Guest column: Regional growth challenges require teamwork and the entire toolbox
By Jeff Ott, Gallatin Valley Land Trust Board Chair
February 1, 2024
If you spend 30 years focused on any particular task, you would assume it would become easy. Yet, even with three decades of experience conserving private land in Southwest Montana, Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT) is finding its work more challenging than ever.
Since 1990, GVLT has partnered with 128 families to forever conserve more than 65,000 acres. However, during the same period, nearly double that number of acres were developed in Gallatin County alone—more than any other county in Montana. The pace of land conversion and general real estate activity have accelerated dramatically. High property values and finite funding make GVLT’s work of compensating landowners for their development rights a costly equation. Unbridled development makes long-term visioning around land use complex. It is hard to imagine all the challenges farmers and ranchers will face in a changing climate with limited water or to predict wildlife movement patterns decades from now. As a community, we’ve lost ground. Special parcels have been subdivided and developed, their future set in stone—or perhaps more accurately, concrete. The landscape, both literally and figurately, is changing, quickly.
While conservation easements, GVLT’s primary tool to protect land, continue to be one of the sharpest tools in the toolbox, we recognize we don’t have the silver bullet to address all the challenges that growth brings. If our communities across Southwest Montana are going to collectively succeed in preserving our quality of life, we are also going to need to develop new tools and partnerships and collaboratively plan.
At GVLT we often hear from the community that we should just conserve everything and try to keep things the same as they are now. However, we recognize it is not our job to conserve everything. That goal is neither possible in our fast-paced and high-priced real estate market, nor is it a strategic or efficient way to do our work. Most importantly, it doesn’t acknowledge that in our growing community, development can and should happen in areas that are suitable for housing. That’s why GVLT’s strategy is to prioritize conservation projects adjacent to public and protected lands, along rivers, and in areas of the highest agricultural productivity. It is our job to conserve the right acres so that our community can grow and retain the open spaces we love and that provide for us.
We are optimistic the future of this valley can include large blocks of protected open space, wildlife habitat, farm and ranch land, and healthy rivers—AND a walkable, livable urban core for our growing community. We don’t have a magic wand, but we can promise that we’ll always take the long view, employ the most talented experts, partner with the most impactful organizations, and deploy as many creative solutions toward these challenges as we can, as quickly as we can.
Most important, we need you to tackle this hard work with us. Together we will have wins, we will pivot, and we will learn. We will be relentless in our efforts to optimize our collective impact because this special place is worth it.