Editorial: Open space efforts benefit all of us
A guest column published here on July 17 extolled the Gallatin Valley Land Trust’s milestone of reaching 50,000 acres of conserved open space in southwest Montana. And that is truly a remarkable accomplishment. In this rapidly growing region, open space is disappearing at an alarming rate. And with every acre converted to housing or commercial development a little bit of the quality of life we all enjoy is slipping away.
Nearly 80 square miles of land is now under conservation easement due to the GVLT work. These easements protect land from development for perpetuity in exchange for tax breaks and other considerations for the landowners. But perhaps even more importantly than the individual parcels of land protected through these easements, these efforts fill a need that local and state governments fail to address.
Montana still has a fierce independent streak that values highly the privileges of property ownership. As a result, little land-use planning is done on a statewide basis. Elected leaders balk at such measures because of pushback to any suggestions of the z-word, zoning, which is widely regarded as a seizure of property rights — the freedom to do what one wants with what one owns, regardless of what it does to the greater good.
As a result, Montana lags behind other states — like Oregon and Washington — that have taken the initiative to establish guidelines for development. Many states in the eastern region of the country have long ago lost opportunities to preserve much of their natural amenities due to urban and suburban development. Western states still have an opportunity to preserve some of what’s best about their landscapes. But Montana isn’t likely to enact much in the way of statewide planning in the near term.
That’s why private-sector efforts like those of the GVLT are so important. With the cooperation of willing landowners, the organization has been successful using the free market to preserve significant amounts of open space. But as population growth accelerates, much more needs to be done.