A Community Investment
November 18, 2022
The Gallatin County Open Lands Program (GCOLP) is approaching a quarter century of investing community dollars into the protection of our valley’s most productive and scenic open lands. The Open Lands Program works with land trusts and landowners to conserve working farms and ranches, protect wildlife habitat, maintain scenic value, keep our rivers and streams clean and clear, and provide parks and recreation areas in Gallatin County. These community dollars have helped landowners complete 58 conservation easements with both the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, the Montana Land Reliance, and the Trust for Public Land. These voluntary agreements that limit development in perpetuity protect nearly 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles, of invaluable open space throughout our county.
Voters approved the first Open Space Bond in 2000 for $10 million. After the funds were quickly invested in quality conservation and public access projects, voters renewed another $10 million in 2004. Voters doubled down and renewed the funding yet again in 2018 which extends the life of the program for another 15 years. Currently the GCOLP brings in about $2 million in funding each year, the majority of which funds conservation projects and some earmarked for the creation and maintenance of parks and trails.
Gallatin County taxpayers can be proud of the return on their investment and the way the Open Lands Program funds have been leveraged. Through Natural Resource Conservation Service funding and donated property value from landowners, the County’s investment has facilitated over $100,000,000 in matching funds. Taxpayer dollars have been stretched and leveraged 5 to 1 since the program’s inception in 2000.
“Gallatin County has one of the most successful open lands programs in the state, and we are extremely grateful that we have a county and taxpayers who believe in protecting open space.” Brendan Weiner, GVLT Conservation Director said.
In the Bozeman Pass area, the GCOLP has helped to conserve more than 2,500 acres of habitat in a nationally significant wildlife corridor, including large areas of elk and mule deer winter range and calving grounds. Properties conserved with the GCOLP have also protected headwater streams and prevented development along the banks of some of our area’s blue ribbon trout rivers. While these agreements with private landowners don’t necessarily include public access, the benefits to the community are innumerable. Conservation of open land protects the rural character of our landscape, our access to locally grown food, the health and movement of our most iconic wildlife, and the quality and quantity of clean water.
The GCOLP also safeguards our county’s agricultural communities and prime soils. Most of the beautiful open land that surrounds Bozeman is owned by multi-generational farming families who have been working and stewarding these lands. In a letter to the Open Lands Board, Timothy Toohey, an applicant for Open Lands funds, penned:
“For the past twenty or more years we have seen more and more developments arising in our portion of the Valley. Despite considerable pressures, our family has been able to withstand the temptation for developing that land and has continued to operate the property as a family farm and ranch. We want to be able to preserve this land for the generations to come because it represents a way of life that once was common in the Valley but is unfortunately rapidly disappearing.”
The Toohey family received Open Lands funding in 2016 for their 959-acre property located just north of Bozeman. Their property stretches from wetlands along the blue-ribbon trout fishery in the East Gallatin River all the way up to critical mule deer winter range in the Bridger Mountain foothills. Not only did the program’s investment and conservation easement prevent development of their farm forever, but the entire community will also benefit from the protection of this highly visible property and its’ critical wildlife habitat.
In addition to private land conservation, the program also invests in public access and recreation projects. Last year, the County allocated $100,000 from the fund to help purchase 12 acres of public parkland on the southern end of Peets Hill. It has also funded the acquisition and development of the 100-acre Gallatin County Regional Park and supported the Chestnut Mountain and North Cottonwood trailheads.
At a time of rapid growth and development, the allocation of these GCOLP funds have been integral to safeguarding this special place. Thank you to the many volunteers that represent the vast geographies and industries in our valley who have served and continue to serve on the Gallatin County Open Lands Board. To our valley’s landowners, thank you for being incredible stewards of our landscape and working with the community to protect the land that we all love. To Gallatin County, thank you for leading the way statewide and trusting the community to make choices about the future of our landscape. To the Gallatin County taxpayers, thank you for continuing to invest in open lands and supporting the visionary landowners who want to keep their properties undeveloped, for the benefit of us all. Since 2000, Gallatin County has shown that when landowners, land trusts, and community work together, we have a fighting chance of protecting the place we love, forever.