By Martin Kidston

Charlie Deschamps stops his truck below a cottonwood stand and notes the historic home sitting on the grassland bench above. Built in the 1860s, it has seen better days, though to Deschamps and his wife, Nancy, it speaks to the history of their Missoula Valley ranch and the importance of keeping it intact as urban sprawl inches closer every year.

The Deschamps family on Monday led a coalition representing the city and county open lands committees on a tour of their 545-acre ranch. Amid hay fields, a seeping spring and the remnants of yesteryear's farming operations, committee members toyed with the possibilities of keeping this ranch intact for future generations.

“This property is unique in where it's situated,” said Mark Schiltz, the western manager of the Montana Land Reliance. “It's still an agricultural area. You look around here and you feel like you've gone back in time 40 or 50 years. The intent is to keep it that way. They don't want homes built on this property.”

The Deschamps family ranch received funding approval from the Natural Resources and Conservation Service and its Agricultural Conservation Easement Program. The funding will cover half of the easement proposed for the 545-acre property.

While the property has yet to be appraised, the other half of the funding would come from the city-county open space bond. Voters approved the bond in 2006 to preserve open space across the county, including the valley's dwindling number of ag operations.

“Charlie and Nancy are interested in signing a conservation easement on their property to protect it from subdivisions and development,” Schiltz said. “For the Missoula Valley, this is a really nice piece of ground. It's 545 acres. It's unusual to have that so close to town.”

While the promise of open space is tantalizing enough in a valley with limited space to accommodate unplanned growth, the Deschamps' property offers a rich wealth of wildlife, geology and history.

Charlie's grandfather, Gaspard Deschamps, first arrived in the Missoula Valley in 1867 and found success as a businessman. He opened the valley's first John Deere business, ran a butcher shop, sold hay and beef, and fathered a dozen children.

Raptors circle above the 1860s-era homestead still standing on the Deschamps family ranch in the Missoula Valley. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

“He was a good businessman and owned 6,000 acres with a lot of hired men,” said Charlie. “We always had tractors, but I was asking my uncle, since they had horses, how long they could work a horse. I always thought they worked them all day, but he said it was three to four hours. They had to take them back and bring out new horses.”

Charlie considers the historic house amid the cottonwood trees, saying it was built by the Latimer family in the 1860s. The family owned the ranch initially and saw some good years before the water ran dry and the crops failed.

The arid growing season prompted a push to run irrigation 12 miles from the Clark Fork River to the ranch. Farmers and ranchers with property along the route pitched in to build the irrigation ditch, providing both horses and labor.

Over its 12-mile run, the ditch dropped less than two feet in elevation, according to Charlie. It also led to a shakeup in land ownership, prompting the Latimer family to trade ranches with Gaspard Deschamps, who owned a ranch up Butler Creek.

“That was the first shingled house in the Montana Territory up there,” said Charlie. “It dates back to the 1860s. They put bricks between the studs and plastered it. The bricks were the insulation. My dad bought this from his father.”

Further down the road, Charlie stops the convoy of open-space committee members at a small pond fed by an artisan spring. The grassland has cured all around, though here it's tall and green. A bald eagle sweeps down from a snag and a blue heron takes light from the pond.

Most everything else remains hidden from sight, less the turkey vultures perched atop the distant fence posts. Jim Brown, an active member of Audubon Montana and the Five Valley's Land Trust, believes the fen provides a wealth of wildlife rare to the Missoula Valley.

“There's a rich resource of all different kinds of critters that live in these bottoms,” said Brown. “The amazing thing about this property is the number of niches here. It's an artisan spring – a true fen where there's water coming up out of the ground.”

While La Valle Creek runs dry before it reaches the pond, the spring rejuvenates the creek, which runs cold and fast from the Deschamps' property. Brown notes the native grasslands and brushy draws marking the uplands – areas filled with hawthorn, chokecherry and service berry.

They play a vital role in sustaining area wildlife (see related story).

“The grasslands and the pasture lands are important, because they support a really high vole population, but so do the wetlands,” Brown said. “This area is very popular with raptors, and one of the special things is the wintering raptors. We get the red tail hawk, rough legged hawk, bald eagle, golden eagle and northern harrier.”

Brown talks at length about the diversity of the bird species, including a number of rare or endanger birds. Schiltz also sees the fen's vital and unique role. It's geologically rare to the Missoula Valley, he said, and the water remains at a constant temperature.

In the summer it provides cool habitat on hot days. In the winter, it rarely freezes.

“They don't understand why it's here,” said Schiltz. “Glacial Lake Missoula laid down the hillsides and Clark Fork River cut these benches when it ran at a higher stage.”

The river has long since shifted course and rooftops now line the horizon just beyond the ranch, indicating the slow creep of urbanization and the pressures placed upon the valley's remaining parcels of open space.

Missoula County Commissioner Cola Rowley said the county is engaged in a larger conversation about conserving agricultural land. It hasn't been easy, and the debate has at times pitted factions of the conservation community against itself.

But the opportunity to conserve this ranch, Rowley said, would go far in achieving a greater goal.

“This is a really exciting project, because it does conserve a massive area of land that's contiguous, and it's basically at the (western) border of the city limits,” Rowley said.

Rowley said the challenges don't simply include conserving land. Guiding residential projects to the proper areas of the valley remains part of the puzzle, as does avoiding leapfrog development. Ensuring that housing remains affordable for Missoula residents who need easy access to daily amenities is also part of the equation, she said.

Members of the city and county open space committees orient themselves using maps at the Deschamps family ranch. (Photo by Martin Kidston)

“It's hard to balance that with conservation, but I feel our community values conservation so much, and this is a valuable piece of property to have,” Rowley said. “It does help us give an idea that this isn't the best place to develop. To develop on top of it would be a loss. Protecting this adds another piece to the puzzle of what's the best thing to do.”

Under the proposed easement, the wetland area would remain livestock restricted. The land would also remain in one piece, serving as open space and providing for wildlife habitat while allowing agriculture to continue.

The family has also volunteered to extinguish its rights to subdivide the property. While it's likely worth millions if opened up to development, the Deschamps family would rather see it conserved.

The soil is good, deep and dark, Charlie says. It can't be replaced if taken out of production.

“I want it to stay in agriculture forever,” Charlie says, acknowledging the sea of rooftops visible on the horizon, where the Ranch Club has reached the edge of his property.

“People have to live somewhere,” he adds. “The Legislature is pushing to save ag land. The county is trying to work out a formula to set aside ag land. I thought I might as well set it aside myself. I don't have to deal with the politics that way.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at