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A view of the West Creek Ranch in Paradise Valley, which has been preserved with a conservation easement by Montana Land Reliance. PHOTO BY ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY

Interest in conservation easements grows

By Jessianne Castle EBS ENVIRONMENT & OUTDOORS EDITOR

BOZEMAN – As you leave the mouth of the Gallatin Canyon, headed north toward Bozeman on a glowing summer eve, the magnificence of Gallatin Valley opens like the bud of a wild rose. Open pockets of private land on the upper segments of the Gallatin River through the canyon, as well as the wide reaches of undeveloped soil in Big Sky, are similarly captivating.

E.J. Porth describes this open landscape as quintessential to Montana, something nostalgic and sentimental that evokes a deep sense of self and place.

“For a lot of people, the open landscape is something that’s a little bit of an abstract idea,” she said. “It’s a feeling you have being there.”

The open space is something residents of Gallatin Valley truly care about.

Porth, the communications and outreach director for the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, says the phones have been off the hook since county voters passed a levy to refund the Gallatin County Open Lands Program last June. The tax increase that finances conservation easements in the county won overwhelming support by voters and was recently used to create a conservation easement on nearly 600 acres west of Belgrade.

The first project to draw on these funds, the easement was completed through a partnership between the Flikkema family and GVLT. Like all conservation easements, terms of this agreement will run with the title of the land and limit development and subdivision, thus ensuring the open landscape remains so in perpetuity.

“There is a ton of interest [in creating conservation easements],” Porth said. “Landowners realize the community cares and wants this.”

The Flikkemas were unavailable for an interview with EBS, however brothers Clarence, Gary and Ted Flikkema said in a GVLT press release, “We grew up on this farm. We were taught the value of hard work, land management, an appreciation of farming and how it benefits others. As we grew older, we saw expansion in development of housing and subdivisions on farmland. Our wish is for this farmland to remain as it is.”

Montana Land Reliance Southwest Manager Jessie Wiese said her land trust that works throughout all of Big Sky country is also seeing increased landowner interest. In all, MLR has conserved 1.17 million acres since efforts began in 1978.

“Driving from Big Sky to Bozeman, it’s hard to miss how many pieces of farmland have disappeared over the last five or 10 years,” Wiese said. “Now is the time. People are starting to see how rapidly development is taking place.”

A conservation easement, facilitated by land trusts like GVLT or MLR, conserves working landscapes, scenic views and fish and wildlife habitat through a voluntary agreement with landowners. The property remains in private ownership; however, the landowner gives up development rights in order to see to the long-term preservation of the land.

Through the process, the property is appraised and the development value is assessed. Because the land will lose what Porth calls the fair market value of development rights, the landowner is typically compensated to some degree. Porth says landowners often donate a portion of the value, while public dollars make up the remainder through programs like the Gallatin County Open Lands Program or the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program administered through the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

This compensation is usually paid out in a lump sum, Porth says. She likened the process to the landowner selling their right to build or subdivide. Without the development rights, the land loses value, though the landowner is paid some portion of that value up front.

Porth added that conservation easements are different from easements that grant public access, and it is still up to the property owner whether to allow anyone on the ground.

While land trusts aim to protect open spaces and scenic views, a significant portion of that is conserving agricultural properties and thus preserving the ranching and farming heritage.

“There will always be a need to grow food,” Porth said. “Lots of animals move through the landscape and don’t know the boundary between public and private land. They use the whole landscape.

“Farmers and ranchers are really incredible stewards of the land,” she added. “It is in everyone’s best interest to keep these working landscapes because we know [the rancher or farmer] cares about the land.”

Weise added to this, saying that open space ensures clean water and provides important habitat for threatened species like sage grouse. Conservation easements can keep species off the Endangered Species List, she said.

“Private land is important for public land. We really need these wide-open spaces that are part of the wildlife complex in order to keep our public lands healthy,” Weise said. “There’s an intrinsic value to it. It’s keeping Montana the way it is.”

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