- Associated Press - Saturday, June 3, 2017

HAMILTON, Mont. (AP) - They were strangers once.

On a recent morning, as they sipped coffee around Dan Severson’s kitchen table, the four seated there shared a friendship driven by the need to preserve a lifestyle and the watershed that’s the lifeblood of the wildlife refuge just downstream of the headwaters of the Burnt Fork.

It was almost six years ago when Paul Hayes received the blue envelope that changed the course for the Friends of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge.

That envelope contained a letter that officially terminated the partnership between the Friends group and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“We were kind of blindsided by it,” Hayes said. “We’ve made overtures, but they’ve gone nowhere.”

Years ago, the Friends organization designed a popular state license plate that celebrated National Wildlife Refuges. The license plate generated about $20,000 for the organization.

“We didn’t we couldn’t just keep putting that money in the bank,” Hayes said. “We knew we had do something with it that would benefit the refuge.”

Somewhere along the way, they met Bitterroot Land Trust Executive Director Gavin Ricklefs and they started talking about the conservation story unfolding in the Burnt Fork watershed east of Stevensville.

The journey to preserve working farms and ranches in the Burnt Fork began in 1997 for Severson when he was appointed to the county’s Open Lands Board.

After taking a sip of coffee that recent morning, Severson looked around the table and admitted that he really wasn’t committed to the idea of using conservation easements to preserve open lands owned by private landowners.

“I kind of felt like a hypocrite back then,” Severson said. “I was going around and talking to people about conservation easements and felt like it was something that really didn’t fit my family.”

But, as often happens in a person’s life, events occur that change perspectives.

For Severson, it was the shock of his father’s sudden death from an accident that occurred while he was working cattle on the land that had been part of their family for generations.

“My son and grandson are working cattle right now as we speak,” Severson said, as he looked in the direction of the old barn just on the other side of the road.

Severson’s father grew up when most family farmers and ranchers didn’t have many options when it came time to decide what would happen to the home place following a death.

The value was in the land.

“Back then, they really didn’t have much of a choice,” Severson said. “They only way they could get anything from their land was to subdivide even when they didn’t want to.”

That changed in 2006 when Ravalli County residents passed, by an overwhelming margin, a $10 million bond to protect open spaces in the Bitterroot Valley.

“I can remember thinking, ‘Wow. There are others in this valley too who don’t want to see every acre filled with a house,” Severson said. “They want to see some of this hay ground protected. They want to see habitat for wildlife remain. And they are actually willing to spend some of their own money to make that happen.

“It changed the way I saw conservation easements too,” he said. “Before then, I didn’t think anyone gave a damn on what happened to these family places. Suddenly, I saw that my neighbors and friends and others that lived in this valley saw the value in protecting this open space too.”

The Friends of the Lee Metcalf Wildlife Refuge were among who saw the value of preserving private lands to protect the public lands that people hold dear in the Bitterroot Valley.

Without a doubt, water is amongst the most precious resources to the refuge famous for its waterfowl.

The source of the water that fills the ponds and sloughs so important to the ducks, geese and shorebirds that spend time at the refuge is the Burnt Fork watershed.

When the Friends of the Lee Metcalf learned the funding they raised from the license plates sales could be used to leverage other funding to pay for conservation easements that would protect that water source forever, the decision was easy.

So far, nearly 2,000 acres of that watershed has been preserved through conservation easements on private lands in the Burnt Fork watershed since the open lands bond was passed. Other large conservations easement in the headwaters of the watershed were already in place before that time.

When a family decides to place a conservation easement on their property, they give up forever their rights to subdivide their land. In return, they receive tax benefits because their land is not as valuable for resale.

Often, the landowners are compensated for some of the decrease in land values. The funding to do that comes mainly through federal and state sources. Most of those sources require some kind of local match.

In Ravalli County, that comes from the open lands bond and, in the case of the Burnt Fork, from the proceeds of the sale of Friends of the Lee Metcalf National Wildlife Refuge license plates.

To date, the Friends organization has donated about $85,000 to the effort.

Skip Kowalski of the Friends said the connection for that organization was obvious.

“It was a logical way for us to make good use for that funding,” Kowalski said. “Preserving these lands that are the anchor to the water source for the refuge makes perfect sense. Beyond that, it helps natural system up and down the entire valley.”

The fact that a good portion of the Burnt Fork watershed is now protected also provides wildlife with a corridor from one side of the valley to the other. People driving the East Side Highway often have a chance to see that in action in the form of a small herd of elk often visible during the morning commute.

“We just knew that it was a good cause,” Hayes said. “It seemed like the perfect fit for us.”

The benefits of the preservation work occurring in the Burnt Fork and throughout the Bitterroot Valley will outlive everyone alive today.

“We’re so fortunate to live in a place where people not only care about the landscape, but are also willing to invest in it now so it will be here for their kids and grandkids,” Ricklefs said.

Only four counties in the state have passed bonds to pay for open lands.

“The folks who are really going to notice the conservation work that’s occurring right now in the Burnt Fork aren’t sitting around this table,” Ricklefs said. “Those people aren’t even born yet. They are the people who will be able to go out and see hay still being put up and wildlife moving freely on a landscape that remains the same. This really is an investment for future generations.”

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Information from: Ravalli Republic , https://www.ravallirepublic.com

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