CASCADE -- An icy wind whipped down from the Adel Mountains in the distance and across the brown, rolling grassland of the Sieben Live Stock Company ranch.

Although the sunny blue sky held promise of spring, patches of snow, frozen mud and ice still gripped the landscape.

In a nearby field, a ranch hand spread hay for the heifers. Down at the lambing shed, the ranch foreman's wife shepherded newborn lambs into straw-filled pens to nurse with their mamas.

This family ranching operation has endured and thrived on this land for the past century.

Tyrrell Hibbard is the fifth generation of his family to operate the ranch. He took a break Wednesday from his round of winter chores to talk about a momentous decision his family made to preserve the ranch.

In the past months, they donated a 40,064-acre conservation easement to the Montana Land Reliance. It is the biggest conservation easement ever donated to the land trust in its 30-year history.

Tyrrell, 26, who returned to the ranch this year, is learning how the full year of ranching activities fits together, he said. It is preparing him for his goal of running ranch operations with his brother in the future.

The recent conservation easement ensures that the ranch will be passed on to them intact.

"It's going to help us preserve this landscape," he said, "and hopefully preserve the ranching lifestyle as well."

Sieben beginnings

Love of the land runs deep in the Hibbard family. So does an abiding respect for the legacy created by family patriarch Henry Sieben, who purchased the land in 1907.

But the decision to donate the conservation easement wasn't made lightly, said brothers Scott and Chase Hibbard.

Chase, the president of Sieben Live Stock Co., manages the ranch with the help of his brothers, Scott and Whit.

Although Chase and Scott have served on the Montana Land Reliance board of directors, the decision took years of conversations, estate planning and long-range planning discussions with the whole family, they said during a recent interview at the ranch's business office in downtown Helena.

They joke that they started talking about it in 1979. But serious negotiations began in the past four years, said Chase.

Looking down from a portrait on the wall of the office in the old Livestock Building is Henry Sieben, their great-grandfather.

As a 17-year-old in 1864, the German orphan walked up the Bozeman Trail with his brother in search of his destiny in the Montana Territory. He hunted and trapped and freighted supplies from Fort Benton and Corinne, Utah, to Montana mining camps. Later, he saw a greener future in raising sheep and cattle, and bought up land and water rights in various parts of Montana until he wound up with two ranches -- one in the Adel Basin and another outside of Helena.

"You might expect to see him in a cowboy hat," said Chase. "He was admitted to the Cowboy Hall of Fame. But you always saw him in a business hat and shoes and tie. Rumor had it that he didn't like sheep, he was a cowman. But he made his living raising sheep."

Eventually he split the ranch operation between his two daughters, with one ranch -- Sieben Live Stock Co., 30 miles south of Cascade -- operated by the Hibbard family branch, and the other -- the Sieben Ranch outside of Helena -- operated by the Baucus branch of the family.

Chase and Scott are careful to not talk about their family ranch in term of acres. It's been a family practice for generations. Instead they refer to it as "substantial" and "one of the larger in Montana."

It runs 1,650 mother cows, 1,400 yearlings and 1,500 sheep, said Chase.

In the 1960s, the Sieben Live Stock Co. ran as many as 12,000 sheep. But poor lamb and wool prices prompted a refiguring of the operation. It's now 15 percent sheep and 85 percent cattle.

But their purebred Targhee rams are still prized at the Montana Ram Sale and have been since the 1930s. The ranch has also earned several state, regional and national awards for its land stewardship in the past 15 years (see sidebar, page 11A).

Some ranching families find themselves in a rut over the years, doing things the way they've always been done, said Rock Ringling, a MLR managing director, who grew up in a Montana ranching family.

"The Hibbard family has been able to drive out of the rut and think about production agriculture in an entirely different way," he said.

This has them rethinking what they do. They changed their grazing techniques, utilizing forage better, while gaining better water retention and soil quality.

"We are making huge steps in improving our range quality and seeing economic benefits," said Chase. "We're having the animals work with the grassland to their mutual benefit."

They've also altered their calving time to better utilize forage availability, according to Tyrrell. As a result, they feed hay about 20 days, instead of 100 days.

Family legacy

It was the Hibbards' commitment to both the future and the past that convinced them to donate the conservation easement, which makes up the heart of the ranch.

"This ranch has been in the family 100 years," said Scott, "and we hope it will continue at a minimum into the next generation. A lot of the decision has to do with honoring our legacy.

"This ranch has existed because of a lot of generations. We are the fourth. Our kids are the fifth. It's been passed on as an heirloom.

"It isn't there as a pot of gold to cash in. It's part of a family ethic. It's passed down from generation to generation. It's become almost sacred. This ranch is more important as a whole than our needs as individuals. A primary concern is to keep it that way."

Their lives have been shaped by the land.

"Our history and character and the soul of that ranch defines who we are and has become our identity as individuals and family members," said Chase. "That ranch has a soul. It's a special place. It's not just about dirt and grass. It's unique."

And ranches such as theirs have helped shape Montana, as well.

"It's not just important for us," said Scott. "It's important to Montana. It's important to have working landscapes. There are not a lot of old ranching families left."

Extraordinary land

Then there is the land itself.

To Bill Long, a MLR managing director, the flowing grasslands of the Sieben Live Stock ranch are his vision of what Montana is. He called it a "short-grass Serengeti."

"Driving through the ranch, there is wildlife everywhere, but it's also a flourishing sheep and cattle ranch," he said.

"There are more native grasses per acre than any area of the state," said Ringling. "It's tremendously productive for agriculture and it's tremendously productive for wildlife species."

Adjoining the Beartooth Game Range, the ranch sits in a major wildlife corridor.

It's home to sandhill cranes, curlews, northern harriers, bald and golden eagles, blue grouse, Hungarian partridges, waterfowl, pronghorns, deer, elk, mountain lions and black bears. Moose and even an occasional wolf pass through.

The species richness is no accident. The brothers have long participated in a collaborative group of ranchers and land managers known as the Devils Kitchen, who work together to resolve natural-resource issues in the surrounding area.

"It's a gift to everyone, whether they be a birdwatcher or hunter," said Ringling. "This ranch provides all."

And now the future of the ranch's nucleus is protected.

"This is going to be a ranch, not a gated community," said Ringling. "This family decided to be innovative in continuing production agriculture. The decisions of this family are very representative of questions being asked across all of Montana.

"It goes to the heart and soul of what is Montana. Is it Gallatin Valley McMansions or is it the historic landscapes and wildlife habitat of Montana?"

The Hibbard family used a new federal tax incentive for donating conservation easements.

While the tax incentive helped them make the final decision, said Scott, it wasn't the major impetus.

"We have a huge tax bill based on the value of the land, not based on its income," he said.

In order to pass the land on, the family would have had to sell some of it to meet the federal estate tax, he said.

"That's a wonderful thing an easement can do," said Chase. "We gave up some of our bundle of rights and we get some favorable tax relief."

Looking to the future

Scott admitted that the final decision triggered some fear.

"It's sobering," he said. He recalled thinking, "Man, this is ours. What are we giving up? The risk is unknown. We can't see into perpetuity. We don't know what the future holds. Once an easement condition is made, you can't make it more lenient. There is still part of me that has some of that fear."

Most of that fear, however, was worked through during the years of the planning process.

"Preserving this part of the ranch was more important than any of our individual needs," he said. "We were willing to make personal sacrifice to protect that piece of property because it meant so much to us."

Chase added, "I'm president of the corporation. I had to make sure we wouldn't compromise our ability to make a living. I had to make sure we weren't restricting our income.

"I haven't had buyers' remorse one second. It was just a huge relief. I think we've done the right thing."

Stewardship and preservation awards

1993 -- Cooperator of the Year, Cascade County Conservation District

1994 -- Excellence in Grazing Management Award - International Mountain Section, Society for Range Management

2001-- Montana Stock Growers Association Environmental Stewardship Award - winner of both state and regional competitions

2007 -- Environmental Protection Agency's Environmental Achievement Award

2007 -- Montana Good Neighbor Award - Artemis Foundation

2008 -- Cascade Historical Society Historical Preservation Award

What is a conservation easement?

It is a perpetual deed restriction that preserves land from development. It runs with the title of the property regardless of future ownership.

Donating an easement can yield state and federal tax savings. Montana Land Reliance compares land ownership to holding a bundle of land rights, including development rights, water rights, road easement rights, or mineral rights.

With a conservation easement, the development rights are donated to the Reliance or another land trust. Each conservation easement is both the same and different, according to MLR. While they are the same in that they all prevent conversion of the land, they differ in being tailored to the particular property and needs of the family.

To do a conservation easement, the land must have conservation or open space value.

Tax benefit legislation

The Conservation Title of the 2008 Farm Bill would renew the conservation easement tax incentive that the Hibbard family used in establishing an easement.

The legislation raises the deduction for a conservation easement to 50 percent of adjusted gross income. Previously it has been a 30 percent deduction. It also allows qualified farmers and ranchers to deduct 100 percent of their AGI. And the bill extends the carry-forward period to take tax deductions to 15 years, instead of five years.

The legislation introducing this tax incentive was sponsored by Sen. Max Baucus and was in effect from August 2006 through December 2007. Baucus has re-introduced it as part of the current farm bill.

Reporter Marga Lincoln: 447-4074 or marga.lincoln@helenair.com

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