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The Lewis and Clark County Commission agreed to open a 30-day public comment for one of two proposed conservation easements and sent the other back to the advisory committee for the county’s Open Lands Program.

While commissioners agreed to open the comment period for the Gehring Ranch conservation easement, a proposal for the Shoco Ranch near Augusta was sent back to a volunteer advisory committee to allow time for the applicant and sponsor to seek additional financial support.

The comment period opened for the $1 million funding request for the Gehring Ranch that would purchase the right to someday subdivide roughly 2,888 acres. The property is located in the north Helena Valley.

Three areas on the property will retain the buildings that are currently there: the landowner’s residence, a mobile home and the original 1860s homestead and associated ranch buildings, according to the application that is sponsored by the Prickly Pear Land Trust.

An application is also being prepared to see if the ranch, which has both buffalo and cattle, will qualify for listing under the National Register of Historic Places, said Pam Attardo, the Helena/Lewis and Clark County heritage preservation officer.

The 25 historic structures that date between 1870s and the 1930s far exceed the number of buildings on most applications, she noted.

Sen. Christine Kauffman, D-Helena, was among those who spoke in support of the easement.

“People of this caliber who are willing to step forward and help preserve this kind of land for future generations is just amazing to me. They’re certainly not doing it for the money,” she said.

The money being sought for the easement is far less than it’s worth.

Land owner Bill Gehring is foregoing $1.21 million in value of the development rights, according to the easement’s application.

The value that Gehring is not seeking represents 55 percent of the easement’s actual worth, the application stated.

Contributing to the easement’s purchase are the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, which is providing $7,500, and Travelers for Open Land that will contribute $2,500.

Unlike other conservation easement proposals seeking Open Lands Program funds, none of the costs to prepare the application or for future expenses are included, said Connie Cole, chairwoman of the citizens advisory group that’s part of the Open Lands Program.

Hal Harper, a former state House speaker and longtime legislator, said when he was growing up in the Helena Valley, a trip up to the ski area soon left behind the few homes that were in the valley and only ranches remained.

“Now you see the city has stretched almost all the way up to the Gehring Ranch,” Harper said.

And while making note of the property’s historical significance, he said Capt. William Clark in July 1805 took three men from the Lewis and Clark expedition and traveled up Little Prickly Pear Creek where “his footsteps walked right down between the Gehring house and the barn there.

“Because that’s probably the way he came, from all we can tell it was a corridor that was used by early travelers,” Harper said before lauding the natural landscape that would be preserved through the conservation easement.

He expressed his appreciation to Gehring and his mother, Rose, who attended the meeting and said the easement would allow people to see the buffalo still roaming the land.

While the easement does not include public access, Gehring has some 1,200 acres of his land enrolled in the state’s block management program that give hunters access to the property, it was noted on the application and during the commission meeting.

Public access is not required of conservation easements and Commissioner Susan Good Geise noted that many of the easements approved by the county would not have come forward had public access been a requirement.

Another of the speakers in support of the conservation easement said the increasing number of subdivisions justified protection of Gehring’s land from future development.

The $783,000 conservation easement proposal from the Shoco Ranch will again be reviewed by the citizen advisory committee -- a move that will allow the property owner and sponsoring agency, the Montana Land Reliance, to look for additional financial support.

While the conservation easement on 836 acres owned by Sally Shortridge is valued at $810,000, she is donating $81,000 of the value, which amounts to 10 percent of its value.

After the meeting, Shortridge said she was pleased that the county commission was willing to work with her on the easement.

This is the first time she’s ever sought conservation easement funding, she added.

The $783,000 requested in the conservation easement would provide $729,000 toward the easement’s value and $54,000 to cover costs for the easement’s preparation.

Among expenses to be reimbursed are those for an appraisal, legal review, consultation and a Montana Land Reliance land protection/stewardship fund.

The Shoco Ranch is located about four miles southwest of Augusta. It is west of and partly adjacent to Hwy 435 and south of Smith Creek Road. Smith Creeks bisects the property.

Geise noted the importance of the easement to neighboring ranches and suggested that their owners may be willing to be partners in the proposal as they also value from it.

Jay Erickson, with the Montana Land Reliance, said he would seek additional participants for the easement before it returns to the county commission for a 30-day public comment period.

Commissioner Andy Hunthausen said he too hoped to see more partners in the easement application but said that a lack of partners wouldn’t necessarily deter him from supporting it.

Members of the commission seemed to indicate that the number of individuals and organizations lending financial support to the proposal was more important that the dollar amount contributed.

The commission’s approach to conservation easements, Hunthausen said after the meeting, is for the county to be one of the partners, not the sole funding source.

“I gave all I could,” Shortridge, who is the fourth generation of her family to own the land, said after the meeting of the $81,000 she will forego in the easement’s value.

“I want to save that because of the wildlife,” she told the commission of the land’s importance to her. “I guess I do love it. It’s been real personal for me, and it’s been hard for me to convey that.”

The easement, she explained, would allow the property to remain a working ranch.

Accompanying the Shoco conservation easement proposal was more than 20 letters of support. Additional letters were read during the commission meeting and added to those already received.

The scenery was noted as reason to protect the property as was its importance to grizzly bears and elk that have their calves there. Smith Creek provides water during the late summer months and offers thermal protection to trout in the stream.

The stream is also fenced to keep cattle out other than when they’re permitted access to clean up vegetation.

Ranchers from Fairfield who have cattle on the land during the summer said conservation easements were the future for ranchers.

The county’s Open Lands program came from voter support in 2008 of a ballot measure approving issuance of up to $10 million in general obligation bonds to fund protections for land, water, wildlife, recreation and open space.

Of the $10 million, $3 million was converted into cash in 2010 to fund conservation easements. As of mid-August about $1,975,000 had been spent, according to a tally from the county’s finance office.

Another open lands bond request is already before the commission seeking $113,300 for the actual purchase of nearly 9.5 acres outside of Lincoln owned by Paul Roos.

The owner of a home valued at $200,000 pays $3.38 this year toward repayment of the $3 million in bonds that are scheduled to be retired in 2030. Forested and agricultural lands are exempt from the annual fee.

The annual fee can vary based on growth and new development in the county.

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Al Knauber can be reached at al.knauber@helenair.com

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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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