Making hay 

Open Space Bond protects 752 acres near Frenchtown

Joseph Boyer hoped to spend his Monday moving hay bales on the family ranch, but a summer storm doused those plans. The waterlogged bales were too wet to move and needed to air dry. Instead, Boyer just jumped to the next task on his list—moving equipment up from the nearby Clark Fork River. It was just another day on a ranch that's been in Boyer's family since 1896—the place where his father was born and buried, and where 13 Boyers have been raised.

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Now 62, Boyer's 752 acres on the benches above Frenchtown comprise one of the rare, fully intact working ranches close to Missoula. Thanks to an open space agreement approved by the Missoula County Commission on July 8, Boyer's working ranch will remain exactly that.

The Boyer Open Space Bond Project marks the 13th easement or acquisition since 70 percent of Missoula County voters approved a $10 million bond in 2006. The money from that bond—split evenly between the city and county—is being spent to preserve open space and working lands as subdivisions sprout on the fringes of Missoula Valley and fragment precious farm and ranchland inside Missoula County.

All told, about $2.7 million of Missoula's Open Space Bond money has been spent so far, according to estimates from Missoula County Rural Initiatives. The city has tapped about $1.75 million of its $5 million share on six projects, including a $1.17 million easement secured in 2007 to protect 626 acres in Missoula's South Hills. The county has spent about $950,000 on seven projects, all conservation easements, protecting working lands from Frenchtown to the Swan Valley. The Boyer project eats up roughly $245,000 of the county's expenditures, making it the most expensive purchase to date.

But the deal turns out to be a steal for the county. Boyer, among the many western Montana farmers and ranchers facing pressure to sell his land, says he decided to pursue a conservation easement because, as he puts it, "It would have been a crime for me to gain" from his land's development.

"There were a lot of speculators who said, 'We can sell this, do that, build houses everywhere,'" Boyer says. "But this property is pretty valuable, just to the wildlife...I didn't think I had the right to destroy the land."

Boyer boasts of the 80–100 elk that winter on his ranch and the diversity of bird species. For instance, a Five Valleys Audubon Society survey once spotted the Swainson's hawk, a bird that breeds in Western grasslands after migrating from Argentina.

According to the Five Valleys Audubon Society, Boyer's ranch—sharing a corner with the Lolo National Forest—is "large enough to provide secure reproduction and foraging opportunities for both birds and mammals that require large undisturbed areas."

About 10 years ago, Boyer contacted Five Valleys Land Trust to initiate the process of creating a conservation easement on the ranch.

"We were interested in the property because it's such a large property—752 acres for the Missoula/Frenchtown valley is pretty substantial—and it also has significant and productive agricultural land," says Pelah Hoyt, Five Valleys Land Trust's conservation project manager. "Some of these just take longer than others. But throughout that whole time the landowner has never wavered in his commitment to conserving this land. That's just been wonderful. He's just been rock solid on that. It partly took a long time to put the funding package together."

The ranch's development potential—which is what Boyer forfeited by agreeing to a conservation easement—is estimated at $2.4 million. He essentially donated about $1.8 million of that estimate to the county, which can be used as an income tax deduction. The difference—$600,000—amounts to what Boyer will gain from the easement. Missoula County contributed $245,000 in Open Space Bond funding, which qualified the project for a $295,000 matching grant from the Federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program. Five Valleys Land Trust kicked in $60,000, plus another $29,100 to cover transaction costs.

"The bond has been absolutely essential to getting these done," says Hoyt, who has helped Five Valleys Land Trust broker six projects utilizing bond money. "Most of the funding sources that are out there, they won't release their funds unless you have secured a non-federal match, and that was a key thing on the Boyer project."

County Commission Chairman Bill Carey says the county is lucky to land such a sweet deal, because the county's funds are matched on an 8.8:1 ratio. "It's an incredible project," he says.

And it means this haying season is not nearly the Boyer family's last.

"This valley is too small to take much more [development]," Boyer says. "I just want to see the farming and ranching try to hold on. I know it's hard for the farmers and ranchers. The money ain't in it for 'em, but, you know [in today's economy], the money ain't really in subdivisions, either."

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