by Mike Thompson,
Fish, Wildlife & Parks
From the Pathfinder weekly column: Game Range Ramblings
February 19, 1998
On January 15, Claud Reinoehl, his wife Betty, and Rex Griffin sat in the land title company office in Missoula with FWP's land agent, Debra Dils, and myself. The title company official dealt a steady stream of legal papers to all parties, and as the signatures amassed, only then did we let ourselves believe that this long-awaited project would actually come to fruition.
It's official. There is a Reinoehl Conservation Easement, and it covers 634 acres next to the Blackfoot-Clearwater Game Range. There is a Clearwater Junction Conservation Easement, and it covers 254 acres between Highway 83 and the Clearwater River, south of Harper's Lake. The proposal you read about in this column last fall is now a done deal, but it never was a sure thing.
FWP's file on the Reinoehl easement goes back to August of 1991, when Claud first approached John Firebaugh and I with a proposal to acquire his ranch. Since then, we worked through Plan B, Plan C and were about to run out of plans before we closed on the deal last month.
From the beginning, the problem was money. It's not that FWP doesn't have any funding dedicated to the purchase of wildlife habitat. In fact, earmarked revenues from the sale of Montana hunting licenses amount to more than 2 million dollars each year in funding that may be spent for no other purpose than habitat protection. While it sounds like a lot of money, a full year's worth of habitat funding could be exhausted on only about 600 acres of property along the Clearwater River nowadays. FWP's habitat work must be accomplished across the entire state of Montana.
To use limited funds more effectively, the Fish, Wildlife & Parks Commission has emphasized the purchase of conservation easements to protect wildlife habitat. It costs less to "purchase" only the selected property rights that are necessary to protect wildlife habitat than it does to purchase and manage an entire property. By using conservation easements, private land remains in private ownership, but FWP pays willing landowners for setting aside their subdivision and development rights to forever maintain wildlife habitat in key locations.
It took awhile for FWP's program of acquiring conservation easements to pick up steam. Ranchers were initially cautious about granting property rights to the state, and FWP's habitat funds accumulated. Today, with momentum gained from numerous successful projects across the state, there are far more landowners willing to grant conservation easements than there are funds to pay for them. While it is a meas ure of success that FWP no longer needs to sell its conservation easement program door to door, it is a disappointment to deny very generous offers from many owners of valuable wildlife habitats that don't rank high against other available properties statewide.
Along with some other promising proposals in the Game Range vicinity, the Reinoehl project in its various forms remained unfunded, year after year. Meanwhile, Claud and Betty needed to get on with their lives, and FWP remained concerned about what might happen to the Reinoehl Ranch, and the neighboring Game Range, under the next owner's stewardship.
We were one dreamer short of a load before Rex Griffin arrived on the scene. Rex was looking for a place to establish a guest ranch when he noticed the "for sale" sign at Claud's driveway. Rex and Claud were at a stalemate in their negotiations when FWP's interest in the land became a topic of discussion. While FWP couldn't provide the money Claud wanted, FWP could provide some land in a trade. And, while Claud didn't want the land FWP could provide, Rex Griffin did and was willing to pay Claud for it. To make a long and complex story short, FWP ended up with conservation easements on all involved properties, Rex obtained ownership of the land that he wanted most, and Claud got an amount of money he was satisfied with. FWP paid for the conservation easements with the value of the land it traded away (west of Highway 83), Rex paid for his land with cash, and Claud earned his money by granting a conservation easement.
It wasn't until we had closed on the deal that Claud and Betty showed all their cards. "The elk came down last night," they reported, and we discussed how many hundred animals had crossed their property, and where the elk were earlier in the week when FWP surveyed the popula tion by helicopter. "We really do like to see them here," Claud confessed to me for the first time since I've known him.
Hmmm. Maybe Claud and Betty weren't working as hard to sell their ranch as we thought.