Missoula County commissioners will receive hearty recommendations from their rural planners Wednesday when they consider the latest use of open space bonds.
If they’re on board at the public hearing, $150,000 will be spent on the Elk Flats Open Space project to set aside 275 acres in the Swan Valley as conservation easements.
The county’s share of the project would come from its portion of the $10 million open space fund approved by voters in 2006.
“It’s a unique project bringing five landowners together, so this is a really good example of what can happen with several parcels of varied sizes on the landscape level to do some good conservation work,” said Nancy Heil, senior planner for the county’s Community and Planning Services, or CAPS.
Project leader Kali Becher and the rest of the CAPS staff endorsed the purchase as meeting several criteria for open space funding, including the protection of water quality and wildlife habitat; managing for growth; providing open space and scenic landscapes; and conserving working ranches, farms and forests.
By unanimous vote, the county’s Open Lands Citizens Advisory Committee on Nov. 21 recommended approval of the project.
The land in question is west of Montana Highway 83 and the Swan Valley Community Center, at the end of Elk Flats Road.
The Missoula-based Vital Ground Foundation will hold the conservation easements on the properties. Vital Ground is a small land trust with a mission of protecting grizzly bear habitat, something there’s plenty of in the Swan.
The parcels are on the edge of one of several travel corridors for grizzlies between the Mission and Swan ranges, said Ryan Lutey, director of lands for Vital Ground.
“They were designed in part based on public-private ownership pattern in the valley, which has changed considerably from the Montana Legacy Project, so Vital Ground views the entire Swan Valley as good quality bear habitat,” Lutey said.
The proposed easements border U.S. Forest Service land for two miles and are close to a number of other conservation easements.
Lutey said the project covers extensive riparian areas and wetlands, with everything from potholes to segments of Cold Creek. The creek is an important tributary to the Swan River and contains habitat for both bull and westslope cutthroat trout.
Vital Ground has been active in the Swan Valley dating back to its first conservation easement in 2005. That was acquired from the late Bud Moore, whose Coyote Forest is on Elk Flats Road and whose easement corners with one of the new parcels.
“Really these easements spring from that initial partnership,” Lutey said. “We’ve been in discussions with these landowners at different times since 2005, and they definitely all share a common vision for the area.”
Bill and Jean Moore, Bud’s son and daughter-in-law, are among those involved in the project, which includes parcels ranging from 40 to 80 acres. Lutey said Vital Ground is working on purchasing an additional 40 acres of its own that are adjacent to the project.
Also involved the collaboration are Larry and Helen Rasmussen, Mark and Carolyn Lawrence, Don Schmitz and Mike Stevenson. All are making significant donations of 60 percent of the value of the easements.
“There’s a good match for public bond funding,” Heil said. “For every dollar of bond funding that’s being used, there’s $4.20 in match from other sources.”
The deal has surfaced now in part because of the imminent sunset of enhanced federal tax breaks for conservation easement donations, Lutey said. The incentives created by the Pension Protection Act of 2006 will expire at the end of 2013 unless they’re extended by Congress. That means that the current deductions of 50 percent of adjusted gross income for up to 16 years will drop to 30 percent for up to five years.