Potter Ranch Conserves Vast Landscape

The Potter Ranch, PPLT’s largest and most visible Conservation Easement to date, protects the Spokane Hills-an excerpt from PPLT's 2020 summer newsletter.

When Doug Potter’s father came back from World War II, he wanted to farm. The trouble was, he didn’t have a ranch or money to buy one. Doug’s grandparents, however, had nearly paid off their property on the Spokane Hills east of Helena, which they had acquired in the early 1900s. “My grandparents took a deeded indenture on their property so my father could farm,” recalled Doug at a recent hearing before the Lewis and Clark County commissioners.

Doug’s father, in turn, purchased his own ranch, adjacent to his parents’ place. “It really meant something to my grandfather. Doug’s uncles did the same and in time the Potter spread was assembled. “They wanted to make a better life for their family,” Doug said. “They went about it by acquiring more land … to keep hold of it. We have held on to it the best we could.”

“The proposal before you is something we believe in. This property should be kept in one piece, in perpetuity,”explained Doug. The three commissioners agreed and voted unanimously to open a 30-day public comment on whether or not to commit around one million dollars of the county’s Open Space Bond money to the easement acquisition. In fact, the commissioners were so impressed by Prickly Pear Land Trust’s presentation that they suggested “the candor” of the process should serve as a model to similar proposals across the state.

Located ten miles east of Helena, the Potter Ranch makes up a substantial portion of the Spokane Hills and is one of the few remaining working ranches of its size in the Helena Valley, explains Travis Vincent, PPLT Lands Project Manager who worked with the Potters through the process to develop the conservation easement terms and seek funding for the project. The ranch abuts an additional 6,300 acres of BLM land, formerly the McMaster Ranch.

“The property, which steadily rises up from Spokane Creek and Spokane Creek Road, consists of grassland and mixed forest foothills, including an elevated bench where the majority of the Potter’s hay production occurs,” Travis wrote in PPLT’s application to the county.

Early financial support from the Cinnabar Foundation and Westech Environmental’s donation of in-kind services really helped us get the project off the ground. “Due diligence on a project of this scale is not cheap. It takes a lot of partners,” describes Travis. The commissioners’ vote was preceded by a complex evaluation by the county Citizens Advisory Committee which voted, unanimously, to recommend the proposal to the Commission. “If the Commissioners agree to fund the project, it will be a major victory for all our partners, but more importantly for any residents who enjoy looking out their windows and seeing open space and elk habitat,” Travis added. PPLT’s proposal asks the county to cover two-thirds of the total appraised value of the conservation easement, and the Potter’s plan to donate the rest.

His family’s legacy wasn’t the only motivation for Doug Potter and his wife of 36 years, Ronda. “The subdivision pressure will affect the aquifer of the East Valley,” he said in his testimony. “That (water issues) and family history is what drove me to walk into the PPLT offices years ago and express his interest in exploring the possibility of a conservation easement.”

The Potter project protects more acreage than the last three Commissioner-approved projects at half the cost to the taxpayer-supported Open Space Bond. “Across Montana, only three county projects are larger, and most were completed upwards of ten years ago”, testified Glenn Marx, who heads the Montana Association of Land Trusts. “The county simply won’t have any other opportunities to conserve farm and ranch lands to this degree.”

“I have so much faith and respect for landowners who choose to put their land into conservation easements,” PPLT Executive Director Mary Hollow said in her opening comments to the Commission. To drive home the opportunity, she added, “PPLT has been doing this work for 24 years, and this one is one of the best projects we’ve had the opportunity to pursue.”