There is More to Conservation Easements Than Conservation

by Glenn Marx

May 18, 2022

That’s right…there is more to conservation easements than conservation. There are also significant and positive economic impacts from conservation easements that flow to Montana farm and ranch families, rural main streets, local economies, and Montana’s statewide economy.

A new collaborative report produced by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Montana Association of Land Trusts, and the Heart of Rockies Initiative focuses on the Farm Bill Agricultural Land Easement (ALE) program and documents the important economic contributions of conservation projects.

Under the ALE program, the NRCS provides funding and regulatory oversight for voluntary conservation easements held by land trusts through partnerships with willing landowners.

The 20-page report, titled Working for Montana Agriculture: Economic Benefits of Conservation Easements for Montana’s Farms, Ranches, and Communities, tells a compelling story:

  • Between 2014 and 2021 the NRCS, farm and ranch families, and land trusts (or state agency) teamed up to invest $109 million from the Farm Bill ALE program to conserve 289,000 acres of ag lands in 22 Montana counties.
  • Every Farm Bill ALE dollar allocated to farm and ranch conservation yielded $1.89 of economic activity, nearly doubling the positive impact of the Farm Bill funding.
  • 95% of the allocated funds were used to directly assist with farm and ranch agricultural operations and expansion, farm and ranch family succession planning, business strength and stability, and direct purchase of farm and ranch equipment. These funds keep working lands in working hands.
  • These dollars produced a total economic impact of $182 million for Montana’s economy, supported 1,057 local jobs and $41.5 million in labor income, and contributed $99 million to Montana’s Gross Domestic Product.

These 289,000 acres of Montana prime farm and ranch ground will be permanently available to produce food products to feed Montana, feed America, and feed the world. The report also points out that since 1990 Montana has lost 1.3 million acres of open land.

Some Gallatin Valley Land Trust conservation easements are featured in the report through photos, economic data, and specific examples. GVLT’s Main Street to the Mountains trail system is also highlighted within a brief outdoor recreation section of the report.

Also within the report is a special article from Dr. Daniel Bigelow, MSU Assistant Professor of Agricultural Economics, who reports Montana conservation easements help landowners realize essential economic benefits from their main asset…their land.

The Working for Montana report also showcases individual examples throughout Montana of the Farm Bill ALE program providing essential opportunities for farm and ranch innovation, ranch operational strength, improved succession planning, local food security and distribution, purchase of farm and ranch equipment, and other economic benefits to producers and communities.

For decades, the Montana land trust community has told a powerful story about the conservation value of their work. For the first time, the NRCS and land trusts are now telling the dynamic story about the economic value of our work. And that story demonstrates this economic value is incredibly important for Montana farm and ranch families, and for Montana’s economy.

Glenn Marx is the Executive Director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts.