Jake Yoder grew up hearing his father say, “When everyone is running you have to walk and when they are walking you have to run.
And now, when Yoder walks the 150 acres on Illinois Bench that his family recently placed under conservation easement, he can’t help but remember his father’s advice.
Everywhere he looks from this green island, there are homes on plots of land that have been subdivided over the years. Yoder had heard from promoters keen to do the same on the land he owned.
“My dad used to tell me to be different,” he said. “That’s how I decided we had to do something about this piece of land.”
The Yoder family moved to the Bitterroot Valley of the St. Ignatius region, where they ran a cow-calf farm for years. Yoder operates a gravel pit in the growing business complex owned by Amish-Mennonite families just north of Stevensville.
The family wanted to continue their breeding operation.
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They started with 80 acres on the Illinois Bench about 3.5 miles northeast of Stevensville in an area that has been heavily developed over the years.
“I remember when I first came back here and saw all these houses,” Yoder said. “I wasn’t so sure, but I popped over and saw this land. It was like ‘whoa, maybe I’ll do it.’ “
Right after buying those first 80 acres, he went to his neighbor to ask if it was possible to buy the adjacent 70 acres of undeveloped farmland. The seed was planted and when the time came, Yoder bought the other half of the ranch and placed both properties under conservation easement.
“I never dreamed that in five years we would be able to replenish this farm,” said Yoder. “I think about it every day when I go up the hill and look around. I know that’s how it’s gonna stay now. There is no threat. If I die tomorrow, there is no threat that it will be sold and developed.
Yoder worked with Kyle Barber of Bitter Root Land Trust to put in place a conservation easement that would preserve the land for development forever.
“Jake cares a lot about the land,” Barber said. “He has a very good ethic of the land. It is at the forefront of holistic agriculture and uses a lot of high intensity grazing which relieves the need for fertilizers and herbicides.
The conservation easement helped Yoder to double his property and keep every inch of it, Barber said.
When a landowner places a conservation easement on his property, he forfeits his right to develop anything other than what is specified in the easement. Part of the value they chose to give up is being returned in part through federal, state, and county funds, including the county’s Open Lands Fund.
Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs said some landowners, like the Yoders, use some of that income to buy additional land that allows them to expand their operations and maintain an agricultural footprint on the countryside.
Yoder had three developers call him before the easement was over.
“They were like, ‘Mr. Yoder, we can help you do something with your property,’ he said. “For me it was a rude awakening. There is something about being kind to your soil… There is nothing wrong with having a little cow manure and a little green grass and being out on your saddle horse.
“I knew if I didn’t do this today, it wouldn’t happen,” Yoder said.
Barber remembers being skeptical when he first walked through the entire development en route to the Yoder property.
“I wasn’t sure that an easement was the right solution there, but it clearly was,” said Barber. “Jake’s character of the land, agriculture, wildlife, and motivations were just right for this.”
“It’s like this gem of open space among a bunch of homes that will forever benefit the agriculture and wildlife that use the place,” said Barber. “It’s a cool little pocket that I never thought was there among all the development that’s happened there. “
In most cases, the Bitter Root Land Trust strives to replenish multiple properties in a corridor to be preserved under conservation easements. This is the case on both sides of the Yoder property, where numerous easements have preserved open space in Burnt Fork to the south and half a dozen conservation easements protect both large and small properties to the north and to the East.
A large herd of elk occasionally migrates from the Sapphire Mountains and Iron Cap Hills to Yoder Square. Other animals also benefit from the well-tended land.
“It’s kind of like an open space island and an important anchor point for the Sapphire Wildlife Corridor,” said Barber. “The location of this property is why it is so important to preserve it.
Jake and Fannie Yoder have three children. He remembers his children being silent when he first told them what he was planning to do.
“What they looked at right away was the value we were giving up,” Yoder said. “There is no joke. We could have made millions on this property by developing it.
But Yoder thinks this view is shortsighted.
In the future, he believes ranch lands with water and room to walk around a bit will gain in value. There is only a limited amount left.
“For me, it was the opposite of what everyone else does,” he said with a smile. “I follow my father’s advice. I want to be different. I want this land to be there for my children. It’s sort of a dream come true to be able to continue like this.