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Sunny Slope Grazing Association land now under a conservation easement. "The Nature Conservancy is playing the role of the banker, Five Valleys Land Trust is playing the role of the easement holder," Jim Berkey said. Photos courtesy of the Five Valleys Land Trust.

Easement Protects 7,500 Acres in Blackfoot Valley

A 7,500-acre expanse of land in the Blackfoot Valley, holding working agricultural lands, wildlife habitat and tributaries crucial to spawning cutthroat and bull trout, has been protected for perpetuity with a conservation easement.

This week, the Sunny Slope Grazing Association finalized plans to sell the easement on 4,682 acres of its grazing land, allowing it to buy an adjacent 2,888 acres The Nature Conservancy had purchased from Plum Creek Timber Co., also put under an easement.

The land is in the foothills southwest of Lincoln abutting the Helena National Forest, and the easement, held by Missoula-based Five Valleys Land Trust, will limit development on three and a half miles of Blackfoot River frontage and more than fourteen miles of its tributaries. It’s Five Valleys Land Trust’s largest easement to date.

“This is an important part of (the Blackfoot Community Project) that will end up protecting more than 100,000 acres in the upper Blackfoot Valley from development,” said Pelah Hoyt, the Land Trust’s project manager.

 
  Stew Schwartz of the Sunny Side Grazing Association. The Association used to consist of several families, but today it’s only the Schwartz and Thompson families.

The Blackfoot Community Project, part of the collaborative Blackfoot Challenge, is a land acquisition effort through which The Nature Conservancy has purchased 89,000 acres of Plum Creek land, land being resold to conservation-minded entities in the public and private sectors.

“We all realize that ranchers and timber producers can be great allies in conservation, that they value the same things we do,” Hoyt said. “And it makes a lot of financial sense, too: It’s a lot cheaper for counties for land to be in agriculture or timber production instead of subdivisions.”

That conversion of timberlands to subdivisions is a hot-button issue around western Montana, where Plum Creek, the country’s largest private landowner, owns more than 1.2 million acres of timberlands often in checkerboard chunks intermingled with other private and public land. Those acres are proving to be more valuable as real estate — especially in natural amenity-rich areas like the Blackfoot Valley — as the company’s timber business deteriorates in the face of decreasing lumber demand.

Stew Schwartz of the Sunny Side Grazing Association (who was not immediately available for comment) said in a statement:

 
  The 7,500 acres is in the foothills southwest of Lincoln.

“If the Plum Creek land was subdivided, it would have put a lot more people and houses in the middle of our cows and that doesn’t make running cows any easier.”

“With residential subdivisions and all the pressure that brings, it makes it that much harder to achieve all of our goals,” said Jim Berkey, the project manager for the Conservancy.

But Sunny Side, being a patient and committed partner throughout the process, made it easier, Berkey said. “We feel strongly about them as owners of that place, with or without an easement.”

The conservation easement was made possible by a $4.5 million Habitat Conservation Program grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The money was available largely because of the Blackfoot Valley’s national importance, Berkey said. “It has a list of superlatives that goes on and on” — in tact are the original array of large mammals including grizzly bears and wolves, spawning areas for the threatened bull trout, its proximity to wilderness areas and working ranches.

“There aren’t a whole lot of areas in western Montana you can say that about,” Berkey said.

Also working in partnership to make the easement possible were the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Big Blackfoot Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

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2 comments

  1. Great news! It’s a relief to see more working lands in western Montana protected. It’s wonderful to see folks coming together to make something good happen. Cooperation is the key. Good work!

  2. Yes,great news!