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Montana’s biggest land trust opens Big Sky office

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By Tyler Allen EBS Senior Editor

BIG SKY – Montana Land Reliance is the largest land trust in the state, protecting nearly 1 million acres under conservation easements. The group is now opening a regional office in Big Sky.

Jessie Wiese, the former executive director of Big Sky Community Corp., was hired as MLR’s southwest manager on April 4, and will work from an office in Meadow Village expected to open April 18.

Conservation easements are a tool for private landowners to ensureMRL_data-01 preservation of open spaces, wildlife habitat, agricultural uses and other conservation values identified by both the property owner and the trust holding the easement.

“There is a lot of opportunity for good conservation projects in Big Sky [and] there are good wildlife corridors,” said MLR Managing Director Rock Ringling, adding that Wiese will be working on projects in West Yellowstone and the Madison Valley, as well. “It made sense to have somebody centrally located.”

Ringling said there’s limited awareness about conservation easements in the region, and to have somebody that’s familiar with the Big Sky community will help MLR increase exposure to both potential and completed projects, like the Jack Creek Preserve between Moonlight Basin and Madison Valley.

The land trust holds under easement 10,000-plus acres of critical wildlife corridor habitat in the Jack Creek drainage, between the Spanish Peaks and southern Madison Range.

Montana Land Reliance has an additional 4,640 acres under easement in the Big Sky area, in parcels such as the Gallatin Preserve and Yellowstone Preserve near the Yellowstone Club. The potential to conserve even more land in the region is an opportunity Wiese looks forward to in her new role.

“There’s a lot of potential in the Big Sky area for land conservation, and we’re nestled in between two wilderness areas close to Yellowstone National Park,” she said. “It’s a very ecologically important area.”

Throughout the state, MLR has more than 958,000 acres under easement – including nearly 290,000 acres in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – making it the largest national land trust accredited by the Land Trust Alliance, according to Ringling.

Accreditation involves rigorous oversight to ensure an organization meets industry standards.

“An accredited land trust can approach landowners and supporters with confidence, using the accreditation seal to demonstrate the excellence of their work,” according to the Land Trust Alliance website.

When a property owner donates an easement to a land trust such as MLR, it not only preserves conservation values, but may have financial benefits for the landowner as well. It can qualify as a charitable deduction that may reduce the donor’s income, estate or gift tax burden. Property taxes are not reduced, according to Montana law.

Congress last year made permanent enhanced income tax benefits for easement donations, thanks to the efforts of Ringling and other MLR leadership. This ensures that landowners, whose donation of a conservation easement meets federal requirements as a charitable gift, will realize the tax benefits for 16 years.

Prior to 2015, that part of the tax law had to be reauthorized every third year, making it difficult for landowners to commit to an easement if they were doing it, at least in part, for tax benefits.

Landowners have a certain number of development rights on their property, and a conservation easement is considered a donation of some or all of those rights. They can include the right to subdivide a property, build new structures, harvest timber or restrict access.

A land trust like MLR will own a deed of conservation easement on those rights agreed upon with the landowner and conduct yearly monitoring to ensure the easement parameters are upheld.

Wiese’s hire offers Montana Land Reliance someone on the ground in an area with large tracts of private land and in an ecologically important part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Her role will be to both educate the community about easements and focus on new land protection projects.

“The strength of the regional offices in general is that we’re able to be in touch with the land and landowners, which allows for great relationships and effective monitoring of properties under easement,” Wiese said.

She plans to hold a public presentation on her work later this year in Big Sky, and in addition to public meetings, Ringling says MLR also cold calls some landowners to gauge their interest in donating easements.

Property owners that put their land under easement can also benefit the greater community, according to MLR Managing Director Jay Erickson.

These include scenic viewsheds, preservation of wildlife habitat, protecting water quality, and buffering public lands, among other benefits. And occasionally they can ensure public access through private land.

“It’s just up to the original landowner, if they want to allow access that’s their decision,” Erickson said. “In the Gallatin Preserve, one of the forks of Yellow Mule [Creek] bisects that property. The trail goes through the property, and [the original landowner] had the choice to restrict access, but didn’t.”

Landowners using this method to conserve property may have an emotional connection to it, Wiese said.

Conservation easements guarantee their successive generations will have an opportunity to make that connection, as well.

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