Missoula County will spring for up to $350,000 toward a conservation easement in the upper Swan Valley with open space funds approved by voters in 2006.

Commissioners Jean Curtiss and Bill Carey on Wednesday gave two thumbs up to the county’s share of a project brokered by the Montana Land Reliance and its western manager, Mark Schiltz of Bigfork, who called it “one of the finest pieces of protection we’ve ever done.”

The easement is on land north of Lindbergh Lake that was preliminarily appraised for $2 million. It will protect 738 acres owned by the family of the late William Roth Jr.

Roth was a Montana-born, five-term Republican U.S. senator from Delaware and the legislative sponsor of a federal individual retirement account that came to be known as the Roth IRA. He graduated from Helena High School, which also the alma mater of Democratic Sen. Max Baucus, who succeeded him as U.S. Senate Finance Committee chairman in 2001.

Roth died in 2003 at age 88. Jane Roth purchased the Swan Valley property with her husband in 1992, and now shares ownership with son Bud of Virginia and daughter Katy, with whom Jane lives in Washington, D.C.

Their land is bisected from west to east by the Lindbergh Lake Road and, at 1 1/4 miles, the longest unprotected stretch of the Swan River, according to Nancy Heil, a planner for Missoula’s Rural Initiatives office. Both are accessible to the public.

The property is also smack in the middle of a busy wildlife corridor used by the likes of grizzly bears, wolves and lynx, and it provides prime winter range for elk. The numerous potholes, bogs and fens host the rare and threatened water howellia, a tiny plant that produces seeds in the water but requires its home to dry up each fall in order to germinate.

Jane Roth told commissioners at a hearing Wednesday in Missoula that she grew up in New Castle County, Conn., where most signs of nature have long since disappeared.

Her husband brought her to Montana shortly after they were married, and she fell in love with it – especially the wild Swan Valley. The Roths looked for several years for land in Montana, “and when we found this property we really found something to treasure,” she said.

“To find a place that is a wonderful refuge for wildlife, that has wonderful trees and streams … If I can save that for future generations, I feel very strongly that it’s a good thing for me to do.”

The property to the north of Lindbergh Lake Road was subdivided by a previous owner more than 30 years ago into 16 lots that were never developed. There’s one existing home on the property and as part of the terms of the conservation easement, three more can be built.

The 280 acres north of the road may also be transferred to a third party in no more than two parcels of at least 50 acres each. Roth said she agreed to those stipulations, in part, to get her children on board.

“Basically they’re for conservation, but they’re also not going to let their mother run off and do something without having their say,” she said.

Bud and Katy Roth understand “they are giving up a lot of financial gain, (not) being able to subdivide if they need to,” Schiltz said. “And not just financial gain but flexibility, options. They’ve given up options.”

The possibility of some development is a stipulation that one Swan Valley resident and Realtor isn’t comfortable with. John Keller pointed to land just to the north that’s owned by retired Miami software mogul Ralph Cruz, who received approval from county commissioners last month for a 19-lot subdivision for a guest ranch.

Keller said he’s for protecting all the Roth’s land from development. While he doesn’t doubt the family’s motives, the fact that some of the land could be end up in other hands makes him uneasy.

“Forever is a long, long time,” Keller said. “I’d like to see some of the easement’s permitted uses tightened up so we don’t get surprised 50 years down the road.”

Ken Donovan of the Swan Valley Community Council said he’s all for what the Roths are trying to do with a conservation easement. But he read a letter from signed by a number of residents that questioned whether it was a good use of $350,000 of county money to help a family of obvious financial means, while taxpayers in the Swan had to pass a levy of $9,200 to keep the Swan Valley School afloat for another year.

Mike Lake, another resident of the Swan, also objected to the use of taxpayer money for the project, especially since some of the land can be developed but the public will continue to be excluded from most of the property.

“The open space bond money was to save family farms and to promote open space,” Lake said. “This proposal does neither.”

But Curtiss said the county’s share of the $10-million open space project approved in 2006 was intended to address many of the things that the Roth conservation easement will protect.

“One of the things we were very clear about as we put this on the ballot was that this will be different than the city’s first open-space bond project, which did a lot of purchasing of open space around the city,” Curtiss said. “It was the county’s belief … that having voluntary private conservation easements protects all these values that we thought were important but they didn’t put the additional burden on the taxpayers to manage that land.”

Carey said the Swan will come under increasing development pressures as time goes by.

“I think whatever steps we can take now to assure there will be some truly open space and that the natural beauty of things will be preserved, we have to take them,” he said.

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