On Nov. 24, 1980, the Northwest Union Trust Co. deeded a parcel of land to Missoula County as a conservation easement, hoping to preserve the property’s natural character, its wild value and protect it from future development.

Over the past 35 years, the county has lived up to its end of the agreement, holding the 441 acres near Deep Creek in accordance with Northwest Union’s wishes: that it remain “a natural area” and not be “subject to development or exploitation.”

On Thursday, county commissioners acknowledged the property’s importance and signed a letter to the Five Valleys Land Trust, asking it to accept and manage the Deep Creek-area easement.

The easement is one of four held by Missoula County and each parcel – 528 acres in all – were each included in the county’s request to Five Valleys.

“They’re an accredited land trust and it’s what they do,” said Kali Becher, the rural landscape scientist with the county’s community and planning services office. “It’s more efficient for this private institution to monitor and manage these easements.”

Becher said the four easements were deeded to the county back in the 1970s and early 1980s. At the time, land trusts were few in number, which left the county to play a role now performed by Five Valleys.

“Missoula County stepped in to fulfill this public need to protect these resources,” Becker said. “The easements done in the '70s and '80s can look different than the easements that are done today.”

It wasn’t until 1989 – nearly a decade after the Deep Creek-area easement was deeded to the county – that Five Valleys expanded its mission beyond Missoula to cover much of western Montana.

To date, the organization has protected more than 70,000 acres and holds 130 conservation easements, according to its website. That could increase to 134 if Five Valleys accepts the county’s request.

Grant Kier, executive director of Five Valleys, said the organization’s stewardship committee will review the request, along with the board of directors.

“We’ve gotten to know these easements pretty well,” said Kier. “Yes, we’re initially interested."

Becher said the county has been talking with Five Valleys since 2009 about the four easements. During that time, she said, the organization has monitored or managed the four parcels.

The county has paid Five Valleys to do the work. The cost of that service wasn’t immediately available Thursday, but Becher said the county could save future costs if Five Valleys agrees to the request.

“We’ve been paying Five Valleys to do the monitoring,” Becher said. “Once we transfer the easements, they’ll be in charge of the monitoring. The amount varied over the years, and it varied by easement.”

The four easements named in the request included 441 acres near Deep Creek, 18 acres near Lolo, 62 acres near Pattee Canyon Road and seven acres in Linda Vista. Becher said each easement has different goals and needs.

The easement agreement detailed in the 1980 document between the county and the Northwest Union Trust described the land as heavily timbered and mixed with natural meadows. It includes prime habitat that’s home to elk, deer, moose, bear and mountain lion.

Nesting birds and native cutthroat trout were also noted in the easement. It was the hope of the trustee that future management would preserve the property’s habitat and wild value.

“Everything about the easements and the values protected in the easement, those aren’t changing,” Becher said. “The landowners know the land stewards (Five Valleys) since they’ve interacted over the years. The goals of the easements won’t change.”

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