STEVENSVILLE - On a cold but clear afternoon, it was apparent Greg Chilcott had already made up his mind.
As the Ravalli County commissioner stood atop Sunset Bench southeast of Stevensville, he took in all the breathtaking scenery - unobstructed views of the Bitterroot and Sapphire mountain ranges, an almost bird's-eye view of Stevensville and the valley floor, prime pieces of agricultural land.
"This is exactly what most of us envisioned with the open lands bond," Chilcott said.
So it was no surprise that the county commissioners voted unanimously Thursday to approve two conservation easements that will protect more than 700 acres of the Burnt Fork area near Stevensville.
"These projects are really emblematic," said Gavin Ricklefs, executive director of the Bitter Root Land Trust, which sponsored the two applications. "These are the sort of ideal projects they were envisioning when they passed the open lands bond."
Jim and Sharon Schroeder applied to put an easement on 360 acres on Sunset Bench. And Dan and Debbie Severson own an additional 354 acres in the Burnt Fork drainage that adjoins the Schroeder land on which they also hope to put an easement.
The easements will be funded by the Ravalli County open lands bond, a $10 million bond passed by voters in 2006. So far, the bond has funded six different projects involving five landowners costing an approximate $1.3 million, Ricklefs said.
"From the Land Trust's perspective, we're really excited about these projects," Ricklefs said. "They are catalyzing the Burnt Fork right now."
The completion of both easements is contingent upon receiving federal money from the Farm and Ranchland Protection program. If the land trust is not successful in receiving matching funding from the FRPP, it will be back to the drawing board, Ricklefs said. The application for the funding is due at the beginning of February.
While getting the commissioners' approval of the application is just another step toward finalizing the easements, Ricklefs emphasized the importance of the commission's action.
"This is a huge step for us," he said.
Sharon Schroeder said her family bought their property on Sunset Bench in 2007. Three different pieces of land were for sale at the time and the Schroeders bought all three.
"We spent quite a bit of effort piecing it together so we'd hate to see it torn apart," Schroeder said. "We love it up here. It's so beautiful. We'd hate to see it divided.
"There are plenty of subdivisions around," she continued. "This piece doesn't need to be. This is a good ag piece."
Severson's land has been in the family for the last century and is comprised of six parcels.
"Over the last 100 years, there have been all sorts of struggles," Dan Severson said of his land. "I think (my family) did their share. It's time to do ours.
"It's helping the people who moved here from somewhere else maintain what they love about the Bitterroot Valley," Severson said.
Ricklefs said the high agricultural value coupled with the wildlife benefit of the properties made these perfect candidates for conservation easements.
The Schroeders will be compensated $134,000. The cost of the Schroeder project is about $51,000, which includes legal fees, cost of appraisal and a baseline study, Ricklefs said.
The Seversons will be compensated for $165,760. Anticipated costs for that project will be just over $59,000.
Severson's Flying E Ranch was appraised at just over $1 million, while the Schroeder property was appraised at $762,300.
Eight acres of the Severson property will be left out of the easement for future use by the family. The Schroeders excluded 25 acres of their land from the easement.