Swan Valley Homesteads Protected Forever
By Kevin Rhoades
In 2013, Landowners and Vital Ground Collaborated to Conserve Ecologically Bountiful Area of Northwest Montana.
According to Alice Brunson Lawrence’s memoir My Swan River Memories, it took five days for her parents’ covered wagon to journey from Missoula to their homestead near Condon, the area of Vital Ground’s most recent undertaking in Montana’s Swan Valley – the Elk Flats Neighbors Project.
In 1917, Alice’s family and her parents Wiley and Minnie Brunson maneuvered their horses through stumps and a dusty path that sometimes went straight up over the mountain. It took four nights of camping and 80 jarring miles to travel from Missoula to the family’s homestead.
During the early 1900s the Swan Valley was one of the last locations in the Lower 48 states open for homesteading. Interest was spurred when Northern Pacific Railroad shared plans to build a line through the valley. The railroad was given extensive land grants to log and encourage settlement. The Brunson’s recognized this opportunity and filed for a homestead and settled on 160 acres west of Elk Creek.
As part of homestead requirements, the family cleared a portion of their forest and drained ponds for agricultural purposes. They also hayed a large, open meadow they called Long Meadow, which fed two horses and two cows. A nearby neighbor, also a homesteader, was hired to help build the family’s cabin and outbuildings.
In 1918, part of the wagon route had improved to a crude road. Wiley, Minnie and daughters Ethel and Alice were able to drive their Model T Ford from Missoula to Seeley Lake, then horse-and-wagon it the rest of the way. After several families settled the valley, the rail line and associated commerce never materialized. Subsequently, in 1921 the Brunsons returned to Missoula to live and work, using the homestead as a summer retreat.
Nearly a century after Wiley and Minnie Brunson made their inaugural wagon-wheel trip to their acreage near Condon, daughter Alice’s two sons Mark and Linn can drive from Missoula to the homestead in less than two hours. This section of the upper Swan Valley is part of an ecologically bountiful and sensitive watershed that borders U.S. Forest Service where Vital Ground and six landowners partnered on five conservation easements and one fee-title acquisition.
This extraordinary group effort will ensure Elk Flats will forever support a diversity of plant and animal life. Based on Vital Ground’s previous work and research here, grizzly bear sign and sightings
are common in the area. A significant variety of other wildlife species are present, too, including whitetail and mule deer, elk, moose, wolves, black bear, mountain lion, sensitive fish species, abundant waterfowl, raptors and songbirds.
Permanent protection of more than 300 acres by Elk Flats’ neighbors in addition to substantial acquisitions by other organizations will guarantee this land will never be developed. Institutions and agencies such as The Nature Conservancy of Montana, Swan Ecosystem Center, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, the Bonneville Power Administration, and the U.S. Forest Service have made sizeable investments in Condon and the surrounding area as well. These chunks of relatively undeveloped land provide a corridor of travel for wildlife moving between the Swan Range of the Bob Marshall Wilderness and the Mission Mountain Wilderness.
In 1953 Minnie Brunson divided and deeded the homestead to daughters Ethel and Alice. Ethel later sold the parcel where the family home was built, the east half, while Alice and husband Mark Lawrence Sr., retained their forested parcel included Long Meadow, the west half. During the decades that came to pass, from time to time the Lawrences returned to their property after traveling from Washington and other Western states, where they lived and worked and raised two sons.
By the late ‘60s the original homestead came under title of its current owners, the Rasmussens (80 acres), who continue to maintain the original cabin as a recreational property. Today, Mark Lawrence Jr. and spouse Carolyn (40 acres), Vital Ground (40 acres purchased from Linn Lawrence), and Larry and Helen Rasmussen (80 acres) are the holders of the original 160-acre Brunson homestead.
In December 2013, the Lawrences and Rasmussens finalized agreements with Vital Ground to permanently protect the original 160-acre homestead for the benefit of wildlife and to maintain traditional land uses. But what makes this arrangement even more special is that neighbors joined the Lawrences and Rasmussens to conserve their properties, including Bill and Jean Moore (77 acres), Don Schmitz (39 acres) and Michael Stevenson (40 acres).
It’s noteworthy that all these families have come together to expand on previous work done by Vital Ground on Bud Moore’s beloved “Coyote Forest,” which along with U.S. Forest Service lands and the Swan Ecosystem Center/Salish-Kootenai Tribe land, adjoins the original Brunson homestead as a large block of protected topography.
Years before Mark Lawrence Jr. considered bringing his parcel including Long Meadow into a conservation easement, Bud Moore got him thinking.
“Carolyn and I visited with neighbors about the concept, and everyone was very helpful, particularly Bud,” he said. “Bud provided the inspiration for us to work with Vital Ground.”
Bud’s property was the first conservation easement both negotiated and held by Vital Ground. Bud’s strong conservation ethic and love for the land also influenced his son, Bill, who with spouse Jean, also joined the recent Elk Flats Neighbors Project.
“Pop [Bud Moore] and Vital Ground pioneered a unique and successful relationship in the protection of conservation values in the Swan,” Bill said. “We are continuing the concept of maintaining vital wildlife habitat as well as productive private forests. We are ‘Listening to the Land’ and striking a sustainable balance in our part of the upper Swan Valley.”
Vital Ground thanks Elk Flats’ neighbors for the teamwork and donations it took to bring the project to fruition. In addition to generous donations by the landowners and many individual donors starting with Bud Moore, the Elk Flats Neighbors Project is also supported by the Charlotte Y. Martin Foundation, Cinnabar Foundation, Cutler Foundation, Metabolic Studio, Missoula Open Space Bond Fund, Montana Coffee Traders, Oberweiler Foundation, Travelers for Open Lands, Chicago Zoological Society, First Interstate Bank of Missoula, First Security Bank of Missoula, and the William H. Donner Foundation.
The very last time Alice Brunson Lawrence and Mark Lawrence Sr. went to the Brunson homestead was June 1990, a time when sons Mark Jr. and Linn took their parents to a reunion at their “home in the Swan Valley.” For Alice, having partaken in those dusty, wagon-wheel journeys back in 1917, it was a time to reminisce about the place, visit with family and see old friends, and to celebrate where she and sister Ethel of homesteaders Wiley and Minnie Brunson spent several years growing up.
According to Mark Jr., the day of the reunion his parents lit up with memories, particular his mom.
“Upon arriving at the homestead, the beargrass was in bloom, the snow on the Swan Range stood out clear and white, the forest meadows were lush, and the lakes were clear and blue,” Alice wrote in her memoir about the Swan Valley. “It was an unforgettable day that I will long remember.”
Nearly a quarter-century after the family reunion at the homestead in the upper Swan Valley, Mark Jr. said he couldn’t believe how beautiful and notable a day it was, and looking back, who would have known the land would be conserved forever?
“It was important because it was one piece of Montana we still owned. Mom would be very pleased to know that the homestead will remain intact forever,” Mark Jr. said. “It’s part of our family legacy.”