Sixteen years ago, the Bitter Root Land Trust started from an idea hatched around a kitchen table.

Back then, there was no way to know for sure just what its future held.

Last week – in the midst of the land trust’s most busy year to date – the national Land Trust Alliance officially recognized the Bitterroot Valley organization with it highest level of accreditation.

With that, the Bitter Root Land Trust joined an elite membership. There are more than 1,700 land trusts scattered throughout the country. Only about 230 of those have achieved the national alliance’s highest stamp of approval for professionalism, standards and practice.

“Considering the fact that only 13.5 percent of all land trusts receive the accreditation, it’s a very big deal for a local land trust like us to achieve that goal,” said Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs. “It shows that we are on the cutting edge of professionalism.”

Perhaps even more importantly for the community, the accreditation goes a long way in showing the local land trust is here for the long haul.

“The work we do is perpetual,” Ricklefs said. “It’s a huge step for us. It should make it even easier for the community and its leaders to continue to put their trust in us.”

The land trust’s board set a goal of working toward meeting the stringent requirements of the accreditation in 2010. At the same time, the board challenged its staff to not lose the momentum the land trust had been building in putting together important land conservation projects.

Ricklefs said the small staff was stretched, but it managed to get it all done.

Over its first seven years, the land trust completed 10 conservation easements in the Bitterroot Valley. In the past three or four years, it has added 10 or 12 more.

“This year will be our busiest for projects,” Ricklefs said. “It looks like we will have completed six by the end of the year, which is awesome.”

Currently, the Bitter Root Land Trust holds conservation easement on 3,690 acres. If all the current projects come to fruition, Ricklefs said it will add another 2,900 acres through 2014.

Gail Goheen of Hamilton is the local land trust’s longest-serving board member. She began her volunteer duties in 1999.

Goheen is proud of what that organization has been able to accomplish in the past 16 years.

“Starting from nothing, it is now nationally recognized for its professionalism and accomplishments,” Goheen said. “It’s been so heartwarming to have been one of the board members involved in this evolution.

“But in reality, the thanks go out to so many for their generosity – the landowners who have made easement donations, the voters who approved the local conservation bond program and the county officials and volunteers who implemented it, the organizations which have contributed grants to help sustain us, the dedicated and talented staff, and the donations made by members of our community.”

“We should all be proud,” she said.

Land Trust Alliance western director Wendy Ninteman likened the Bitter Root Land Trust to that mythical little engine that could.

“When you look at the trajectory for that organization over the past four years, you would see they faced one major hurdle after another,” Ninteman said. “They put their heads down and got through them all. It’s been really, really neat to see.”

“You have to hand it to the board and staff there,” she said. “They are so committed to their community there in the Bitterroot.”

Both the Bitterroot and Flathead land trusts received accreditation in the round announced last week.

Seven of the 11 Montana Association of Land Trust members have now worked their way through the accreditation process. Two more are currently in the application process. If they succeed, Ninteman said 82 percent of the state’s land trusts will have achieved that goal.

“Those are great numbers for the Montana land trust community,” she said.

The accreditation means the land trusts meet the highest legal, professional and ethical standards in the work they do in their communities.

“It puts them into the top tier of land trusts in the country,” Ninteman said. “It’s a really good marker for the communities they serve. It’s been a pretty amazing journey to follow with the Bitter Root Land Trust over the last four or five years.”

“What’s so cool about it is they didn’t stop their important mission work because they didn’t want to lose that important momentum that they had going,” she said. “It was an amazing thing that they were able to pull it off so well.”

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

Reporter Perry Backus can be reached at pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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