A prized sliver of land on the fringe of Missoula moved one step closer to protection this week after the City Council's Conservation Committee voted to spend $175,000 from the 2006 Open Space Bond to place the property under a conservation easement.

Owned by the Oxbow Cattle Co., the 168-acre parcel claims prime agricultural soils and abundant wildlife while providing open grazing to the company's herd of all-natural, grass-fed cattle.

“Our priorities are, one, to take care of the land and two, to take care of the animals, and if we do those two things, the rest will be taken care of,” said Bart Morris, who owns the land and the company with his wife, Wendy. “It will treat the consumer right, it'll treat our neighbors right, and it'll treat the community right. We believe in that wholeheartedly.”

Located near the bottom reaches of Lower Miller Creek and a bend in the Bitterroot River, the property is caught on the front wave of the city's slow creep south. Subdivisions have already appeared on the crest of a nearby hill, placing the ranch in the path of development.

That, according to several members of the City Council, was reason enough to approve the easement, which effectively removes the property from future development and keeps the land in production.

“When you look at Miller Creek and all the development that's going in there, at some time in the future, people are going to really thank us,” said Ward 4 council member Jon Wilkins. “The city is going to be right up to the border of this place, but it's going to be open. They'll look out and see the elk, the deer and the wildlife.”

Vicki Edwards, the conservation project manager with Five Valleys Land Trust, said the Natural Resources and Conservation Service has classified 92 percent of the property's soils as important for agriculture and 104 acres as prime farmland if irrigated.

The rich production provides Oxbow with prime grazing opportunities in an increasingly urban environment. The hormone-free beef that's produced on the property is marketed within the Missoula area, including local grocery stores and restaurants like Scotty's Table and the Buttercup Market and Cafe.

“It's one of our local, all-natural, grass-finished cattle companies here in Missoula that provides beef to our community members and beyond,” said Edwards. “But it's not just about providing beef for our community, it's also about the ecological integrity of the landscape they manage their cows on.”

The total purchase price stands at roughly $373,000, a figure that includes both the easement and all transaction costs. Funding from the open space bond covers 50 percent of the transaction while the NRCS contributed $165,000 to the project.

Given the change in leadership in Washington, D.C., future funding from NRCS could be harder to come by, making tomorrow's easements challenging when matching funds are required.

“Next year, we do anticipate approximately a 50 percent cut to the program, which would really negatively affect a lot of conservation project in the state of Montana,” Edwards said. “These dollars are really critical in protecting important agricultural soils and being able to provide a match to other funding sources that are available.”

Under the agreement, the easement would not permit future residential development. It also includes a riparian buffer zone. As many as 18 plant and animal species on the property have been listed as species of concern while one is listed under special status.

“This is a total privilege to preserve this land in perpetuity,” said Morris. “This land and this little chunk of heaven, as we see it, will last beyond all of us. That's one of the biggest things we can do.”

The City Council will hold a public hearing in August.