Missoula Valley ag property moves closer to conservation easement

Klara Isbell, left, and sister Eva kick back on their family’s 75-acre ranch in the Missoula Valley. As urbanization threatens to crowd out agriculture, the family and Five Valleys Land Trust are working to protect the ranch and its prime soils through a conservation easement. (Photo by Cathrine L. Walters)

By Martin Kidston

A small working ranch in the western reaches of the Missoula Valley on Wednesday moved one step closer to protection under a conservation easement, one that will withdraw the 75-acre parcel from future development.

The Parks and Conservation Committee agreed to set a joint meeting between the City Council and Missoula County commissioners to consider spending a combined $150,000 from the 2006 Open Space Bond.

The funding would be evenly split between the two governments.

“Historically, larger tracts of agricultural land closer to the urban area have been developed over the past decades,” said Elizabeth Erickson, the city’s open space program manager. “This is a relatively unique opportunity to help conserve a tract of agriculture land.”

The property, dubbed the Isbell Conservation Easement, lies within the city’s open space planning region, though its distance from the city caused some concern among members of the City Council, as did the easement’s lack of public access.

Ward 3 council member Emily Bentley believes the county should do more to preserve agricultural land through its new subdivision regulations. As it stands, she said, the county is relying upon taxpayer dollars to carry out community conservation needs.

“Taxpayers are paying to preserve this space for private use only, where nobody else can access it,” said Bentley. “I do think we need to do more toward regulatory policy. I don’t think taxpayers should have to pay for something that can be regulated by the county.”

Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins also expressed concern about the city’s dwindling pool of open space money. While he supported the easement, he believes future spending should focus on properties closer to the city, and those with public access.

However, Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler said the 2006 Open Space bond included ballot language that specified efforts to conserve farms and ranches. The 75-acre property lies within the city’s open space planning region, which encompasses an area larger than the city, she said.

Marler added that food scarcity and climate change are a growing concern among Missoula residents, and the preservation of agricultural land helps address both fronts.

“This most recent bond, there’s explicit language saying it’s supposed to be used for conservation easements on ag properties,” Marler said. “I don’t feel these recent purchases represent a change in course for what was discussed with these bonds. Local agriculture is important to people who live here.”

Less than a year ago, Missoula County commissioners had approved the 75-acre plot for a 16-lot subdivision dubbed Blue Heron Estates. The property was platted and ready to go when Brad Isbell purchased the land, where he plans to grow grasses and legumes to feed his sheep and meat goats.

The ranch sits below the upper clay benches of the Missoula Valley within view of the Clark Fork River. Down amid the wetlands and cottonwood stands, the soil is rich and productive. It also includes a riparian area designated by the Audubon Society as an Important Bird Area.

“They designated this area because of its importance to bird conservation, not only locally and regionally, but also continentally,” said Sarah Richey, conservation projects manager with the Five Valleys Land Trust. “This area is really important for birds that stay and for migratory birds that come all the way from South America. They really key into the greater Clark Fork riparian area.”

The easement is valued at $716,100 when transaction costs are added. However, Isbell donated $535,000 to the easement and made a cash contribution of $21,900.

The city and county are each being asked to pay $75,000 from their portion of the open space bond.

“Ag land contributes significantly to the city’s open space system,” said Erickson. “It provides open-space vistas, contributes to the local food system, provides wildlife habitat and other ecosystem services.

The joint hearing is set for November 16 at 1:30 p.m.