Keeping it open: Conservation easement program helping farmers stay on the land

Jan 1, 2023

By Isabel Hicks for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

When Sherwin Leep was a boy, his family farmed in the vast open space that was Bozeman. The soils were rich, the water was plentiful, and nearly all his neighbors worked in agriculture, too.

Fast forward 60 years, and the land where the Leeps grazed cattle and grew grain is now a Target parking lot. Cars drive over what used to be sprawling hayfields — now pushed, quite literally, to the side by development.

It’s a story told time and time again — development swoops in and farmers sell out. What used to grow hay now grows houses.

But for the Leeps and other area farmers, the story has a different ending.

In Bozeman and other urbanizing areas of Montana, conservation easements are becoming an increasingly popular tool to keep land in agriculture, provide wildlife habitat and conserve open space. And Gallatin County voters have decided — three times now — to help pay for them.

“Farmers and ranchers provide a lot of things for us, like wildlife habitat and beautiful, open scenery for all of us to enjoy,” said Ray Rasker, former director of Headwaters Economics. “But they don’t necessarily get compensated for any of that.”

That idea is what drove Rasker and 14 others to form the Gallatin County Open Lands Task Force in 1997, driven by the area’s new development and population growth.

Back then, Gallatin County had some 37,000 acres in farms — down from 52,000 a decade earlier but up from today’s 32,000 — and a report by the American Farmland Trust found it the number one “at risk” county for loss of ranchland to development pressure.

The task force sought to find the best way to preserve open space and agriculture in the valley, and they landed on a bond to help pay for conservation easements.

A conservation easement is a voluntary agreement a landowner makes to conserve a property in perpetuity. That means it can never be developed, even if the landowner decides to sell the land to someone else.

The task force got support from the county commission to put a $10 million bond measure on the ballot, which Gallatin County voters passed by 56% in 2000. Paid for by raising property taxes that agriculture producers were exempt from, voters passed another $10 million bond by 63% in 2004, and renewed the funding again in 2018 by 62%.

In 2021, Gallatin County had over 130,000 acres in conservation easements, according to a state government report.

Roughly 70,000 of those acres were added after 2000. To date, the Open Lands Program has conserved over 50,000 acres, or 78 square miles, in Gallatin County. That’s over three times the area of Bozeman. The bond money helps get matching funds from government conservation easement programs, leveraging the taxpayer dollar’s value five to one, according to Gallatin Valley Land Trust.

Projects brought forth by either GVLT or the Montana Land Reliance are vetted by the program volunteer board and the county commission.

“The point of the program was to work with willing landowners to keep agricultural lands in agriculture, while also protecting water quality, open space, and wildlife habitat,” said Barb Cestero, who worked on the 2000 bond campaign. “We wanted to have a tool in the toolbox for agricultural landowners who didn’t want to subdivide their lands.”

While donating land for conservation comes with some tax benefits, lands with easements sell for much less than lands without, because they legally can’t be developed. Often those development rights are worth millions.

That’s why the program is set up so participating ranchers can get the difference in market value of their land with and without an easement. Sometimes people can afford to donate the full value of their land, but often, farmers and ranchers can’t.

“It creates a financial incentive that is good enough that the landowners see it as enough compensation to make what is a difficult financial decision for them,” said Brendan Weiner, conservation director for the GVLT. “They’re still businesses, so fully donating all of the value is just really hard to do financially.”

But some of the program’s criticism stems from how conservation easements don’t equal public access for things like hunting and hiking — even though the public helps pay for them.

Others argue that the public shouldn’t help pay for private enterprise at all.

But in general, support for the program has only increased over the years.

Some farmers have used money from the program to pay off loans or farm more land elsewhere.

The Leeps, who have farmed in Gallatin County for generations, used open lands money for a handful of conservation easements near Gooch Hill and the Gallatin River. The easements assure the Leeps their kids will have a viable base of production that’s needed to keep the land in agriculture, who say they’ve stayed in business by getting bigger.

“Things are changing rapidly,” Leep said. “We thought if we wanted to preserve some of these lands, now is the time to do it.”

Not all of the Leeps’ farmland is in an easement. They also farm a parcel in Belgrade, part of which is much more suited for development than their other land, Leep said.

“We’re not putting an easement on that land because it should be built on as time goes on,” Leep said.

Making sure easements aren’t in the direct path of development is a key consideration for program funding. Because there is limited money, the land trusts have to be intentional about which projects they pursue.

Those are areas that have good farmland and soil, wildlife habitat, and water resources, Weiner said. They also prioritize easements that are next to other easements, as to protect larger areas rather than a patchwork of small parcels dotting the landscape. Often times, a land trust will do easements that are physically next to each other over the span of many years.

“We’re blocking up large areas, but we’re careful not to be right in the middle of where our community is likely to grow. We try to work with our planners to conserve land where it makes sense,” Weiner said. A lot of the program’s easements are in working agricultural land around Amsterdam, Churchill and Manhattan.

The vast majority of projects funded through the program are agricultural easements, said Sean O’Callaghan, who leads Gallatin County’s planning department and the Open Lands Program.

Gallatin County had the first of the four open lands programs in Montana. The others are in Missoula, Lewis and Clark, and Ravalli counties — areas also experiencing rapid growth and development.

“We want to preserve the characteristics that make this a special place, while still accommodating some growth and change,” O’Callaghan said.

Encroaching development is making it harder for the area farms to operate. Aside from farms vanishing altogether, the influx of people makes it harder to drive farm equipment like tractors on county roads. There are more complaints about dust and noise now, Leep said, and the growing demand for a finite supply of water.

The area’s skyrocketing property values also carry impacts. For 40 years, the Leeps leased 200 acres near Gooch Hill for farming — until the owner realized they could make three times as much by putting it on the market and selling to a developer.

“That is a threat, when those kinds of property values are around us,” Leep said. “Unless you love farming, and want to keep doing it for the lifestyle, you can just sell out for a couple million and go sit on an island in the Pacific.”

But for some producers, a conservation easement ensures the land will stay in agriculture, even if they have to sell it.

Ted Flikkema, a Manhattan rancher who used to operate LF Dairy, put an easement on his farm just years before he sold it. They weren’t making enough money to keep going, and the next generation didn’t want to continue farming anyway. So Flikkema used the cash from the program to pay off some of his agricultural loans and get closer to retirement.

“It was kind of inevitable to sell the farm, the way we were looking at things. So at least we know that if we do sell it, we won’t have some subdivider coming here and putting up houses,” Flikkema said. “That was the main reason. We wanted the land to stay like it is.”

Now, other multi-generational farmers — the Kimms — are growing potatoes at his old place, and they’ve hired Flikkema to help out. They could buy the land for less because it doesn’t have development rights.

There have to be financial incentives for ranchers to do easements, or else they wouldn’t be interested, Flikkema said.

Former Gallatin County Commissioner Joe Skinner added that moves to require public access to publicly-funded easements would disincentivize landowners from doing them at all.

Skinner was the first rancher to participate in the Open Lands Program at its inception 20 years ago, back when ranchers were still a little leery of conservation easements, he said.

Skinner’s family finalized an easement on their land near Belgrade in 2003. Then they used the cash from the program to buy more property and expand the farm’s operations.

“Family farming is very difficult. It always has been. It’s not all that profitable and it’s getting less profitable,” Skinner said. “So anything we can do to help family farms stay on the landscape is a real benefit to everyone. It keeps development from leapfrogging in the rural areas and keeps an agricultural farming base, which is important for our culture.”

“It helps that next generation not want to sell the farm, because it’s producing some income.”

As the program has grown, so has its trust and credibility in the county. Ranchers who were originally skeptical of conservation easements now see it as a viable tool for conservation, Skinner said.

“At first, landowners didn’t really know what it was,” Weiner of GVLT said. “But after a few big projects with really well-respected landowners, then the neighbors had someone to talk to about what it’s like to have an easement on the property.”

Patti Davis, a longtime volunteer on the Open Lands Board, said she sold her Belgrade ranch with the stipulation the new owner put it under a conservation easement.

What’s special about this valley is the mountains, the character, and the wide open space, Davis said. She hopes it stays that way.

“I think Bozeman is a little unique, because some of the other mountain tourist towns that people are moving to don’t have a huge historic agricultural presence,” Davis said. “That to me is something that really stands out here. It’s integral to the character of the valley.”

“But, you know, you can’t go backwards. It’s all here to stay now.”

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