With the blessing of the Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission, two conservation easements in the upper Clark Fork River Basin will soon be a reality.
On Wednesday, commissioners gave final approval to FWP’s role in a conservation easement north of Philipsburg and an initial endorsement for an easement near Garrison.
Missoula-based Five Valleys Land Trust is shepherding both easements through the approval process, but needs several partners to finalize the projects.
That’s especially the case with the Graveley Ranch easement just north of Garrison, a tricky combination of easements and land purchases that the family tried to assemble almost a decade ago. When the property to the east of the Graveley Ranch came up for sale back then, the family asked FVLT for help in purchasing the 3,110 acres.
But things didn’t work out, and Connecticut-based NCP Bayou II bought the land.
“Eight years ago, the Graveleys thought, ‘You know, something will come up again, it’s okay.’ And it sure did,” said Sarah Richey, Five Valleys Land Trust conservation project manager.
Last year, NCP Bayou II put the land up for sale, and this time the Graveleys and FVLT were ready. They got The Conservation Fund to agree to buy and hold the land until the other pieces fell into place for the Graveley family.
“The Conservation Fund is kind of serving as a bridge owner. They’re under contract to buy the land now, while we work through the funding process and crafting the conservation easement, and all this stuff that takes so much time,” Richey said. “Their ability to secure it early on was key. They’ve been a really valuable partner.”
The next step is for the Graveleys to sell a $2.3 million conservation easement on their ranch of almost 5,200 acres and use money to buy the NCP Bayou II property after The Conservation Fund places an easement on it. Richey said it could all be done by summer.
“This one’s moving quickly for a conservation easement,” Richey said. “It’s all going to happen simultaneously. We do all the background work ahead of time and then orchestrate this big magical simultaneous closing.”
Both easements will be bought mostly with money from the Montana Department of Justice Natural Resource Damage Program.
Because the Clark Fork River and its tributaries were polluted by mine waste from Butte and Anaconda, the NRD program supports the restoration and preservation of areas along the waterways. Warm Springs Creek and Brock Creek both flow through the Graveley Ranch just before they join the Clark Fork River.
Five Valleys has applied for $3.46 million from the NRDP, but there’s one catch: The ranch must allow some sort of public access. That’s where Fish, Wildlife & Parks comes in.
If the commission gives final approval in a few months, FWP will oversee hunter access on the Graveley Ranch by enrolling it permanently in the Block Management Program. Under the program, landowners open their property to public hunters, who have to sign in and sometimes get prior permission before using the ground.
“The Graveleys have offered public hunting for 22 years, so they’re comfortable with it. What this does is secures that so it is permanent,” Richey said.
Another bonus for hunters is the conservation easement will provide access to three sections of previously isolated state land and one section of Bureau of Land Management property.
The other conservation easement that gained final approval this week from the FWP Commission is on the Buxbaum-Boulder Ranch just north of Maxwell along Flint Creek.
First proposed in 2016, the $1 million Buxbaum easement of almost 1,200 acres has required a more lengthy process due to funding.
This time, Five Valleys applied for $200,000 from the NRDP, so again, FWP was needed to meet the public access requirement of the fund. The commission endorsed the easement in April 2018 before sending it out to public comment.
The land trust also got $537,000 from the Natural Resource Conservation Service Agricultural Land Easement Program and the landowners will contribute the rest of the easement value.
On Wednesday, FWP Commission chair Dan Vermillion heaped praise on the conservation easements and all the partners who made them happen.
“It may not appear to folks right now that this is really important. But I can guarantee that in 100 years, people will be thanking you for getting this done,” Vermillion said.
Richey said it can be challenging having to coordinate so many moving parts, but it’s rewarding knowing large pieces of Montana will remain undeveloped to provide wildlife habitat and recreational opportunities.
“This was (the result of) generous landowners with a good vision, and then lots of good partners, kind of everyone pitching in to make it happen,” Richey said.
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.