The Grass Valley west of Missoula has long been known for its agriculture. Yet the story of the Isbell-Blue Heron conservation easement project is anything but ordinary.
Less than a decade ago, the property was approved for a 16-lot subdivision, then called the Blue Heron Estates. While the subdivision was approved by the county, no ground was ever broken. Three years ago Brad and Stephanie Isbell purchased the property and moved their operation to the lush valleys bottoms near Frenchtown. And lush they are—of the 75 acres that make up the Isbell property, 62 of them are deemed “Prime Farmland if Irrigated.” Since taking ownership, the Isbells have been busy: they’ve controlled the once-abundant noxious weeds and will plant a forage mixture next spring. The Isbell’s growing herd of goats, sheep and cattle will graze this mixture, providing fresh meat to local and regional markets.
“You can make a lot more money on raising houses here than you can raising grass, but once you put the houses there, that’s all you’ve got. People have to eat,” says Brad Isbell. “It just makes more sense to me that we build where it’s more appropriate and stay off the soils.”
But it’s not only agriculture that the conservation easement will benefit. Located just a stone’s throw from the Lower Clark Fork River, the land is home is a wide variety of wildlife, especially birds. The Isbell property is encompassed by the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area, which is home to over 230 species of birds throughout the year. The Isbells themselves are working to improve waterfowl habitat along the natural slough that runs through their land.
The Isbell-Blue Heron easement was finalized this week, after receiving funding from the Missoula County Open Space Bond. Thanks to the determination and foresight of the Isbell family their property will continue to be a haven for both agriculture and wildlife, in perpetuity.
Top image: A natural slough runs through Isbell property. Photo by Cathrine L. Walters