Guest column: Land conservation is forever work

By Chet Work, Gallatin Valley Land Trust Executive Director

December 7, 2023

Amidst the rapid growth and development in southwest Montana, land conservation has become increasingly important. At the Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT), we are proud to play a central role in protecting our region’s natural and agricultural resources and are grateful for the unwavering support of the community that has enabled us to conserve more than 65,000 acres.

For 33 years, GVLT has partnered with landowners to protect high-quality wildlife habitat, working farms and ranches, clean water, and scenic open spaces using a real estate tool called a conservation easement. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement between a landowner and a land trust, such as GVLT, that limits development on a property. The landowner retains ownership of the land and is responsible for its day-to-day management. The landowner can sell their land if they choose, or pass it on to family members, but the development limitations remain forever.

Land conservation, however, does not end with the establishment of a conservation easement; it is just the beginning of a long-term partnership between a landowner and GVLT, and a perpetual effort to maintain each property for its conservation values. Within these efforts to care for, or “steward,” the land, GVLT is responsible for visiting each of our conservation easements on an annual basis to ensure the provisions of the agreement and the unique vision of the original landowner are forever honored. This quiet, unsung role of GVLT’s Stewardship team is one of the most critical roles we play and one that few people understand. It’s a responsibility we take very seriously.

Our Stewardship team is committed to supporting landowners and helping them to maintain the conservation values of their properties. At GVLT, we often say these staff members have the best job — spending more than 120 days a year in the field on some of the most exquisite farms and ranches with generous and community-focused landowners. Dedicated to value-added stewardship, we seek to build collaborative relationships with all our landowners by listening to their needs, staying on top of current natural resource issues, and connecting them with local experts and funding sources to enhance the management of their land.

As snow begins to cover the fields and pastures, GVLT staff and board members celebrate the completion of another successful year of helping our landowner partners care for their conserved properties. With 127 easements, this is no small task. Our small, but mighty two-person Stewardship team can complete one, maybe two, visits a day, in part because of the distance of these easements from our office in Bozeman. With the exception of five small easements totaling less than 200 acres, all of GVLT’s conserved properties are located beyond the cities of Bozeman, Belgrade, and Four Corners. Most are clustered in areas of high conservation value, including Bozeman Pass, the Gallatin and East Gallatin River corridors, the agricultural lands surrounding the communities of Amsterdam and Churchill, and Paradise Valley.

The nature of our land conservation and stewardship work requires us to take the long view. At GVLT, we have a 30-year vision to conserve an additional 100,000 acres of the most critically important and threatened open land throughout Montana’s Greater Yellowstone region. These lands include headwater streams, elk calving grounds, native grasslands, and prime soils. As we make progress towards this ambitious goal, we remain committed to forever stewarding these lands so generations to come can continue to experience what makes this place special.

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