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Keeping the land working
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Keeping the land working

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Keeping the land working
"I inherited my parents' love of this place," says Jim Cusker. "It was something I felt very young in life." Cusker put his family's 200-acre ranch into a conservation easement. Photo by KURT WILSON/Missoulian

Easement preserves 200 acres of Clark Fork propertyThe last summer of his life, Jay Cusker couldn't help his son with the haying.

Not in the usual way.

But at the end of the hardest day, when the baler was broken and nothing had gone right, Cusker had the words his son needed to hear.

And continues to hear.

"You had a helluva day," father said to son. Jim Cusker nodded.

But, reminded the father, "The hay's good, and it's a beautiful place to work."

Jim Cusker remembered his dad's words this week as he signed a conservation easement forever protecting the Clark Fork River terraces and bottom land west of Missoula that his family has farmed and ranched for 60 years.

"Dad and Mom really loved this place," Cusker said Wednesday. "Mom took long walks almost every day to that point with all the pine trees."

The conservation easement emphasizes continued agricultural use, and protection and restoration of riparian areas. There will be no subdivision, no new roads, no dumping or excavating, and no significant disturbance of the land's natural features.

The modest 200-acre ranch bought by Jay and Mary Louise Cusker in 1938 will remain much as they found it. The two miles of Clark Fork River frontage will be improved - revegetated on the steeper banks where cows once grazed.

"I wanted to find a way to ensure that the property remain an agricultural entity for time to come," Jim Cusker said. "Someone suggested the idea of an easement."

Last spring, Cusker and his wife, Earlene, visited Five Valleys Land Trust, and told director Wendy Ninteman of their interest. "An easement seemed like the perfect thing," she said.

"Jim wanted to keep the 200 acres intact," Ninteman said. "He wanted to keep the agricultural use started by his parents. He wanted to do something to ensure that the property could stay in the Cusker family."

"Right away, we realized that our visions for the property were the same."

The Cusker easement is, in fact, the first of what Ninteman hopes will be a series of Five Valleys' projects along the Clark Fork River in Missoula. There is grant money, newly acquired, to help landowners with the cost of appraisals and baseline studies required for easements.

There is interest, Ninteman said, in preserving the riverfront land increasingly threatened by development.

Cusker has lived on the property just off Mullan Road for almost all his life. He was little when the family moved from Wolf Point to Missoula. But he remembers the wood-sided well in the front yard of the farmhouse and the bucket that provided the family's water.

He also remembers the day his dad got a maple sapling from a friend in town, filled in the well and planted the tree that now consumes the front yard.

"Dad built us a merry-go-round out of an old wagon wheel," Cusker said. "And I remember him building the log barns. He only had horses to help him lift the logs. He'd skid them up from the other side."

Jay Cusker ranched the land for 48 years, until he died. Sometimes, he had to take extra work: as a ditch rider for the Grass Valley Irrigation District or at the stockyards. In the fall, he'd work at the sugar beet factory.

Son Jim Cusker was a biology teacher at Sentinel High School for 38 years. He's in his second year of retirement, and spends his days - at least in the winter - tending the descendants of his dad's herd of beef cows.

"I inherited my parents' love of this place," Cusker said. "It was something I felt very young in life."

He never liked it when his dad had to cut any of the old-growth cottonwood that crowd the river bottom, Cusker said. He started keeping a yearly bird list as a child, learning new species as he went.

One year, he saw a varied thrush - with a black "V" on its red breast - on the place.

Every year, he watches the osprey nest atop a power pole in his upper pasture. The first pair to nest there were electrocuted, as were their young, during a summer thunderstorm, Cusker said. Then the electric co-op put a platform atop the pole, and the nest has grown for each of the subsequent 10 years.

It probably weighs 500 or 600 pou

nds now. The young birds practice flying by hovering over the nest. A goose hatched her goslings there one year, staying on the eggs over the protests of the late-arriving osprey.

"The osprey came back a little earlier the next spring," Cusker said. And every spring since.

So, too, will his five children be able to return to the land tended first by their grandfather, then by their father, and find it intact. For the ages, Cusker said. Because the hay is good and it's a beautiful place to work.

Thursday - 12/17/98
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