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Making it in Big Sky: Montana Land Reliance

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Montana Land Reliance’s Chad Klinkenborg and his English Setter, Finn. PHOTO COURTESY OF CHAD KLINKENBORG


BIG SKY—The increase in development in southwest Montana is one of the largest threats faced by local land trusts. Montana Land Reliance’s Chad Klinkenborg spoke with Explore Big Sky about how his team is facing these challenges head-on, partnering with landowners to permanently conserve over 1.2 million acres in the state. Luckily, Klinkenborg says, landowners, with whom they work close with, are some of the most passionate about open land as they come—a partnership that ensures MLR’s success for years to come.

This series is part of a paid partnership with the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce. The following answers have been edited for brevity.

Explore Big Sky: I’d like to start with a little background information on you, when did you first come to Big Sky and what brought you here?

Chad Klinkenborg: I moved to Montana in 2003 to attend the University of Montana School of Forestry and Conservation. The beauty and wildness of this place captured me and I never left. I’ve been working in private land conservation in the Greater Yellowstone area for the last eight years now.

EBS: Tell me about Montana Land Reliance; when did it start? How and when did you become involved?

CK: The Montana Land Reliance was founded in 1978 following the passage of the Montana Open Space Land and Voluntary Conservation Easement Act. The law provided legal means for qualified land trusts to hold perpetual conservation easements on private lands. (A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a private landowner and qualified organization that permanently restricts development and fragmentation while protecting important conservation values on a specific piece of land). MLRs founders were becoming increasingly concerned about the exploitation of Montana’s agricultural valleys and river corridors and wanted to establish a renewable and equitable agricultural way of life in Montana. The conservation easement seemed like the most logical tool to accomplish this mission because it was voluntary and provided landowners with a financial tool to keep agricultural land in production, simultaneously protecting open space, water, and wildlife habitat. Since 1978, MLR has partnered with more than 960 Montana landowners to permanently conserve 1.2 million acres of private land. I was hired by MLR in January of this year to amplify their easement portfolio in southwest Montana.

EBS: What are some of the biggest challenges MLR has faced over the years?

CK: The increase in development pressure over the last 25 years is surely the biggest challenge faced by MLR and other Montana Land Trusts. Montana loses tens of thousands of acres to development and fragmentation each year and this is open space and habitat we’ll never get back. As land values continue to climb, conservation easements become more expensive and complicated. MLR has amplified its pace of work in recent years yet Montana’s population continues to grow resulting in a net loss of important open spaces. Turnover in land ownership from long-time family held properties to amenity properties held by seasonal occupants has also presented some unique challenges in recent years. The success of our work hinges on personal relationships with landowners and this new wave of landowners in Montana is often insulated by accountants, lawyers, and property managers. It’s difficult to collaborate with someone you can’t communicate with directly.

EBS: Tell me about what it’s like to work with local landowners—as land becomes more valuable and growth increases, do you find a common thread or goal among those you work with?

CK: Working with private landowners is the best part of my job. Daily conversations at the kitchen table keep me well caffeinated and motivated to protect the integrity of this place. I am constantly reminded that private landowners are the most important stewards of this landscape and their knowledge of the land and its history is often unmatched. Increasing land values presents a lot of challenges to landowners, especially those who make a living from the land. The common thread I have with most landowners is the conservation of Montana’s natural resources and safeguarding the viability of agricultural as a way-of-life; because both can be achieved by a conservation easement, landowners generally welcome the discussion.

EBS: How big is your team?

CK: MLR has 15 full time staff and 17 seasonal land stewards.

EBS: What is the best part of working at MLR?

CK: Without a doubt, the best part of this job is working with landowners. Their knowledge of, and passion for, Montana is unmatched and keeps me motivate to do more.  

EBS: Is there a piece of notable business advice that someone has given you that has led you through the years?

CK: Investing in personal relationships within your community now, will create and abundance of opportunities later. This is especially true in the conservation world. The relationships MLR employees have created within the landowner community over the last 45 years is resulting in incredible conservation success now. In 2022 alone, MLR permanently protected more than 20,000 acres of private lands in Montana.

EBS: Is there anything else that you’d like to tell the Big Sky community?

CK: As popularity of this place continues to increase, it will take an entire community to safeguard the uniqueness and integrity of southwest Montana. Some development is inevitable, but we should work together as a community to ensure it happens sustainably. Protecting open space, water, wildlife habitat, and Montana’s agricultural legacy is perhaps the most important gift we can give to the next generation of Montana residents and visitors.

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