Bart Morris likes to use a firefighting analogy as he describes a recently approved conservation easement to protect 168 acres of important agricultural soil, scenic grassland and riparian wildlife habitat on Miller Creek between Missoula and Lolo. It's where he and his wife Wendy run the Oxbow Cattle Company.
“This easement is like a fire line, protecting against an oncoming wildfire of future development,” he explains. He points to a long line of houses with freshly manicured lawns that abuts his property.
“If you look right there at all those houses, they’re gonna stop right here at this fence line.”
The housing development stands in stark contrast to the ranch property with a gurgling creek full of westslope cutthroat trout, the cottonwood trees, and the native shrubs that filter water, which runs into the nearby Bitterroot River. Morris points to a nearby hillside, which is slated to have 700 housing units built on it in the coming years. Future generations will see the Oxbow land as an island of greenery — birds and elk amidst a sea of development.
The Missoula County Commissioners and the Missoula City Council recently approved a deal to use up to $175,000 from the 2006, voter-approved City of Missoula Open Space Bond Program to protect the property from development forever and protect it as open space and agricultural land. The bond money will be used to match funds secured from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the landowners and contributions made by the nonprofit Five Valleys Land Trust, which facilitated the deal.
“We honestly feel like we’ve been given this unbelievable opportunity to conserve this land in perpetuity,” Morris said. “I mean, only a handful of people get that opportunity in their lives and we can’t believe we’ve been given that. Especially this chunk of land. It’s not about us. It’s about beyond us. And that’s the way we honestly feel about it.”
Morris said he and his wife believe in agriculture and taking care of animals. They make extraordinary efforts to raise their all-natural grass-fed beef in a humane way that also takes care of the soil and wildlife that use the land, from using wildlife-friendly fencing to “mob grazing” techniques that keep grasses healthy.
“Agriculture will have an opportunity here for perpetuity,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be these cows. It could be goats, sheep or pigs. Or heck, it could be kale or strawberries. With these water rights, it’s gonna give somebody the opportunity to produce locally raised food for this community."
Morris also is grateful that Missoula County taxpayers approved the open space bond 11 years go.
"That’s one of the cool things about the funding of this too. It’s community dollars that are being put toward this," he said. "And community’s a big part of this for us. Giving back to it. Community is the basis of our business. All our beef goes local to Missoula and it’s a really cool win-win marriage, you know, and Five Valleys allowed it to happen for us.”
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Vickie Edwards, a wildlife biologist and the conservation project manager at Five Valleys Land Trust, said the project wouldn’t have happened without the $10 million, voter-approved open space bond from 2006 because the NRCS requires matching funds that don’t come from the landowner or a nonprofit. The organization also received $734,000 from the federal Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) program in the 2014 Farm Bill.
Edwards said the Oxbow project ranked very high on a list of criteria the NRCS uses to determine which projects should get funding.
"To even be eligible there has to be 50 percent or greater important agriculture soils on the property. This property has 92 percent important ag soils,” she said. “There are a lot of other factors that go into that ranking as well for NRCS. There’s also the fish and wildlife habitat associated with this property, open space for continued agricultural production, then also the risk associated with development. There’s a Google map that I have where you can see the march of development moving toward this area. And so, being able to protect this will leave that opportunity to be in ag production in perpetuity.”
Edwards said that connectivity to other protected lands is also a factor, and the Oxbow property connects an easement on a ridge that joins the Sapphire and the Bitterroot mountains as well as another easement on the edge of the river. The Morrises are trying to grow cottonwood trees to shade Miller Creek to allow westslope cutthroat, a native fish that is listed as a “species of concern” by the state, to thrive because they need cold, clear water to spawn.
The Farm Bill is set to expire in 2018, and the Open Space bond is almost entirely spent, although it has been used for many projects in the city and county. If a project near Seeley Lake that is underway is approved, there will only be about $320,000 left in the city’s share and $610,000 left in the county’s share.
Lisa Moisey, the county's parks and open space manager, said that the 2006 bond has allowed 14,428 acres to be directly conserved, and an additional 15,000 acres have been protected by allowing landowners to leverage funds.
Moise said the 2006 bond has had a "pretty wide impact on conservation opportunities" in the county.
“The opportunity for us to preserve agricultural land right next to Missoula, which will in turn provide local food for the community, is only possible due to these funding sources,” said Wendy Morris. “This program will allow us to expand and solidify our ranching operation, preserve this land from development, and provide open space for the deer, elk and all other wildlife in perpetuity.”
The ALE program will also assist with protecting a 569-acre ranch in the Potomac Valley, of which 94 percent is designated as agriculturally important soils.
“Missoula County remains committed to voluntary agricultural land conservation close to our urban areas and in our rural communities and we believe in leveraging our effort and money toward that end,” said Missoula County Commissioner Jean Curtiss. "The Farm Bill’s ALE program has proven to be a great way to do that in the past and we’re excited to see momentum on this effort continue.”