Lewis and Clark County is considering spending about $1 million in open space bonding for a 3,100-acre Helena–area conservation easement brought by Prickly Pear Land Trust.
The county commission voted at a recent meeting to open public comment on funding the Potter Ranch conservation easement. Under the terms of the easement, which has already received endorsement of the county’s citizen advisory council, development of the working ranch would be limited and the land kept in open space. In exchange, the landowners would donate more than $500,000 toward the more than $1.5 million appraised value of the easement and Prickly Pear is requesting a little more than $1 million in county bonding. The Cinnabar Foundation would also contribute $8,000 to the project.
Prickly Pear Executive Director Mary Hollow described recent development in the Helena area as “astronomical” with many recently sold properties bought by people from out of state and above asking price.
“I think it’s indicative of the pressure we’re going to see,” she told the commission, comparing it to a similar trend in Gallatin County.
The $10 million open space bond passed in 2008. The county spent roughly $5.7 million on multiple easements and acquisitions. Easements typically encumber large tracts of intact agricultural land from subdivision and may or may not include public access. The Potter easement does not include public access.
The Potter Ranch, owned by Douglas and Rhonda Potter, is 3,100 acres located east of Spokane Creek Road in the Spokane Hills. The ranch abuts BLM and state land including the McMaster trails east of Helena.
“I think during the COVID crisis more and more our human connection to the land and water is more valuable than I think it’s ever been for many of us right now,” Hollow told the commission. “When we lose open space we lose those ecosystem services, like clean air, clean water, wildlife, viewsheds, and the public benefits that come along with open space protections like this.”
Hollow described the size of the property as a rarity for a conservation easement, saying it is one of the best proposals she has seen in 15 years of working in the sector. Other easements have been valued at more than $1,600 per acre while the Potter Ranch comes in at $352 per acre.
“The bang-for-the-buck on this project is one of the best I’ve seen and one of the best Prickly Pear Land Trust has brought to the county,” she said.
Douglas Potter told the commission that his family ties to the area date back to his grandparents in the early 1900s. He rattled off several ancestors who purchased additional property over the years for a family with deep ties to agriculture.
“Your family bought property but kept adding on – I’ve pondered this quite a bit – and the reason being is that they wanted to make a better life for their family,” he said. “It wasn’t a land grab, it was a way to make things better.”
Potter said his family spent years considering when to put a conservation easement on the property. Along with his family history, the dry climate of the Spokane Hills and concerns about aquifers under future development drove the decision to proceed.
Still, the decision was a difficult one. It took a number of years, meetings and advice to achieve. He credited staff at Prickly Pear for helping the family through the arduous process.
“I mean this is something that will be on this land forever, but with human beings and shelf life, well we won’t,” Potter said. “So the decisions that go with this are very difficult.
“… The proposal we have before you is something we believe in and we think this property should be kept in one piece in perpetuity.”
Glenn Marx with the Montana Association of Land Trusts also praised the project, noting that while Lewis and Clark County wants development and economic growth, voters in 2008 were deliberate in passing the bond as a balancing act between growth and open space.
Commissioners responded positively to the project and voted unanimously to send it out for public comment.
Submit comments by Aug. 1 to the commission by emailing email@example.com.
Reporter Tom Kuglin can be reached at 447-4076 @IR_TomKuglin