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HAMILTON -- For the first time ever, a well-established federal program is helping to fund new conservation easements in the Bitterroot Valley.

The Federal Farm and Ranchlands Protection Program invested $6.5 million in conservation easements across Montana last year.

Three of those were in the Bitterroot Valley.

The Severson and Sunset Bench ranches in the Burnt Fork area east of Stevensville and the Downey family property up Willow Creek each qualified for funding under the federal program.

"We're excited to see this program as a viable source for voluntary agricultural land conservation in the Bitterroot," said Gavin Ricklefs, executive director of the Bitter Root Land Trust. "It fits really well in the Bitterroot. It's nice to see those dollars coming here."

The program focuses on conserving high-quality agricultural lands through conservation easements. The federal money is used to match other funding sources to pay for the easements.

The program was established in the 2002 federal Farm Bill.

Dennis Dellwo is a program specialist with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which administers the program in the state.

Initially, Dellwo said the program focused its efforts on larger urban valleys in Missoula, Bozeman and Kalispell. Over the past few years, more areas of the state, including Ravalli County, are tapping into the money.

"They have the open space initiative to provide matching funds and land trusts for us to work with," Dellwo said. "It works well. They sell the program, and we vet the project to ensure taxpayers are getting what they are supposed to be getting."

Since its inception, Dellwo said, the federal program has helped fund 47 projects in Montana.

This year, Dellwo expects the program to inject about $4 million into the state.

"It's really come alive," he said. "Montana has a lot of good land trusts, and, with all those folks out there, it's not hard to put together good projects for land with a little effort."

"This program helps ensure that ag lands will stay in agriculture," Dellwo said.

"It's often said that ranchers and farmers are cash poor and land rich. This program helps them tap into a little of that equity and keep farming or ranching while perpetually protecting those working farm lands."

All conservation easements are voluntary, and they don't happen overnight.

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"It can take a long time -- and it probably should -- for a family to determine if a conservation easement is the right fit for them," Ricklefs said.

In Ravalli County, all of the conservation easements so far under the county's open lands program have included a substantial donation from property owners as part of the match required to complete a conservation easement.

In a conservation easement, the property owners agree to give up a portion of the development rights to their property forever in exchange for tax benefits and sometimes a cash payment.

Ravalli County voters passed a $10 million open lands bond in 2006 to conserve agricultural lands.

Ricklefs said the federal money require a match, which is provided by the county's open lands bond funding.

"This is an ongoing program of the NRCS that has a lot of support," Ricklefs said. "And, now, it's clearly been demonstrated that the Bitterroot is a good fit for the program. That clearly shows that the program is open for business in Ravalli County now. We think that is a really positive step for agriculture here in the Bitterroot Valley."

The deadline for the 2012 funding cycle is in early March. Ricklefs said there are landowners in the pipeline who might qualify this year.

"We're hoping that there will be more in the future," he said.

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