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In size it’s not impressive, but Missoula County’s first conservation easement purchase of 2014 is breathtaking in appearance.

Commissioners on Wednesday approved spending up to $84,000 of open space bonds to help secure 122 acres of open agricultural land on the historic Rich Ranch in Woodworth Meadows east of Salmon Lake.

The land borders the buildings of the outfitter and guest ranch owned by Jack and Belinda Rich that has been in the family since 1958. Five Valleys Land Trust will hold the easement, which isn’t appraised yet but has an estimated value of $250,000.

Sarah Richey, Five Valleys’ conservation project manager, displayed to commissioners Bill Carey and Michele Landquist an aerial view of the country on the screen in the county administration building public meeting room.

To the north is the rugged landscape of the Bob Marshall Wilderness; to the south, the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range.

“I think this shows what a unique location Woodworth Meadows is, this agricultural area in the midst of wildlife habitat and wildland corridor,” Richey said.

“What a fantastic place and what a fantastic job they’ve done at managing their ranch,” Landquist said.

The Riches were flying back from Washington, D.C., on Wednesday and missed the hearing. They already have a separate, smaller conservation easement with Five Valleys Land Trust a quarter of a mile to the east of the new one.

Though it’s not part of the agreement, they plan to use the proceeds to purchase another piece that already has an easement on it. They’re working with Five Valleys and The Nature Conservancy to permanently protect more than 300 acres of undeveloped grassland and forested slopes in Woodworth Meadows.

Missoula County has spent $3.6 million on 16 conservation easements and three land acquisitions with open space bond money it shares with the city of Missoula since a $10 million bond was passed in 2006.

The Rich Ranch easement ranks among the smallest of the county’s conservation easement purchases. Only the 2008 purchase of 117 acres on the Bob Hayes ranch at the top of Evaro Hill was smaller than the Riches’ 122 acres. The county obligated fewer bond funds to only the Madsen-Four Bar M conservation easement on Rock Creek in 2010 ($40,000) and the Cooney Creek easement in the Swan Valley in 2007 ($75,000).

“For me it’s the kind of gift to the public that will increase in value over the years,” Carey said.

The easement doesn’t provide public access to the Rich easement. Landquist said that’s the case with other county open lands purchases as well.

“But the public certainly, from so many directions, has the benefit of this fantastic view shed,” she said.

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at (406) 523-5266 or by email at kbriggeman@missoulian.com.

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Mineral County, Veterans Issues Reporter

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian