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Helena City-County Building

Helena City-County Building

The citizen advisory committee on the Lewis and Clark County Open Lands Program has agreed to recommend two projects for funding.

While the committee recommended fully funding a $1 million request to purchase a conservation easement on about 2,888 acres of the Gehring Ranch, it was less certain about what to recommend for the proposed $783,000 purchase of a conservation easement on 836 acres of the Shoco Ranch by Augusta.

Committee members left a decision on the level of funding to the county commission.

Both of the committee’s votes on the conservation easements were unanimous, with 10 members supporting the proposals.

Gehring Ranch sits west of and adjacent to Lincoln Road about four miles west of Green Meadow Drive. The property includes portions of Silver and Threemile creeks.

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

During the three-hour advisory committee’s meeting, it was noted that the soonest the commission could consider the recommendations was the middle of this month.

Once the commission begins its consideration, a 30-day public comment period could begin before the commission further considers the proposals.

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

Of the $10 million approved by voters, $3 million was converted into cash in 2010 to fund projects.

As of mid-August, about $1,975,000 had been spent, according to a tally from the county’s finance office.

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, although forested and agricultural lands are exempt from the annual fee, said Nancy Everson, the county’s finance director.

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

Another Open Lands Program funding request is already before the commission, seeking $113,300 for the purchase of nearly 9.5 acres outside of Lincoln owned by Paul Roos.

The funding application submitted by Five Valleys Land Trust of Missoula, which would become the property’s owner if the request is approved, lists Prickly Pear Land Trust here in Helena as a secondary sponsoring organization.

Both commission Chairman Mike Murray and Commissioner Andy Hunthausen, while not disputing the value of the project for Lincoln, previously expressed concern.

Unlike other projects funded through the Open Lands Program, the request for the Lincoln Community River Park had no entity other than Lewis and Clark County providing cash to make the acquisition possible.

The Gehring Ranch conservation easement is proposed by the Prickly Pear Land Trust. The application stated that the $1 million funding from the Open Lands Program will be matched by the landowner, who will donate $1.21 million of the easement’s value, which amounts to almost 55 percent of the easement’s total value.

Additionally, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will contribute $7,500 to the project, and $2,500 will come from the Travelers for Open Land program. Together, the two contributions amount to 1 percent of what is being requested of the county’s Open Lands program.

Project costs, which include a $12,871 stewardship fee, a preliminary appraisal costing $3,000 and title reports and mineral rights searches at $1,000 and $1,530 respectively, as well as a baseline and environmental report for $5,976, amount to more than $28,000, according to the Gehring Ranch level two application.

The conservation easement won’t increase public access, the application stated, but it noted that the ranch currently has more than 1,200 acres open to hunting through the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks block management program.

The property is said in its application to provide a critical link for wildlife between the Scratchgravel Hills and the Canyon Creek area.

This property has been a ranch for 150 years in an area that has seen increasing subdivision in recent years, the application noted. A map of the area details the residential tracts that now fill much of this part of the Helena Valley.

"One doesn't have to look much beyond the Valley to know where development pressure is headed,” Mary Hollow, executive director of the Prickly Pear Land Trust, wrote in an email.

“Bill Gehring's iconic ranch on the edge of town has been feeling that pressure for quite some time, and Prickly Pear Land Trust is thrilled to play a part in protecting this working ranch and piece of Canyon Creek history."

"Prickly Pear Land Trust seeks projects for the open space funding that hit several of the program's goals,” she continued, adding “Our recent projects have been additions to city parkland and trails. This one has open space, wildlife, water protection; it's good to have a mix of different project types."

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The Shoco Ranch application, sponsored by the Montana Land Reliance, would provide the landowner with $729,000, which is 90 percent of the $810,000 appraised value of the conservation easement.

The $783,000 sought from the Open Lands Program would be matched by an $81,000 donation in the conservation easement’s value.

Montana Land Reliance and Shoco Ranch costs that include $9,000 for an appraisal, $2,500 for a legal review plus $2,050 for consultation and legal services for the ranch, plus $27,000 for a land protection fund/stewardship endowment, bring the project costs to $54,000 that would be reimbursed through the Open Lands program funding request.

The Shoco Ranch has been a working ranch along Smith Creek for nearly 100 years, according to the funding application. Its current owner, Sally Shortridge, is the fourth generation of the Shortridge family to work the ranch.

Ranch lands provide spring calving grounds for elk, and Smith Creek is used as a travel corridor for grizzly bears, the application noted. The roughly 4.5 miles of creek flowing through the ranch produces brown, rainbow and cutthroat trout.

The ranch was visited by the Lewis and Clark expedition on July 8, 1806, and provides habitat for wildlife species that include deer, lynx, mountain lion, beaver and many species of birds.

An array of neighbors wrote the county in support of the application. A March 13 letter from Sarah Howe-Cobb states “Conserving the Shoco Ranch will enhance the future of protected lands along the Rocky Mountain Front.”

“Sally (Shortridge) wants to leave a legacy by making sure this pristine, well-managed ranch is not diminished by future development. She has been an excellent steward of that land and has put her heart and soul into improving this property over many years,” wrote Linda Reynolds of Bozeman.

“It would be a shame to see this beautiful land subdivided, putting all this in danger of pollution and closed public access,” Joyce (Bean) Adams stated in her letter of support.

Kurt Geise, operator and manager of the Augusta Water and Sewer District, added his voice to support of the conservation easement and said it would protect and conserve Smith Creek’s water.

“This easement will limit subdivision of property and impacts to the watershed,” he explained.

“This project ensures open lands and recreational spaces for myself and those generations that come after me,” Doug Reutzel of Augusta wrote.

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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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