Flathead Land Trust wraps up major project

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Karen Nichols/Daily Inter Lake
Liz and Rusby Seabaugh recently signed a conservation agreement covering 228 acres of their Foy's Bend property. The couple is pictured carrying irrigation pipe out of their hay field Thursday evening near their Foy's Bend home. Working with the Flathead Land Trust, the Seabaughs also put an easement on 460 acres they own near Weaver Slough. A total of 984 acres of critical farm and wetlands in the Lower Valley will be protected under the conservation agreements with the Seabaughs and Ray and Darlene Sanders.

It's been a long haul, but the Flathead Land Trust recently wrapped up a project that has secured more than 1,100 acres in conservation easements.

"It takes an army to put a project like this together," said Sara Swan Busse, the trust's interim executive director. "And we had one."

To secure the easements, The Flathead Land Trust worked with four couples who own land in the Weaver Slough and Foy's Bend areas of Lower Valley, as well as numerous government and nonprofit organizations.

The agreements ensure that acreage near Weaver Slough and at Foy's Bend will be protected in perpetuity from development and subdivision. The easements were finalized in the last few weeks, bringing to a close a project that took five years and cost about $1 million.

Each of the landowners donated and/or sold the development rights for their properties to the land trust.

When the land trust began the project, it relied on a study by the Flathead Lakers, a local nonprofit conservation organization, that identified areas critical for preserving water quality and wildlife.

The land trust then approached landowners in the identified areas to gauge their interest in easements.

"I was pretty obstinate at the beginning," said Larry O'Connell, who owns land in the area of Weaver Slough, also called Wylie Slough.

But O'Connell and his wife, Bernadine, talked with their family and decided that an easement would be a good way to protect the land their family has owned for about 60 years.

"Rather than have developers around my neck, we might as well lock it up in an easement," he said.

While O'Connell said he needed some time to think about an easement, Rusby and Liz Seabaugh said they were interested as soon as the Flathead Land Trust approached them.

"We'd been looking to do it anyway," Rusby Seabaugh said. "We were looking for a way to protect the land because the valley has just been torn apart so bad that there isn't going to be anything left, and people have a responsibility."

He and his wife have owned and farmed their property since the early 1970s. They put several hundred acres under easement in both the Weaver Slough area and closer to their home on Lower Valley Road.

The parcel of land behind the Seabaughs' home was the final piece secured in the conservation project.

Landowners Steve and Sue Cummings had previously donated lands to an easement, but they allowed the Flathead Land Trust to purchase additional adjacent acreage in the Weaver Slough area for this project.

"We're just really happy to see it will continue to be open space," Steve Cummings said.

Landowners said the Flathead Land Trust easements offer them the best of both worlds: compensation for their lands, as well as the option to donate acreage, and the chance to conserve the land in perpetuity.

"All of a sudden you kind of get the power to protect it," landowner Ray Sanders said. "And it makes you feel pretty good."

The Weaver Slough and Foy's Bend areas are not only beautiful but also provide rich habitat for wildlife, landowners say.

This project was the Flathead Land Trust's first time pursuing a major project that involved purchasing easements, Busse said.

The endeavor required that the trust apply for funding from numerous sources. Further complicating the matter were the many restrictions, stipulations and deadlines imposed on the trust by funding sources, Busse said.

The Montana Ag Heritage Fund, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm and Ranch Protection Fund and the Bonneville Power Administration helped the land trust through the process and provided money.

Landowners agree that the process was long and more involved than they anticipated but that the result was worth it. Busse said that the trust maintained confidence in the project throughout the years.

"We knew eventually it was going to be our time [to receive the grants] because we knew how important this area is," she said.

Under the easements, landowners maintain the right to farm the land and use it for other traditional practices such as hunting.

Those rights went a long way with landowners such as Sanders.

He and his wife, Darlene, have retired from farming, but the easement means their daughter and son-in-law can continue to work the land.

Landowners also recognized that they they could have received more money for their land if they had sold to developers. But conservation was their priority, they said.

"Money isn't everything," Sanders said.

And landowners aren't alone in their beliefs that conservation is crucial to maintaining the Flathead Valley's heritage.

"The last year or so, when I tell people I'm under easement," O'Connell said, "people slap my back and say, 'good for you.'"

Reporter Camden Easterling may be reached at 758-4429 or by e-mail at ceasterling@dailyinterlake.com

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