Jeff Raths: Let families manage their own properties
October 21, 2022
Guest Opinion for the Billings Gazette
With the primary elections in the rearview mirror, most of us have a good idea who’ll represent us in the Montana Legislature come January. A new legislature means new ideas and, of course, recycled ideas from past sessions. The only thing our citizen legislature is required to do is balance a budget, but darn near every politician has an agenda. Their ideas got them this far and they’re going to go to Helena and create change…or something.
It’s in that spirit that I’m writing this letter to all the returning and likely new legislators making big plans for their time in Helena next winter.
My family is in agriculture — specifically, Black Baldy cattle — and all the glamorous day-to-day tasks that go along with it. We’ve been ranching in Musselshell and Golden Valley Counties since 1908. I’m the third generation to run this ranch, and I do it with my wife Bea, my daughter Abby and her husband Robin. We hope our grandsons will be the fifth generation on this place. In 2019, my family placed a conservation easement on our property with the Montana Land Reliance. This easement was an exercise of our property rights. And we entered into it to help ensure that my family maintains its roots in agriculture and stays on this place for generations to come.
In the last legislative session, politicians with their slick lobbyists orchestrated a full-frontal attack on private property rights. They attempted to legislate who a farmer or rancher could and could not sell their land to. And they tried to legislate specific terms that should be left to landowners. States like Nebraska have gone so far as to attempt to ban farmers and ranchers from crafting permanent conservation easements on their own property.
As I look around at farms and ranches in my part of Montana where ag families have placed conservation easements, here’s what I see:
I see that conservation easements have helped keep properties together, and in some cases, families together when the properties were no longer sustainable for the number of cousins. I see that a conservation easement has allowed the State of Montana — not the federal government — to remain in charge of managing sage grouse populations. This allows some of the best sage grouse habitat in the world to be managed locally, while protecting extractive industry and public grazing on federal lands. And I see working ranches with world-class elk habitat, rather than carved-up commercial hunting camps. In short, I see a cornerstone of the Montana way of life — production agriculture — being sustained by conservation easements. Pretty good things, in my view.
You don’t have to live in Bozeman or Whitefish to see that Montana is changing. As input costs continue to rise and ranches are selling for record prices, the pressure on family-owned operations is the greatest it’s been in a generation. These families should have conservation easements as a viable tool as they make choices for their own land.
Conservation easements aren’t for everyone. Nobody should be told they have to conserve their land with a conservation easement. But nor should the government tell them they can’t do so or, make that process unreasonably difficult. So, consider this a request from one ranch family, I suspect speaking on behalf of many more: Leave our farm and ranch operations out of your crosshairs in the next session.
Sometimes folks from town who’ve never sorted cattle want to come to the ranch to help brand or ship calves. The gesture is appreciated, but they’re usually just in the way. Likewise, state legislators may think they’re improving things when they try to legislate significant changes to conservation easements without the input of impacted landowners and land trusts such as the Montana Land Reliance.
But private property rights are just that — private. And they don’t need improving. Montana farmers and ranchers should have the option to put a conservation easement on their land. Not because they’re required to do so, but because they choose to do so. Montana Legislature, please don’t be the townie who wants to help brand. Let families who know the land — and know their brand — manage their properties. Just like they’ve done for generations.