‘People will enjoy this open space for a long time’

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Siderius families protect 670 acres

Several major conservation easements were executed on lands owned by Siderius family members last month, capping a busy year for easements in the Flathead Valley.

A total of about 670 acres - in tracts owned by Tom and Terry Siderius, Charles Siderius and Dan Siderius - were permanently protected from development under easements purchased through a partnership of agencies and conservation organizations.

The Trust for Public Land teamed up with the Montana Land Reliance and the Bonneville Power Administration to broker the easements with grant funding.

The Siderius properties are located about six miles southeast of Kalispell along the main stem of the Flathead River, encompassing rich forest lands, sloughs, riparian areas and prime agricultural ground.

The easements allow for the lands, which have been farmed for generations, to be maintained as working farms and valuable wildlife habitat.

Tom Siderius said his family feels strongly about its connection to the land.

"We say we own (the land), but at the end of the day, we're just tenants," he said. "And it's our obligation to leave it in better shape than when we took it over. We take pride in that. Now we know people will enjoy this place - will enjoy this open space - for a long time."

Kelly Ramirez, a Trust for Public Land representative, said the Siderius easements play a central role in complementing other easements that have been secured over time on about 2,000 acres in the immediate area.

"I think what's very unique about that neighborhood is that there are several families with large holdings" that are protected by easements, Ramirez said. "That isn't the case as you get closer to Kalispell in areas that are getting subdivided and developed."

The Siderius properties are directly across the river from the 442-acre Owen Sowerwine Natural Area. Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks has been working for more than a decade in that vicinity to conserve properties, with several key easements, including some that provide fishing access sites around Weaver and Brenneman sloughs.

"The Siderius families have made a significant step in conserving not only important fish and wildlife habitats but legacy and a way of life in the Flathead Valley," said Amy Royer, Flathead development director with the Montana Land Reliance.

The Siderius easements were secured with grant funding from the federal Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program and from BPA's Hungry Horse Dam fisheries mitigation program. In pursuing projects that protect or enhance fisheries habitat in the Flathead, BPA is credited for mitigating fish habitat losses that resulted from the construction of Hungry Horse Dam.

Ramirez said 2007 was a big year for conservation easements, partly because of time-limited federal tax incentives that may be renewed, and because of growing experience in acquiring money and developing partnerships to execute easements.

Ten years ago, Ramirez said, there was scant grant funding available to compensate landowners for easements. Now there are more funding sources and more experience in acquiring those funds.

Momentum for conservation efforts grows as the number of easements increases in a particular area: Landowners can be less willing to pursue easements if there's a likelihood that their land will someday be surrounded by subdivisions.

Since 1972, the Trust for Public Land has completed 3,200 land conservation projects in 46 states, including projects that protect 200,000 acres in Montana.

The Montana Land Reliance is reporting that easements were secured on a total of 98,000 acres in Montana last year. It was biggest single-year conservation gain in the organization's history.

Other properties protected through easements in the Flathead Valley last year included 170 acres owned by Scott and Jane Wheeler in the West Valley area and 80 acres owned by Jay and Sandy Whitney along Montana 206 north of Woody's.

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