The Molyneux properties covered by proposed conservation easements are spread across much of southern Blaine County.

   The use of nearly $1 million from Blaine County’s Land, Water and Wildlife fund to prevent development on about 2,000 acres of south-county farmland received “conceptual” approval from the county commissioners Tuesday.

    The commissioners already granted such approval to the Molyneux Family Legacy Project in April, but had to reconsider it due to several changes.

    Final approval depends on successful completion of a “due diligence” phase to iron out details.

    The money would be put toward $2.36 million worth of conservation easements on six parcels of Molyneux family land to keep it in agricultural use. Four easements totaling 1,354 acres, would be held, monitored and enforced by The Nature Conservancy and two, totaling 603 acres, would be held by the Wood River Land Trust.

    One of the parcels is along state Highway 75 just north of Timmerman Hill, one borders Silver Creek Preserve and four are adjacent to or near Craters of the Moon National Monument.

    The county’s contribution of $992,190 would be added to $1.56 million from the U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service, $98,437 from The Nature Conservancy and a $90,000 donation from the Molyneux family. In addition, the Land Trust would contribute three development rights from the county’s transfer-of-development-rights program, worth an estimated $30,000 each, to the Land, Water and Wildlife fund. The rights could be sold at any time by the county to double the allowed density of five-acre parcels in the county’s “receiving” area.

    Since the project was first approved, updated appraisals of the value of development on the parcels reduced the value of conservation easements on them. However, the applicants still requested about the same amount of money from the county as they did originally.

    On Tuesday, Commissioner Larry Schoen said he was ready to approve the project.

    “The work has been done to meet all the goals of the levy program with the easements as they’re presently constructed,” he said.

    But Commissioners Jacob Greenberg and Angenie McCleary expressed reservations regarding potential transfer of water rights from the properties. The easements state that those rights can be transferred only for conservation or mitigation purposes, but Greenberg said he wanted more concrete language to prevent the sale of water rights by the property owners.

    “With conjunctive management, there’s going to be ever-growing pressure on the economics of water,” he said. “If I’m driving down Timmerman [Hill] and it’s sagebrush, that’s not what we’re looking for.”

    Schoen argued that some flexibility should be accorded the owners of the properties given that the agreement is binding in perpetuity, and future conditions cannot be known.

    The commissioners finally approved easement language that any water rights transfers must benefit conservation in Blaine County and must be consistent with the goals of the Land, Water and Wildlife program.

    The Land Trust also increased its offer of two TDRs to three, pending approval by its board of directors.

    In an interview, Land Trust Director of Conservation Keri York said the easement agreements can be changed if conditions warrant it, but the amendment process is cumbersome and requires that any changes produce a net conservation benefit.

    The easements would be added to existing conservation easements on 12,600 acres of private land in Blaine County held by The Nature Conservancy, in addition to the 851-acre Silver Creek Preserve, and on 1,667 acres of private land and 1,081 acres of preserves held by the Wood River Land Trust.

Email the writer: gmoore@mtexpress.com

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