Missoula County approves 122-acre Grass Valley conservation easement
(Missoula Current) More than 100 acres of agricultural land and bird habitat near Frenchtown will be managed as a conservation easement under a donation by the landowners and the approval of Open Space Bond funding.
Missoula County approved spending roughly $34,000 from the 2016 bond to help cover the $51,000 transaction costs. The property will remain undeveloped as a result of the easement and will support ongoing agricultural uses.
“This is a property with a historical tradition of agricultural use since the late 1800s,” said Ben Horan with the Five Valleys Land Trust. “It remains in ag production through lease agreements with the neighboring land owners.”
The new easement, dubbed the Jette Farm-Grass Valley project, covers 122 acres and currently supports crops of hey and alfalfa. The property sits off Mullan Road and is irrigated by the Frenchtown Irrigation Ditch.
While the availability of water supports farming, it also attracts wildlife. The property sits in the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area as identified by the Audubon Society. Horan added that the Montana Natural Heritage Program has identified 10 species of concern on the property.
“A 2023 bird survey identified 48 different bird species on the property,” said Horan. “In 2016, it was also identified as an Important Bird Area of Continental Importance due to the Lewis' woodpecker populations. This property in particular is high-quality habitat for short-eared owls, as well as seasonal riparian habitat along the irrigation canal.”
With the region's growing population, flat ground in the Missoula Valley and surrounding areas is in high demand. Supporters of the conservation easement noted the slow creep of growth that's beginning to surround the property, and the few other parcels that remain in agricultural use.
Protecting agricultural land, open space, scenic views and habitat must be present when expending funding from the Open Space Bond. After visiting the site, members of the county's Open Lands Citizens Advisory Committee recommended the conservation easement for approval.
“The conservation values are diverse,” said Horan. “Two-thirds of the property are listed as farmland of local importance, or prime crop land if irrigated. The conservation easement will help ensure the highest and best use of the property remains agriculture.”
The Jette family is donating the parcel as an easement, a move that won praise from county officials. Of the $51,000 transaction cost, only $34,000 will come from the 2016 bond.
“It's a tremendous act of generosity,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “What makes this special is the donated feature of it. This is very special.”
Horan added that the project came about quickly when compared to many conservation easements. Its donation helped expedite the process.
“We pursued or investigated, or had conversations with a number of landowners adjacent to this property in the Grass Valley area about conservation outcomes for their property,” Horan said. “The land owner in this case reached out to Five Valleys with a strong enthusiasm for making sure the property was conserved in perpetuity.”