Photo by Louise Johns

Guest column: Knowing what you’ve got before it’s gone

July 16, 2022

By Chet Work for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

I once heard someone refer to the farms and ranches that make up our wide-open spaces around southwest Montana as “empty”. They believed that the highest and best use for private land is development, as if open land is somehow unproductive or simply, yet to be developed. Even the concept of land needing to be ‘productive’ in that way seemed like such a foreign concept. At the Gallatin Valley Land Trust (GVLT), we think about the value of land in a completely different way.

If you speak with the hardworking farmers and ranchers in this region, they’ll tell you the land is far from empty. It is full of rich soil that grows food for our nation, full of fish and wildlife that inspire and elude us, full of history and heritage, full of generations of hard work. Private land with public access is full of outdoor adventures and family memories on the trail. Across our region there are many places where the land is most ‘productive’ and most ‘valuable’ for our communities if it stays just the way it is.

We are all guilty of taking these open lands for granted. And yet we know that all private land without protection, particularly in our growing communities, can and will quickly change. While we take for granted the views, habitat, water quality, and access we love, someone else will see it as empty and find a ‘better’ use for it. We cannot be complacent in assuming that things that always were will forever be. Keeping our landscape the same requires deliberate action.

And that is where land trusts like GVLT come in. GVLT’s work to keep land and public access the same is often harder and more expensive than letting the land be developed. Yet we press on because we believe that the land is full and valuable as it is. Period.

Recently GVLT worked with generous landowners and partners to forever protect your access to special places like Peets Hill, Middle Cottonwood Trail and the Bridger Ridge Trail, all of which were privately owned and were potentially in jeopardy. Over the course of the past few weeks, GVLT announced the completion of two new conservation easements in the Gooch Hill area and in the North Bridgers protecting forever the agriculture, the habitat, the family legacy, the open land. Together with landowners, partners, and supporters we worked hard to ensure these special places are insulated from change.

I’ll date myself as I write this, but I am reminded of Joni Mitchell singing, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘till it’s gone.” When land is developed or access is lost, it is too late. Our challenge is to ensure that we don’t wait until it is gone to decide we value it.

At GVLT, we hold strong to our beliefs that our communities should grow and that we can protect the special parts of our landscape that weave our unique community fabric.

We trust that Montanans can figure this out. Open land is a value we share. In a quickly shifting and changing world the time is now to protect the places we take for granted. It will take all of us, landowners, local government, land management agencies, community members and land trusts to forever protect the places that ground us and remind us that some things never need to change.

Read the original column here.