Gallatin County Open Lands Program: 17 Years and 50,000 Acres Later

In 1998, the Gallatin County Commissioners recognized that growth and development in our valley was a major challenge and tasked a group of community members with exploring options to manage it. After researching growth management tools from around the country, the Open Space Task Force proposed conservation easements as an effective, incentive based tool to protect large blocks of land from subdivision and development. In 2000, and later in 2004, Gallatin County taxpayers voted for a total of two $10 million bonds to help secure conservation easements and protect our valley’s open land.

Here we are, 17 years later, the final dollars from the last bond allocated, and an amazing legacy of conservation projects completed. With the $20 million in funding, the Gallatin County Open Lands Program has delivered conservation outcomes and leveraged local dollars at an unprecedented rate. The Board of the Open Lands Program, comprised of volunteer community members, in partnership with the County Commissioners and local land trusts have protected nearly 50,000 acres of open land by purchasing conservation easements from willing landowners on over 50 properties, including agricultural land, wildlife habitat, rivers and streams, and scenic open space.  $2.5 million of the bond funds have been spent on parks and recreation. County dollars have been stretched and leveraged to access public and private funding at a rate of 5:1, that’s a 500% return on our community investment, in addition to the conservation benefits we’re seeing on the ground.  We’ve come together as a community to protect our landscape and we have a lot to be proud of. But what’s next?

Now we look ahead. With the Gallatin County Open Lands funding entirely allocated and with new projects ready and waiting in the wings, we must consider the future of our valley, and the future of our open spaces. The Open Lands Program to fund conservation easements is currently the only tool being used in the county to manage growth. Gallatin County is the fastest growing county in Montana and has been for nearly two decades. Things aren’t slowing down. Open lands, primarily privately owned agricultural operations, are being converted to residential use at a rate four times higher than the national average.

As a community, we need to ask ourselves what we’re willing to do to protect the landscape and character of this special place. GVLT and partners are currently assisting the Gallatin County Board of County Commissioners in exploring the possible continuation of the Open Lands Program. They will soon decide on the possible continuation of this program by placing a bond on an upcoming ballot that will go in front of the voters for consideration.  It will be up to us as a community to protect our open lands before it’s too late. We believe this program’s effective track record and unparalleled return on investment speaks for itself.