Guest column: Private land conservation key to protecting paradise

Brendan Weiner, and Jessie Wiese,  Guest Columnists for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

The Gallatin Valley is not alone in seeing the increased development and fragmentation of open lands. The neighboring Paradise Valley, stretching from Livingston south to Gardiner, is also seeing a high level of development pressure. The Paradise Valley boasts breathtaking panoramic views of the Absaroka Mountains, the cool clean waters of the mighty Yellowstone River, and serves as the gateway to our nation’s first national park.

The valley is home to longstanding family farms and ranches, some of our country’s most iconic wildlife, and the ancestral lands of the Apsaalooke people and other tribal nations. Paradise is a fitting name, it truly is one of the most unique landscapes in the west, if not the world.

However, paradise is under pressure and we are all at risk of losing the area’s agricultural heritage, wildlife, unencumbered views, and quiet river solitude unless we come together with our neighbors to address this challenge.

While most of the foothills and mountains in the Paradise Valley are publicly owned, the bulk of the valley is privately owned, and a large portion remains in active agricultural production. Increasing pressure to develop is placing these operations at risk as well as the habitat and open space that these working ranchlands provide. Piecemeal fragmentation disrupts wildlife connectivity corridors, decreases viability of agricultural operations, and threatens the health of the Yellowstone River. Things are changing quickly and the time to act is now.

Fortunately, there are effective, incentive-based private land conservation methods that can forever protect paradise.

Private land conservation efforts in the Paradise Valley over the past 25 years have proven successful. The Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT), The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) and other conservation groups have already protected more than 80,000 acres throughout Park County.

GVLT and MLR’s primary conservation tool is a perpetual conservation easement, a voluntary agreement with a landowner that permanently limits the development of private property to protect conservation values like agriculture, wildlife habitat, healthy waterways, and scenic values for the community. While our organizations have seen conservation success in the Paradise Valley, there is so much more to do and the clock is ticking.

This work has recently received a critical investment of $450,000 from AMB West Philanthropies, adding an innovative funding tool that has the potential to significantly accelerate the pace of private land conservation in the Paradise Valley. AMB West Philanthropies has been deeply rooted in the Paradise Valley for 20 years; operating three ranches and supporting conservation and other community efforts through their grantmaking. This local grant making work is led by AMB West Philanthropy associates and ranch employees and has led to more than $7 million in grants to local organizations.

While private land conservation isn’t new to the Paradise Valley, this AMB West Philanthropies investment removes barriers that have previously limited options for working farmers and ranchers. Conservation easements have historically been out of reach for some families due to the transaction costs and stewardship funds that are necessary and typically funded by the landowner. This new funding will allocate up to $40,000 per easement to cover these costs, ensuring that the opportunity to utilize a conservation easement is available to more hardworking families. The funding reimbursement for landowners is coordinated through GVLT and is available to all landowners working with an Accredited Land Trust such as GVLT or MLR.

While development pressure is a challenge we will continue to face, innovative funding for private land conservation strategies gives landowners more options to protect the places we all love, like the Paradise Valley. We are eager to put this new funding source to use right away and we are looking forward to working with landowners in the Paradise Valley who want to explore or revisit conservation options to protect their piece of paradise for themselves, their neighbors and the entire community.

Peter Brown is the Senior Program Officer for AMB West Philanthropies. Brendan Weiner is the Conservation Director at the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. Jessie Wiese is the Southwest Manager at The Montana Land Reliance.