“For me, doing nothing is not an option.”
That’s how landowner Donna Rae Thompson ended her fall 2022 letter to Five Valleys, describing why she wanted to donate a conservation easement on her Jette Farm property in the Grass Valley between Missoula and Frenchtown. Now, thanks to Donna Rae, 133 acres of irreplaceable agricultural land has been protected, forever.
The Grass Valley has long attracted and sustained people. The Séliš (Salish) gave the name Člmé (Tree Limb Cut Off) to the area; today, the place is also known as Council Grove State Park, located just a mile to the south of Jette Farm. The first permanent white settlement in the greater Missoula Valley, Hell Gate, was founded in the Grass Valley in 1860. Soils made rich by eons of Clark Fork River flood cycles soon supported crop and livestock agriculture and helped give Missoula its “Garden City” nickname.
The Jette family has lived on and cared for the property, located along Mullan Road near the Harpers’ Bridge Fishing Access Site, since at least 1899. Donna Rae and her deceased husband, Marvin Jette, lived on and cared for the family’s farm for over 50 years before Marvin's passing in 2010. Donna Rae, together with her daughter and son-in-law, have continued that legacy.
“Here in the Missoula Valley, we as individuals and a society, can and should do something to ensure we do not become like so many other places that have missed the opportunity to protect treasured private open space while we still have the opportunity to do so,” says Donna Rae.
Today, the farm produces livestock and hay, as well as corn, melons, and honey that are sold at local farmers markets and directly to the public at the farm itself. A full 2/3rds of the easement property contains important agricultural soils, as identified by the NRCS. Thanks to the property’s new conservation easement, the land will remain open and available for agriculture no matter who owns it down the line.
“I found Five Valleys very easy to work with from the beginning,” says Donna Rae. “They took our ideas and put them into workable language that is now a part of our conservation easement deed.”
The property also lies squarely within the Clark Fork River-Grass Valley Important Bird Area (IBA), a region recognized by the National Audubon Society for providing critical bird habitat. The Five Valleys Audubon Society has documented over 246 different bird species in the IBA – more than half the species documented across the entire state. At Jette Farm, the IBA is further enhanced by the Frenchtown Irrigation District Ditch and the Grass Valley French Ditch, both of which bisect the property and provide riparian habitat. Jette Farm also includes portions of the valley’s clay hills which offer upland habitat for birds and other wildlife.
“The Jette Farm easement not only keeps ag lands open. It also preserves habitat for birds and other wildlife,” says Ben Horan, Five Valleys’ Associate Director. “To accomplish both in partnership with a landowner like Donna Rae is a gift.”
The project was made possible by Donna Rae, who generously donated the conservation easement to Five Valleys. The Missoula County Commissioners voted unanimously to expend $34,000 of the 2006 Missoula County Open Space Bond to help cover project transaction costs. Donations from Atira Conservation, Five Valleys Audubon Society, and generous community donors to Five Valleys also supported the project.
“It’s rare that someone has those values so internalized and feels them so powerfully that they’re willing to donate an easement,” said Commissioner Josh Slotnick, speaking about Donna Rae’s donation in a Missoulian article about the project’s October Open Space Bond hearing. “This is very special.”
The Jette Farm conservation easement will be in good company: Five Valleys currently stewards over 1,000 acres between Missoula and Frenchtown, and all of them agricultural lands. Yet, few places in Montana are growing as fast as the Grass Valley. Thanks to Donna Rae, Jette Farm will help ensure that agricultural open lands remain part of the character of the Grass Valley for generations to come.
Photos by Five Valleys staff