.” Sharon Schroeder serves on the county open lands board that recommends projects for funding the county’s open land bond. She and her husband were among the first to place a conservation easement on their ranch in the Burnt Fork area east of Stevensville. “It’s not an easy decision,” Schroeder said. “It doesn’t work for every landowner…It takes a lot of soul searching.

You end up asking yourself ‘am I doing the right thing’ over and over again.” Conservation easements offer landowners an alternative to selling their land for subdivision. In return for agreeing to preserve the land from development, landowners receive cash and tax benefits to offset what they’ve given up by selling to the highest bidder. Standing on the hilltop with stunning 360-degree views at Mogen’s ranch, Schroeder said this place is a jewel. “This is just what the voters wanted to keep when they passed the open lands bond,” Schroeder said. “It’s a beautiful expanse of land that’s valuable for agriculture. The land will be preserved and the waters protected.” Robert Jackson has been leasing the land to hay and pasture for his cattle since before Mogen owned the property. He recently leased the Gates’ ranch next door. Having access to both places help ensure that he can keep his ranching operation going. “With the amount of subdivision that’s occurring, it’s getting tougher to find places to run your cows and put up hay,” Jackson said. “It’s nice to know that this won’t ever be subdivided.” Ranchers and farmers are often landrich and cash-poor. Schroeder said the land is often their retirement fund. The Bitter Root Land Trust has been successful in leveraging the funding in the county’s open lands fund to acquire other federal, state and private funding to help pay landowners for giving up their rights to develop the land. At this point, Schroeder said there has been a four-to-one match, which has resulted in more money coming into the county to preserve working farms and ranches, preserve wildlife habitat and acquire recreational parcels like the recent W.W. White Memorial Fishing Access Site near Connor and Hamilton’s Skalkaho Bend Park. “If we didn’t have the open lands bond program, we would all be looking at a far different landscape,” Schroeder said.

Ricklefs said places like Mogen’s are becoming hard to find. “There aren’t many places like this left in the valley,” Ricklefs said. “With all the development pressure we’re seeing here in the valley right now, it’s important that we do what we can to preserve these special places that make this valley what it is.” Mogen doesn’t have any second thoughts. “It makes me feel great,” Mogen said. “It wouldn’t give me satisfaction if this had been developed with million-dollar homes and turned into a city. This creek and the cottonwoods are important to wildlife. And now they are always going to be there.” “I was lucky,” Mogen said. “I’ve always had all the work that I needed to make the payments, even during the recession. Sometimes it meant that I had to travel to places like Park City, but I always had the work.” Mogen knows that this place could have made him rich, but that wouldn’t buy him happiness. “The previous owners — the Kolhaze family — farmed and raised animals on the property,” Mogen wrote in a letter to the land trust. “The decision to conserve this property is an opportunity to continue their legacy, and I believe they’d be happy with my decision.” “I now realize that my ownership of this land is not about maximizing my return on investment, but rather an opportunity to maintain what is special about this country,” he wrote. “I feel a spiritual connection with all the animals, domestic and natural, and the decision to conserve this land is an opportunity to do right by them. For the rest of time, I want this property to be open space left untouched for wildlife and productive agriculture.” Standing there on that hilltop on a recent morning, Mogen smiles as he keeps a tight hold on his new German shepherd pup. “I think I could have been worth millions in a heartbeat,” he said. “But I don’t think I would have been any happier than I am now.” AG

Agriculture Magazine, Summer, 2022 - Page 15

Perry Backus Photo

Four generations of the Gates family have lived on farmland just west of the Lone Rock School. Three generations gathered at the family home earlier this week to share memories and talk about the importance of a conservation easement that will preserve the working farmland forever. Sam Gates was joined by his daughter, Elizabeth, and 4-month-old granddaughter, Evelyn.

Celebrating four generations: Gates family preserves family farm forever Perry Backus Ravalli Republic

This article orignally appeared in the Ravalli Republic on Feb 2, 2020. It would be hard to imagine that Sam Gates could be much happier as he sat at the head of the kitchen table in the home where his family has gathered for generations. Just before Christmas, Gates and his siblings signed off on a conservation easement that will keep the family farm intact forever. With his 4-month-old granddaughter in one arm and his daughter at his side, Gates shared the stories about this place his family has called home since 1955. Light spilled in from the large picture window that looked out on the 160 acres that has raised all sorts of critters and crops — not to mention a pair of young brothers who grew up in a time when you could count all the houses

between Lone Rock and Stevensville on the fingers of both hands. “My brother and I chased each other all over these 160 acres,” Gates said. “I think that’s why we were really good at track. … We were renegades, just running wherever we wanted up and down the creek. We had so much freedom.” As his daughter, Elizabeth, listened to the stories that she’s certainly heard before, Gates remembered a life well lived as part of a family where the value of work was learned early and making ends meet was sometimes a daily challenge. If there were hard times, that’s not what Gates seemed to remember. He’d rather talk about the good memories that included stopping at the Stevensville Creamery and eating handfuls of warm cheese curds. And there were all those the forts that he and his siblings built along Threemile Creek. He smiled as he talks about their visits to

his grandparents who lived nearby just off Ambrose Creek. “My dad always had horses here,” Gates said. “He loved horses. When people couldn’t pay their bills, all of a sudden we would have a new horse or two. There were always animals around here.” Gates and his siblings built the addition to the family home for their parents. A china cabinet that Gates made in high school still graces one wall in the dining room. “There are just so many memories wrapped up in this place,” he said. “All of these things that have tied us together as a family are right here in this place that we grew up.” The 160 acres of prime farmland that comprise the easement are located just west of the Lone Rock School. The family home is down at the end of the dirt track called Gates Lane that runs along the edge of the school’s base-

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ball diamonds. There’s an old building back behind the house the Gates family used a barn that some say was the original school. Just beside that, there’s an even older building that Gates believes was used as a stage stop. His parents, Joseph and Lois, picked up and moved their family from the Hamilton Heights area to the new farm that had good water rights and rich soil. Over the years, they raised beets, corn and eventually alfalfa. For a time, they had a few dairy cows, but pigs brought in most of the cash flow. While Joseph Gates’ primary business was moving houses, it was the farm that he brought him joy. “This is what he wanted to do,” Gates said. “This is where he wanted to be.” Elizabeth Gates lives in the family home now. She and her partner and their baby are creating their own memories with some goats, chickens and a few geese that she’s not quite sure about yet. The bulk of the land is leased to a rancher who raises hay and grazes cattle there.

“I definitely didn’t want to see this place broken up,” Elizabeth Gates said. “I never would have been able to come back here again if that had happened.” A lot of her young memories are wrapped up in this place where she had the opportunity to spend wonderfully long days with her grandmother. The Bitter Root Land Trust helped the Gates family develop their conservation easement that included funding from Ravalli County’s Open Lands bond program. “All of us here at the Land Trust are so honored to have had the opportunity to work with Sam and the entire Gates family to conserve their farm,” said Bitter Root Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs. “The Gates family’s deep connection to this land is evident whenever they talk about their lives growing up here along Three Mile Creek, and we’re happy to be able to provide this tool that gives local landowners like the Gates an option for ensuring their family lands are part of the valley’s agricultural future.”

Conservation easements — which allow families to set aside development rights in perpetuity in exchange for tax breaks and payments — aren’t new to the upper Three Mile area. Three different property owners in the upper reaches of the valley have conserved more than 7,000 acres of land. “Conservation easements work in Ravalli County because they are a voluntary, landowner-driven tool to safeguard our agricultural heritage and economy,” Ricklefs said. “Landowners like the Gates are leaving legacies, not just for their families, but for all future generations of the valley and we owe them our gratitude.” Gates’ siblings are James Gates, Terri Anderson and Christina Bauman. “Right from the very first time that we started talking about it, everyone was board,” Gates said. “I think my dad is smiling down at us right now and I think mom would be too now that we’ve completed the process. … It’s a wonderful thing when you know that you can always go home.” AG

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Agriculture Magazine, Summer, 2022 - Page 17

Perry Backus Photo

Close to 220 acres of the Paddock Ranch located north of Darby near the intersection of the Old Darby and Lake Como roads was preserved through a conservation easement through Ravalli County’s Open Lands Program.

Wild saved: Longtime Bitterroot Valley landowner conserves family ranch Perry Backus Ravalli Republic

This article orignally appeared in the Ravalli Republic on Jan 17, 2020. Anna Mae Paddock smiles as she sat at her kitchen table and thought about all the wildlife she saw last summer while irrigating her family ranch just below Lake Como. “There is a meadowlark out there that kind of scolds me when I go up the hill. They seem to like it best more or less away from the people. “And once in a while, there’s a blue jay. You don’t see them much. They like the pine trees. “But the one I’m most interested in is that kestrel. I just thought it was a small hawk. He’s kind of a pretty little thing. He mainly stays here in the head of this

draw and really doesn’t go off that way. And, of course, there’s the owl and the redtail. “And the turkeys. I don’t know where they go. They seem to be quite the travelers. Sometimes they come through here and then they disappear. One time this summer, there was a hen with her four little ones when the grasshoppers were bad. They were just picking them off.” She’s happy this day to know that it will always be that way. Paddock, who grew up in a small ranching family in the Bitterroot Valley, knows all about the challenges that come with keeping the land in agriculture. Her ancestors arrived in the Bitterroot Valley in a covered wagon in

1900. Sometime back in the late 1930s, her great-uncle, Fred Shawver, bought the Elderkin place that many nowadays recognize for its beautiful old barn just off the Old Darby Road below Como Peaks. It was the place that she would come to call home. “Just the first five years of my life were spent in Stevensville,” Paddock said on a recent afternoon. “All of the rest, I’ve been here.” She’s no stranger to hard work. Her family ran a dairy for a time, where they made good use of the barn that was built in about 1915 for George Elderkin — a Midwestern man who had purchased the original homestead in 1910. Work on the barn came to standstill

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during World War I when most of the workers went off to war. The barn never did get completely finished. A whole section of the ceiling has cross bracing that was never nailed into place. And Elderkin never used it. His family eventually lost the place for back taxes. Paddock understands how that could happen. Starting in the 1970s, her family began to sell off pieces of their ranch to pay off bank loans. Two sections of rangeland east of the Bitterroot were the first to go. Other parcels were sold in the 1980s and 1990s, but the family found a way to keep 244 acres of bench-top grasslands, forested Perry Backus Photo hillsides of park-like Ponderosa Anna Mae Paddock stands before the barn on her property. forest that was their home place. The heart of the family’s ranchgetting to know each other,” Barber said. nity for stepping up to create the open ing operations had raised both “One of the cool pieces of this property is lands program that allows us to ensure dairy and beef cows, as well as a small the wildlife that moves through this place. that this valley that we all love so much band of sheep that Paddock started back This is pretty much the narrowest stretch will be passed down for the next generawhen she was a member of 4-H. Today a of the valley here.” tion to enjoy,” he said. neighbor leases it to graze his cattle. Her place sits right in the middle of In a letter to the Bitter Root Land The land also serves as one of the three other properties that have already Trust, Paddock wrote: “I would like Bitterroot Valley’s most critical wildlife been protected by conservation easeto put the property into conservation corridors between the Bitterroot and ments. because I would like the remaining propSapphire mountain ranges. “It’s like a funnel that comes down for erty to remain undeveloped. The view of The idea that someday the property wildlife,” Barber said. the Como Peaks is breathtaking. It is so could end up as another subdivision was One of the main focuses of the Ravalli quiet and serene. I would like the propsomething that Paddock could hardly County Open Land Program is to preerty to remain the same as it is today, to bear. serve working agricultural lands and probe used for livestock grazing and crops. On Jan. 3, that worry ended forever tect wildlife habitat. There is an abundance of wildlife on the when the property went under a conserBarber said the Paddock Ranch repreproperty.” vation easement as Ravalli County’s first sents the perfect balance. When asked what her parents would Open Lands project of the year. The easeBitter Root Land Trust executive have thought of preserving the home ment ensures the property will never be director Gavin Ricklefs said the Paddock place, Paddock wasn’t sure quite how to developed. Ranch easement was the first Open Lands answer. Both her mother and father had It wasn’t a decision that Paddock made project to approved worked so hard all their lives, she didn’t for 2020. lightly. think they could quite imagine it. “It’s exciting for us to be able to work Bitter Root Land Trust’s founder Steve But she did know for sure that her Powell first brought up the idea years ago. with longtime landowners like Anna Mae father loved that place. He was from who have spent so much time being good After Paddock sold the last parcel and got eastern Montana and was a man of few stewards to their land,” Ricklefs said. “The the bank paid off, she began to think seriwords. bond is here to provide landowners with ously about that option. She spent a few One day, “just out of the blue sky,” he an option to ensure that their lands remain years peppering Bitter Root Land Trust’s told his daughter that he wanted his ashes intact to preserve that legacy of some of Kyle Barber with questions before finally scattered up there on the hill. And he the most important places in the valley for deciding that she wanted to make that agriculture, wildlife, and open space. told her to plant a tree in that spot. move. “My father’s ashes are up there now,” “We are just so appreciative of land“We spent a good two or three years she said. AG owners like Anna Mae and the commu-

Agriculture Magazine, Summer, 2022 - Page 19

Perry Backus Photo

The 1911-vintage tractor that rests on top a ridge just west of the Calf Creek Wildlife Management Area is on the 467 acres preserved as open space by a conservation easement completed recently by the Brien and Gayle Weber family.

Saving history: Conservation easement preserves family farm Perry Backus Ravalli Republic

This article orignally appeared in the Ravalli Republic on Mar. 12, 2017. It’s not often that the complexities behind the myriad of decisions that go into that unique marriage between public and private entities needed to create a conservation easement become so crystal clear. For a moment last week, that clarity happened through the narrow view offered via a spotting scope set up in Brien and Gayle Weber’s kitchen. Once your eye found that perfect spot behind the tripod-mounted scope, the very first thing that popped into view was a rusted 1911-vintage tractor perched a top a nearby ridge. Brien Weber’s grandfather, James,

must have been proud when he purchased the first gas-powered tractor in the Bitterroot Valley. That piece of history so visible for anyone who cares to look is a steady reminder of the Webers’ centurylong connection to this piece of land just west of the Calf Creek Wildlife Management Area. But there’s more there to be seen. As the eye tracks back just beyond the rust-colored tractor, the large elk herd bedded down in the sagebrushcovered hillside pops into view. Most of the winter range for elk and deer in the Bitterroot Valley is found on private lands along the edges of the surrounding mountainsides. Much of that has become fragmented as those traditional family farms were sold and

subdivided. “The elk come through here on a regular basis,” Gayle Weber said. “They spent some time this winter out on top of the manure pile just up behind the house. They’ve been around quite a bit over the last month.” That’s something that will never have to change. Recently, the Webers signed the remaining papers that put their 467 acres of land at the end of Hamilton Heights Road southeast of Corvallis into a conservation easement that will forever preserve the family farm as open space. The idea of putting the land adjacent to the wildlife management area had actually been broached back in the 1980s when Weber’s father, Milt, was still alive.

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Weber remembers his father thought the idea was crazy. Back then no one knew a whole lot about conservation easements, and for many landrich, cash-poor family farmers, the idea of giving up development rights wasn’t prudent. Over the past decade, the Webers watched many of their friends and fellow family farmers take that step to protect their heritage that had been handed down through generations. “We saw that it had worked for them,” Brien Weber said. “We started thinking about preserving this land that had been in our family for so long.” The couple had been talking about the idea for the last couple of years with the Bitter Root Land Trust, but the process went into overdrive last fall when they received notice that a project slated for U.S. Farm Bill funding Perry Backus Photo in eastern Montana had fallen Gayle and Brien Weber recently placed a conservation easement on their 467-acre farm through. just west of Calf Creek Wildlife Management Area. The land has been owned by the Weber With that funding suddenly family for more than 100 years. available, the Webers decided the time was right. populations.” “This is one of the most highly An appraisal of the conservation easeThe Weber Ranch has been and will leveraged Open Lands Bond projment value of their land adjacent to the continue to be part of the Montana Fish, ects,” Ricklefs said. “The Open Lands popular wildlife management area was Program paid less than 20 percent of the Wildlife and Parks’ block management $1.04 million. program, which provides public hunting total appraised easement value, while That value is what the Weber’s would the Farm Bill conservation program paid access to local hunters. give up by agreeing never to subdivide The Webers both agree that going over 50 percent.” the property. Beyond that, Ricklefs said the Webers the process can be an emotional roller The Ravalli County Commission coaster. generously donated nearly one-third of agreed to contribute $200,000 from the the appraised value of the conservation “On the day that we closed, we knew county’s open lands bond program. The easement. that was right for us,” Brien Weber said. Farm Bill’s Agriculture Land Easement “Sometimes I think people think that Ricklefs said the land trust also program contributed $525,000. you do this for the money, but that’s received generous support from the In return, the Webers donated really the last reason that anyone takes Ravalli County Fish and Wildlife $315,000 of the easement value. this step. Association to help make conservation Bitter Root Land Trust Executive “I think that people who say that possible on critical winter range properDirecter Gavin Ricklefs said the Weber probably don’t own land that’s been ties like the Weber Ranch. easement is a perfect example in how the in their family for generations,” he “RCFWA recognizes how much of community’s investment in open land said. “You could sell this land for far our elk and winter range is located on works to protect wildlife habitat and the private land here in the valley, and the more, but once it’s gone, it’s gone valley’s farming and ranching heritage. forever. Land Trust is extremely appreciative of The county’s Open Lands Bond “All my memories are here,” Brien their investment in projects like this funding provided the catalyst for securWeber said. “It’s nice to know that this that help private landowners keep that ing the Farm Bill funds, which helps place will stay the same forever.” AG winter range intact for healthy wildlife stretch that local funding even further.

Perry Backus Photo

Hattie Farrell took advantage of money from a conservation easement to sell her family’s ranch at a reduced cost to Dan Kerslake and his girlfriend, Sari Sundblom. Keeping the land in agricultural use was important to Farrell and the easement allowed her to do just that.

Passing the torch: Conservation easement helps transfer ag land to a new generation Perry Backus Ravalli Republic

This article orignally appeared in the Ravalli Republic on April 18, 2016. No one knows for certain when this house just off the Burnt Fork Road was built. The early 1900s seems like anyone’s best guess. Hattie Farrell will tell you the nails were square when she and her husband, George, tore into its walls for a remodeling project decades ago. It was already old, but still solid, when the couple moved their three children into it back in 1963. They had fallen in love with Montana and George was ready to try his hand at being a dairyman. For decades they toiled on the land

they grew to love. “My kids knew how to work when they left here,” Farrell says as she relaxes in the kitchen she knows so well. Leaning up against the sink, Dan Kerslake smiles as he listens to Farrell talk about the past and all the hard work that comes with a life lived close to the land. A quick look at him is all it takes to know he understands exactly what she’s talking about. His Levis are covered with dirt, his boots are well worn, and the baseball hat covering his head is bleached from the sun. At the other end of the kitchen table, Kerslake’s girlfriend and partner, Sari Sundblom, sits still dressed in her nurse’s uniform. “Did you see the geese on the pond?”

Sundblom asks. “There has always been two pair that comes to that pond in the spring,” Farrell replies with smile. “I looked forward to seeing them.” “One day last week there were five tom turkeys just outside there,” Sundblom says as she smiles back at Farrell. “And there were geese out there on the field. It was something.” For a time, they just share: Dreams of what’s to come and memories of what’s gone by. “There’s a wonderful lily out there if you just can keep the deer off it,” Farrell says. “The daffodils are sure doing well,” Sundblom replies. Last March, something unusual

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happened here on these 93 acres straight east of Stevensville. A young couple’s dreams of a future living on the land came true entirely because of a woman’s desire to keep her family’s farm intact and working. Kerslake grew up working on a large cattle ranch in Oregon. Years ago, he decided he wanted to make a go of it himself and so he picked up and moved to the Bitterroot Valley. He found work doing whatever it was that would pay the bills. And he started his own herd of cattle. The young rancher leased whatever land he could find to graze his herd and grow hay to feed them in the winter and help meet expenses. And that herd slowly grew. Somewhere along the way, he met a kindred spirit in a nurse named Sari. With her working right alongside, they continued to move the irrigation pipes, care for the cows and harvest the crops. All along, Kerslake knew that without a base property he wouldn’t be able to last forever here in the Bitterroot. He faced the challenge that all young farmers and ranchers looking to get a start do. Land prices in the Bitterroot weren’t based on what they would produce in beef or hay. “I really thought I might have to move somewhere else to make it work,” he said. But then their path crossed Hattie Farrell’s.

As a young girl, she had grown up a rancher’s daughter on a place that was close to her heart. When her folks passed, the ranch ended up getting subdivided. “They split it up into 40 acre lots,” Farrell remembered. “It was heartbreaking. Once it’s gone, you’ll never get it back.” Kerslake had leased Farrell’s ground for a time. After awhile, they started to talk about the future of the place. “I thought it would be so wonderful to be able to turn it over to these nice kids,” she said. It took a bit of creativity to make that happen. They met with folks from the Bitter Root Land Trust and learned that by putting the place in a conservation easement, Farrell could get a cash payment for a portion of the development rights that would go away forever. In turn, that would allow her to sell the land to Kerslake and Sundblom at a reduced cost. It took a local banker, Ross Rademacher of Farmers State Bank, to believe in them enough to come up with a loan package that would make it happen. “Having a local banker was really important,” Kerslake said. “He knew how important a strong agricultural community is to this valley.” “And he knew us,” Sundblom said. “Maybe the numbers didn’t match, but he knew these two kids would make it work.” This was the first time that the Bitter

Root Land Trust had found itself helping to transition one generation of families to the next. The trust’s executive director, Gavin Ricklefs, hopes that it’s just the beginning. In 2012, the average age of an agricultural producer in the United States was 58. Here in the Bitterroot, the average age was 61. “There is a huge amount of transition coming in ownership of agricultural lands,” Ricklefs said. “In the next 20 years, it’s estimated that 25 percent of all ag operators will retire on a national level. About 70 percent of ag lands will change hands.” The big question is who will take over that ownership and what will they do with that land. Farrell doesn’t have to worry that her farm will end up like her parents’. Around that kitchen table, she listens as the young couple shares their plans to plant new trees, fix up the house and grow their herd of cattle. She smiles when Sundblom talks about changing irrigation pipe on a moonlit night with only the light of headlamp to guide her way. “The moon is out. It’s incredibly quiet and peaceful,” Sundblom says. “I keep asking myself – ‘who gets to see this?’ ” Farrell looks over at Kerslake and nods. “Whatever you do, don’t you lose that girl,” she says. AG


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