A proposal to fund half the cost of a $569,000 conservation easement could be the first request to receive money from the $10 million in open space bonds that were narrowly approved by Lewis and Clark County voters in 2008.

The county commission agreed on Tuesday morning to move the easement proposal to the “due diligence” phase, meaning the necessary legal documents will be gathered for a closing, after which the bond money could be utilized. The issue would go before the commissioners again before everything is finalized.

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 260 acres of property, at the corner of Austin and Birdseye roads, 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. The donation of an additional eastern 10-acre parcel would provide public access to Seven Mile Creek. The area also includes a number of historic sites, such as Native American artifacts, an intact teepee ring, stamp mill remains, an old railroad grade, and several turn-of-the-century ranch buildings. 

The open space bonds would fund $284,500 of the easement, and the landowners, Dennis and Debbie Milburn, would pay for the other half. The Prickly Pear Land Trust is sponsoring the application. 

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.

According to the initiative passed by voters, the funding 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 allison.maier@helenair.com

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