Conservation partnership protecting open lands

1/18/2020 Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Guest Column by Brendan Weiner, GVLT Lands Director

We are lucky in the Gallatin Valley to have some of the finest farmers and ranchers anywhere, many of whom have been working the same lands for generations. We are also fortunate to have incredibly productive agricultural lands with nutrient-rich soils that are some of the best in the state. These working farmlands grow our food, provide scenic open space, give wildlife a place of refuge and are the foundation of our community and economy. These lands define who we are and should not be taken for granted.

However, our rapidly developing valley is putting pressure on these working agricultural lands and the people who own them. To help offset these pressures, a strategic and focused farmland conservation effort called the Gallatin Regional Conservation Partnership (Gallatin RCPP) was formed in 2015 to increase conservation opportunities in the region and address land use conversion pressures.

The Gallatin RCPP is a group of 17 local groups that is led by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT). In 2015, the partnership was selected from over 600 proposals nationwide and was awarded $3.8 million in federal conservation dollars through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). In 2019, the Gallatin RCPP was awarded an additional $4.8 million, bringing the total award to $8.6 million. Over 97% of this funding goes directly to private landowners who voluntarily elect to implement private land conservation strategies on their land in the Gallatin Valley.

The goals of the Gallatin RCPP are to permanently conserve working farm and ranchland, protect water quality and reduce urban sprawl in the Gallatin Valley. The program prioritizes lands that have a high percent of prime agricultural soils, are adjacent to important waterways and are near other conserved farms and ranches. This strategy keeps agricultural neighborhoods intact, improves the financial viability of agricultural operations, and protects farmers from the urbanizing impacts of development, such as increased traffic on rural roads.

At a time of rapid growth and development, the allocation of these funds has been timely and the results have been exciting. So far, the program has funded seven perpetual conservation easements on over 2,600 acres in the heart of the valley. The program has also funded six land stewardship projects to improve irrigation efficiency, restore stream corridors, and update grazing and crop management plans.

Conserved farms produce food for our community including milk, potatoes, vegetables, beef, eggs, wheat, barley, hay and corn. They improve water quality in important waterways such as the East Gallatin River and Camp Creek. They provide critical habitat for elk, deer, and moose, as well as bald eagles, sandhill cranes, songbirds, bats, bees, amphibians and native plants. These open lands also provide a scenic backdrop for our daily lives and for visitors who come to enjoy our spectacular landscape.

The Montana NRCS is a critical partner in these conservation efforts. NRCS staff has prioritized strategic and focused conservation efforts across the state and they immediately saw the value and importance of this locally led initiative. NRCS has more than doubled their investment in the Gallatin Valley since 2015, which has been used to match funds from the Gallatin County Open Lands Program to conserve important properties across the county.

The future is uncertain, but it is common sense to conserve our best farmlands and keep them open and available to grow food for our community. A resounding “Thank You” goes out to all the dedicated farmers and ranchers who are essential partners in these conservation efforts. Please contact GVLT if you would like to learn more.