STEVENSVILLE — A campaign aimed at conserving the "water, wildlife and working lands" in Ravalli County is entering the home stretch.
However, organizers say it's a race against the new development pressures spurred by the pandemic.
There's a building boom in the Bitterroot this summer, at least partly a result of relocations spurred by the pandemic exodus from other states.
"We all see it and it's great for our local economy," Lauren Rennaker told MTN News as we surveyed lands already protected from atop the Stevensville Bench.
"But at the same time we want to make sure that we protect what makes this place so special, and that's our critical water resources, open lands for wildlife habitat and local agriculture."
Rennaker is the Development Director for the Bitter Root Land Trust (BRLT), which is scrambling to keep up with ranchers interested in the conservation programs.
The Bitter Root Land Trust has at least two dozen ranchers lined up, waiting to sell their development rights instead of starting subdivisions because of their interest in "Keeping it Bitterroot".
"It makes a great problem for us to have, but at the same time, we realize we need to capitalize on this now before it's too late. Before we see neighborhoods everywhere and conserve these special values of the Bitterroot."
The campaign's goal is $600,000. Not to buy those development rights, but to help BRLT keep up with the applications.
"We have the funding. We have the landowner capacity, we just don't have the internal wherewithal to be able to respond," Rennaker explains.
The Trexler Family, which ranches in Corvallis, is among the residents featured in the campaign video produced with the help of MAPS Media Institute in Hamilton.
"But now you know, there's more people moved in and things have gotten chopped up and places to get smaller. And it's nice to have these places like this one where there they can't be subdivided." - Reed Trexler
His wife, Kari Trexler, says it's getting "harder every day to find places to run our cattle" because of the development.
"That's why we're doing this. Just have something to pass down to your kids at the end of the day to know that they want to come back and carry on their tradition of ranching. It makes my heart feel good."
Father Larry Trexler is also featured in the 8-minute video.
"It gives the opportunity for our kids to be able to own this. That's what, in my opinion, the Bitter Land Trust needs to be able to keep doing that."
Rennaker says the Trexlers are a prime example of the families that have been helped with the conservation programs in recent years, setting aside more than 8,000 acres in the Bitterroot. But at least that much more land could be included in the coming decade.
"Most of our work are multi-generational, long time Bitterroot families, so we want to make sure that they are able to keep their land and keep it for all of those conservation values."
The video not only illustrates the ranching story but how Bitterroot families are benefitting from the conservation set-asides.
Brian Dufresne, who is a member of the BRLT Next Generation Committee, tells how getting outdoors at places like Skalkaho Bend Park helped his son, who was struggling with isolation during the pandemic last year.
"A ranch preserved on the Burnt Fork or a few ranches then protect elk habitat which helps hunters. It protects water, which helps fishermen," Dufresne relates during his segment of the video.
"It's the small town Montana lifestyle where we still talk to each other as we stroll by. We still pick up our trash and we enjoy the very reason we live here."
And the Land Trust hopes that message secures the final $60,000.
"We have individuals walking up to us on the street saying this is the time we need to do this now and we're willing to give a dollar $50 and anything that you need to be able to make this campaign happen and reality for the Bitterroot Valley," Rennaker says.