DRUMMOND - When Montanans think of grasslands, they usually imagine the eastern plains beyond the Continental Divide.
Atop Beacon Hill, Sue and Randy Peterson know different. Their Flint Creek Valley ranch spreads across 3,774 acres of grassy hills, where elk and antelope, eagles and Angus cattle roam. The hill's name attests to an old airplane navigation beacon that guided pilots on a safe route between mountain ranges.
On Wednesday, the Petersons signed papers to make those characteristics permanent. They placed a conservation easement on their land with the Five Valleys Land Trust. The two-year effort ensures their cattle ranching and habitat preservation will remain in place.
"It's going to stay as a ranch - that's the main thing," Randy Peterson said as he completed the paperwork on a blustery morning. "I've been here since the 1980s, and the subdivisions have just been progressive. There's a lot less open land now, and a heck of a lot more people."
Sue Peterson's roots go even deeper, to her parents, Bill and Phyllis Ohrmann and their original 1930s ranch. The Ohrmanns are now retired and run the namesake museum and gallery, which confounds Highway 10 motorists with its outdoor collection of metal mammoths and grizzly bears.
Their driveway was once known as the Mullan Road: the first engineered route across the northern Rocky Mountains. The hills above their home hold evidence of Salish Indian campsites. More than half the property has earned classification as prime farmland, and the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks considers its wildlife habitat a suitable replacement for nearby land ruined by a century of toxic mining waste.
All those factors combined to justify state and federal participation in the $980,000 easement, according to Juniper Davis of Five Valleys Land Trust. The Petersons donated 28 percent of that, while the state Natural Resource Damage Program and the U.S. Agriculture Department's Farm and Ranchland Protection Program came up with the rest. FVLT contributed about $40,000 in staff and legal time to the project.
Davis said one unusual part of the deal is a public-access trail from the Mullan Road 2 1/2 miles up to Beacon Hill. The Petersons agreed to put the trail in so school classes, birdwatchers and other grassland fans could experience the property.
But no state or federal agency was prepared to manage or maintain the trail like a public park or campground. So FVLT accepted responsibility for those chores - a first in its experience with thousands of acres of easements in western Montana.
And while the easement prohibits future home development on the property, FVLT executive director Grant Kier said it doesn't lock the Peterson ranch in a time capsule.
"We're not saying humans shouldn't be part of the landscape," Kier said. "This land is going to continue producing food and commodities. The Petersons are the kind of people we want to bend over backwards to ensure they keep taking care of as much land as they can."
Kier pointed to the Peterson's practice of range rotation to keep cattle from overgrazing, their reliance on insects instead of chemical pesticides to control noxious weeds, and their maintenance of dozens of bluebird boxes to encourage songbird populations as examples of the land ethic that drew FVLT's attention.
"These grassland foothills are some of the fastest-disappearing lands in private ownership," Kier said. "This allows the land to adapt more freely to changes over time."
Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.