Guest column: Don’t limit a tool that helps preserve Montana
by Pat Bousliman, for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle
February 4, 2023
Montana is known as the “Last Best Place” because of its vast grasslands and productive farms east of the Rockies; the clean, cold rivers of its western valleys; and its sweeping ranches, majestic peaks and ancient forests. It’s no wonder people are flocking from across the country to Montana; it’s a uniquely wonderful place to live, work, raise a family, and recreate.
That’s particularly true in Bozeman, where recreation and open space are central to daily life. Countless recent articles have documented the rapid and unfettered growth in the community and have called for restraint so that we do not ruin the beautiful landscapes and outdoor opportunities that have attracted us all. It is the proverbial story of the golden goose played out in real time and real estate.
I’d like to call your attention to the work of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT) and the Montana Land Reliance (MLR) and the conservation easements they are successfully using to keep local farming and ranching families on the ground and subdivision at bay. The efforts of these two groups are remarkable. As of 2021 they had helped local families conserve nearly 80,000 acres in Gallatin County alone. Perhaps the most interesting part of their success is how they have achieved it, by working with landowners rather than against them, by incentivizing conservation rather than mandating land uses.
A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust or government entity that limits uses of the land to protect its conservation values. Landowners retain most of their rights, including the right to own and use the land, and to sell it or pass it on to their heirs. Conservation easements are neither easy nor quick. Often landowners and land trusts work for years to craft the appropriate restrictions for each unique property.
Both GVLT and MLR as well as a host of other land conservation organizations have helped hundreds of Gallatin County families conserve their land for the benefit of the community and their agricultural operations. Across the state, a dozen other land trusts and conservation groups are engaging in similar fashion in their communities and have conserved hundreds of thousands of acres of timber, habitat, farms and ranches.
Unfortunately, some in the Montana Legislature are interested in putting an end to conservation easements. They say that easements shouldn’t be made on a permanent basis, because no one should determine what a piece of property should look like in a dozen years, or a hundred years. Forever is a long time to be sure. But the converse is also true. Once land is converted to a road, subdivision, storage unit, or shopping center, it is forever changed and its place as a Montana treasure is gone. Permanently.
Conservation easements are not zoning, and they’re not a system of government regulation or government ownership of private land. Conservation easements don’t result in the loss of a property, and they generally don’t mandate public access or prevent public access. At their core, conservation easements are an exercise in private property rights. They are not for every property, nor every property owner. Simply put, a conservation easement is a tool that helps Montana farm and ranch lands stay farm and ranch lands.
For generations, the stewardship of private lands has fallen on landowners who have done an incredible job of keeping Montana special. We should continue to trust those same landowners to make the right decisions for the future of their property. Limiting their tools seems like another government overreach. We dream that Montana will stay the “Last Best Place” forever, and conservation easements are a tool that can help us achieve that dream.
Pat Bousliman is the executive director for the Montana Association of Land Trusts.