Lewis & Clark County considering $1M conservation easement

Posted at 12:22 PM, Nov 03, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-03 14:22:40-04

The Gehring Ranch encompasses 2,888 acres in the North Helena Valley off Lincoln Road.  Owner Bill Gehring has worked the property his entire life, much of it while splitting his time working with the state.

“I was a laborer for nearly 39 years, that’s kind of what I had to do,” said Gehring. “I was at a point in my life where I couldn’t do both anymore, so this is what I’ve decided to do.”

Now retired, the ranch is his sole focus: “It’s totally in my blood.”

The ranch is prime property. Cattle share rolling hills and prairies with a bison herd that can be spotted if the timing is right. It also contains almost two miles of Silver Creek and a mile and a half of Three Mile Creek.

“In the bigger scheme of things, it helps the world. We’re losing more and more of our agriculture ground for subdivisions,” explained Gehring.

It’s easy to see why conserving the land is on Gehring’s mind; subdivisions and neighborhoods can be spotted nearby. He says ensuring open space and preserving the working ranch became more appealing over time.  

For Gehring, the conservation easement is a guarantee the ranch will never be divided or developed, and protected from changing times. But to get the deal done he is giving up about 55 percent of the land value, about $1.2 million and some of the subsurface mineral rights

“It totally preserves the land forever. For future generations or future owners who would have no control over it, but this way I’ll be ruling it from the grave,” Gehring said. “When I leave this Earth, ya know, I’ll be remembered hopefully as a steward of the land, preserving it forever,” Gehring said optimistically.

The Open Lands Program

Lewis & Clark County currently has more than 67,000 residents within its boundaries. While development and growth is critical for economic advancement, in 2008 residents approved a $10 million general obligation bond to create the Open Lands Program.

The Open Lands Program ensures development will not occur on land where these conservation easements are in place.

“As a Montana and Helena native, I think it’s important to protect our way of life and open space is part of our way of life,” explained Lewis & Clark County Commission chairman Mike Murray.

To date, the county has spent $1.1 million on four completed conservation easement projects: McDonough Conservation near the Rocky Mountain Front, Milburn Conservation adjacent to Austin and Birdseye Roads, Aspen Trails Ranch along Olsen and York Roads adjacent to Prickly Pear Creek, and York Gulch Acquisition two miles east of York on Black Bear Road.

Before a project is approved it is evaluated thoroughly. Projects must meet at least one of seven criteria outlined for a conservation easement to be put in place:

  • Water: protect drinking water resources and groundwater quality
  • Rivers & Streams: protect water quality in and along rivers and streams
  • Conserve: conserve working farm, ranch, and forest land
  • Wildlife: protect wildlife areas
  • Open Lands: preserve open lands and natural areas
  • Public Access: provide public access for recreation
  • Manage: manage growth and development

The Gehring Ranch meets five of the seven. But, the public will not gain access to land with this million-dollar conservation project.

Gehring does have over 1,200 acres in the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ block management program. Block management allows access for hunters who get permission from the landowner or FWP.

This is not the only project that does not explicitly offer public access approved by the Lewis and Clark County Commission.

“There are conservation easements we’ve granted that did not allow public access, but protect the land from development and provide for the viewshed” Murray explained.

What’s Next

The Gehrings are also in the process of getting the ranch registered on the National Historic Register. Bill’s current home is part of the original 1860’s homestead as well as numerous other original buildings on the property, such as the barn, metalsmith workshop and sheds.

The 30 day comment period opened for the Gehring Ranch is ongoing. Commissioners plan to make a ruling during their November 14 meeting.

Details on how to give feedback can be found on the county’s Open Lands page.

The Gehring Ranch project isn’t the only open space project in front of county commissioners.

The commission also recently looked at preserving the Shoco Ranch near Augusta. The project would cost the county $783,000, or 90 percent of the appraised value, for 836 acres.

The Shoco Ranch project has been returned to the Citizens Advisory Committee to provide more time for the sponsor, in this case is the Montana Land Reliance, to secure more funding.

Another recent project, the Lincoln Community River Park Acquisition, has been tabled pending more funding from the sponsor. That project was estimated to cost $113,300 to protect 9.45 acres.

A decision is scheduled to take place on the Lincoln project on Thursday, November 10.

If all three of the proposed projects ultimately pass they would cost the county $1,896,300. That would leave approximately $7 million left to spend on open land project.