Money from $10 million in open space bonds narrowly approved by Lewis and Clark County voters in 2008 has yet to be allocated to any projects, though a potential use for $284,500 of it is in the early stages of consideration.
On Tuesday evening, the county Citizens Advisory Committee on Open Lands had a casual discussion about an application for bond money that would help pay for half of a $569,000 conservation easement on 270 acres of property at the corner of Austin and Birdseye roads. The applicants and landowners, Dennis and Debbie Milburn, would provide the remaining funds.
A conservation easement, generally, is an agreement between a landowner and an agency or organization that limits certain activities, like development, on an area of land in an effort to protect its natural or rural characteristics.
This particular piece of property includes a variety of grassland, wetland and riparian areas and is adjacent to Bureau of Land Management and state lands to the west and northwest. An eastern 10-acre parcel would provide public access to Seven Mile Creek, which is home to brook and rainbow trout, as well as the occasionally cutthroat, Dennis said. The area also includes a number of historic sites, such as Native American artifacts, an intact teepee ring, the remains of a stamp mill, an old railroad grade, and several turn-of-the-century ranch buildings, according to a county staff report. These would also be available for the public to visit. Dennis said people already ask to go fishing and take photos on parts of the property.
Members of the open lands committee will visit the area before making a decision about granting the Milburns’ request. The committee has also agreed to notify immediately adjacent property owners about the proposal to solicit any comment they might have.
The Prickly Pear Land Trust is sponsoring the Milburn application. Andy Baur, executive director of the trust, said the nonprofit is interested in assisting with the area because of its location in the Helena Valley — where the trust hasn’t secured such conservation easements — and riparian areas — the likes of which the organization, generally, is hoping to focus more of its attention on in the future. He therefore deemed the property an “important catalyst.”
Baur also noted that open space bond money was the only readily available source of funding the trust could identify, though he said it would do whatever it could to follow through with the conservation effort if that option doesn’t work out. He said Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks had expressed some interest in the land, but didn’t want to make any promises until after the legislative session. Board members noted that the agency is currently considering the sale of six parcels of land it owns now in an effort to better manage what it has.
County funding for open space projects has been available since Dec. 1 of last year, shortly after the commissioners issued $3 million of the bonds to D.A. Davidson & Co. in a morning bidding session. Officials had decided to utilize only that portion of the full $10 million for now, since entering into contracts places time constraints on using the money.
The Milburns’ is the second proposal that could potentially acquire funding from the bond, which states that the money can be used for such causes as “protecting water quality in and along rivers and streams; conserving working farm, ranch and forest lands; protecting wildlife areas; preserving open lands and natural areas; (and) providing for recreation.”
Reporter Allison Maier: 447-4075 or firstname.lastname@example.org