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Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, pictured here, is considered

“the cradle of Montana conservation easements.” The

first one in the state was installed there and now much
of the river and the surrounding valley are protected from


Montana is famous for its open spaces, most of which are
privately owned. We’re losing some, preserving some.


M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 27
n Montana, we spend a lot of time talking about
public land: how to manage it, who should use it
and how they should travel on it. We even argue over
whether we should keep it public or just sell it off.

Montana’s abundant big-game herds, like these elk, depend on private lands for survival.


The disputes go on and on. Every timber sale is a battle about clean air and water, wildlife habitat, vistas unpimpled
and brings a lawsuit, it seems. How much land is enough for by development, we need to care about private land. It totals
grizzlies and wolverines and lynx? Can sage grouse coexist 65 million acres in Montana and it contains some of the most
with oil wells? How many elk are enough? How many coyotes important habitat: good water, winter range, and the land-
are too many? Wolves? What’s the difference between wild- scapes most of us relish every day.
land and Wilderness? And what about fire? Even just access- The private estate is changing steadily and often without
ing our public land can stir up a fight. much controversy. Whether it’s good or bad depends on your
These are important discussions, of course. But let’s not perspective. Over the past 40 years, landowners have willingly
forget that 70 percent of our state is private land. If we care halted development on 2.6 million acres of their own ground,

M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 29
Homes constructed in Montana: 1980 map vs. 2016 map

SOURCE: Headwaters Economics

It’s the same amount of space, but a lot more people are building homes in it these days.

using legal instruments that will last as long as we have courts the easements rules are rare, according to Andy Dana, a
and laws and a respect for contracts in this country. Yet over Bozeman lawyer who specializes in conservation easements
the same timeframe an estimated 2 million acres have been around the West.
chopped up into housing tracts, mostly in parcels of 5 acres or His parents put a conservation easement on their Paradise
more, and largely in our most populous counties. Valley property south of Livingston in 1981. It was the first
So far, the protectors are outrunning the developers, at along the Yellowstone River and includes three miles of
least in terms of acreage. But the race is far from over. Many riverfront, plus a spring creek where trout spawn. And it will
things could change. remain undeveloped, no matter how many new houses sprout
all around it, no matter how high real estate prices climb.
A tool both complicated and precise In his family’s case, that means traditional agriculture
remains; cattle graze, hay grows. One house is rented out.
Housing development isn’t hard to understand. More and That’s about it, in terms of economic activity.
more people are living in Montana, and almost everybody A conservation easement is “the most restrictive instru-
wants a roof over their head. So they build or buy homes. ment you can put on your property,” Dana said. And that’s just
Much of it occurs on fertile agricultural land. fine with him and his brothers, who co-own the ranch. They
Banning development is a little more complicated. Most like it the way it is and want to keep it that way.
often, it uses a tool called a conservation easement. “It’s something the family has been unified on,” he said.
In essence, a conservation easement restricts the land- His parents bought the place in the 1960s from an old
owner’s property deed so the land can’t be subdivided or Park County family and, coming from the East Coast, saw
extensively developed. In most cases, traditional uses such as development pressure building on the horizon. They loved the
agriculture or sustainable logging can continue. So can hunt- outdoors, agriculture and open space. So they made sure their
ing and fishing, maybe some mineral development. The prop- chunk of it would be protected.
erty’s tax status doesn’t change. The public benefits as well.
The leases are designed to last “in perpetuity,” which is a Because of the easement, river floaters and other passersby
long time. A legal entity other than the landowner holds the can enjoy a lush riverine landscape in a valley that is growing
lease and is required by law to enforce it, becoming some- rapidly. And because there isn’t much human activity there
thing of a partner for whoever owns the land. Violations of “the moose can calve and the swans can nest,” Dana said.

Land rich, cash poor for tax deductions that can be used over 16 years. That can
reduce or eliminate income taxes for years, if the donor has
Conservation easements became possible in Montana in 1975, enough income. But many landowners don’t have enough
when the state legislature enacted a bill to allow and regu- income to take advantage of the tax breaks.
late them. The first easement was installed the next year in the So the easements can be sold for cash, either to a land trust or
Blackfoot Valley east of Missoula, where people saw development to a government entity. Landowners can then use that money to
coming and wanted to protect land beyond their own lifetimes. pay off debt, expand their farm or ranch, or invest as they see fit.
The idea spread from there, and easements have been Rock Ringling, who recently retired from the Montana
installed in 51 of Montana’s 56 counties. Land Reliance (MLR), where he negotiated conservation ease-
In the early years, most easements were donated by the ments for 29 years, pointed to an eastern Montana example.
landowners, like the Danas, who wanted to protect the land There, one rancher, whose family has ranched for genera-
and keep it productive for people and wildlife. tions, sold a pair of easements to MLR. The first sale paid
While protecting wildlife and open space and providing off debt and the second allowed him to expand his ranch by
ecosystem services (see sidebar, Page 32) is the primary goal for buying more hay land, increasing his beef production.
many people, there can be substantial financial payoffs as well. “He made a better ranch out of it,” Ringling said. Plus, the
Since a conservation easement bans development in perpe- easements benefit wildlife and protect open space, the family
tuity, landowners give up a substantial amount of real estate ranch can pass more easily to the next generation, and local
value because they lose the ability to subdivide, as do their government isn’t burdened by rural subdivisions, which rarely
heirs or other future owners. produce enough tax money to offset the services they require.
If a landowner donates all or part of an easement to a “A cow doesn’t call the sheriff,” Ringling noted. Nor does
government entity or a nonprofit land trust (there are a number it need the school buses, snowplows or road maintenance that
of such organizations in Montana), he or she becomes eligible local governments provide.
Montana has more land under
conservation easement than Idaho,
Wyoming and the Dakotas combined.
Environmental Adventure Company “It’s a lot for a western state, given the
politics of Montana,” Ringling said. He

Montana to Havana! attributes Montana’s success to the state’s

comparatively early start in the conser-
vation easement business, a good law to
work with, and considerable expertise on
Find your own Cuba the ground. Conservation easements are
l Couples, families, groups
complicated transactions and each one is
l Departures year-round tailored to an individual property.
l Call 406-222-5660 to begin! Administering and enforcing them means following a “thick workbook
of standards and practices that must
“One of the best wildlife tour
companies in North America”
be followed,” Dana said. If a land
NATIONAL WILDLIFE FEDERATION Culture! trust doesn’t make sure the rules are
followed, it can run into trouble with the
Internal Revenue Service.
Montana’s program also got a big boost
“when public money showed up” over the
past couple decades, said Ringling, whose
group has helped protect a million acres
of private land in Montana.
Other big players include the Nature
Conservancy (TNC), which buys or
Wildlife! accepts donated conservation easements.

M O N TA N A Q U A R T E R LY 31
Conservation easements
in Montana as of March 2018
Private land trusts/conservation groups

State/county/city government

Federal/tribal government

SOURCE: Montana Department of Administration

Show me the money: Putting a dollar value on nature’s work

Open land provides food. Meat and wheat. Fruit and economics, but it’s becoming more sophisticated, the paper
vegetables. But it also provides what scientists call ecosys- notes.
tem services. And the more intensively the land is devel- In Costa Rica, coffee farms near unharvested forests
oped, the fewer of those services it can provide. A forest that host bees and other pollinators saw much better crops,
provides more services than a field. And a field provides the paper said. In Vietnam, spending $1.1 million to plant
more than a subdivision. coastal mangroves saved $7.3 million annually that would
The services come in many forms: carbon sequestra- have been spent on dikes to prevent flooding.
tion, pollination, air pollution removal, erosion control, In Montana, forests and wetlands provide the most
water quality protection, healthier people. Increasingly, ecosystem services per acre, which is calculated by study-
economists are trying to put a dollar value on those ing 30-square-meter grids. Of the land under MLR ease-
services. ment, only 26 percent falls into those categories. Yet they
The Montana Land Reliance, which holds conserva- provide 70 percent of the value of ecosystem services,
tion easements on 1 million acres in Montana, calculates which include carbon sequestration, biodiversity, water
the services on that land are worth $317 million. That’s not quality and water storage.
all cash, though. Much of it comes in the form of avoided Ecosystem services don’t disappear with development,
expenses. Bell said, but they do get reduced. In the Gallatin Valley,
“The Yellowstone River could be more polluted than it he said, ranch land converted to rural subdivisions loses
is,” without conservation easements protecting its banks about 50 percent of those services. And millions of acres of
and tributaries, noted Matt Bell, a geographic specialist private land in the state provide ecosystem services without
for MLR. And that would boost costs for downstream cities conservation easements.
that use it for drinking water. “What would the cost be of But a conservation easement ensures those services will
that [water] filtration?” continue to be produced long into the future.
There are examples. The hardest thing to measure is probably the aesthetic
New York City paid farmers $1 billion to keep animal value of open land. But it jingles some cash registers none-
waste and farm fertilizer out of upstream water sources theless. The state of Montana promotes open spaces in its
and avoided the need for a new $6 billion water filtration tourism campaigns. And real estate agents frequently use
plant plus at least $300 million more in annual operating the term “adjoins conservation property.”
costs, according to a 2012 paper by Environmental Health As with other commodities, when open space shrinks,
Perspectives. its value increases.
Valuing nature’s services remains an emerging field of —Scott McMillion

“They believe in conservation. They believe in agriculture.
A conservation easement helps them achieve those goals.”

Although it is a huge organization that operates worldwide,

in high-growth parts of the state have their own programs as
“The Conservancy can’t do it all,” said Dave Carr, who has
well, usually financed by property tax hikes.
worked for TNC in Montana since 1989. Much of his work has
“It’s a taxpayer subsidy of open space,” Dana observed.
been along the Rocky Mountain Front, where TNC owns someEach program is unique. The Farm Bill programs empha-
key conservation property. size protecting agriculture and making it sustainable, the state
“There was a lot of suspicion about conservation easements
program often emphasizes hunting access and other recreation,
and a lot of fear about losing control” of property, Carr said.
and county programs focus on protecting open space and habi-
But the availability of cash payments made the easements a
tat in rapidly growing counties such as Gallatin and Missoula.
more attractive option. The future holds few assurances, however. Proposals
The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) is “incred-
currently floating in Washington, D.C., would direct LWCF
ibly important,” Carr said. That fund, which is financed by
money to other uses, such as infrastructure in the national
offshore oil and gas development, allows the federal government
parks. The Farm Bill is a perennial political football.
to buy conservation easements on threatened property. The land
And the Habitat Montana program comes under periodic
is protected but it remains in private hands and on the tax rolls.
attack in Helena. Local open space bonds, which fund
The federal Farm Bill also provides money for conservation
conservation easements, come up for renewal periodically
easements, as does the Habitat Montana program, which is
and compete for tax money with other causes.
funded by hunting and fishing license money. Some counties
Montana has about 2,000 conservation easements, held by
about 30 entities, either nonprofit or
governmental, said Glenn Marx, direc-
tor of the Montana Association of Land

Connecting Landscapes – Protecting Wildlife Trusts. Each of them has been negotiated
through a willing buyer/willing seller rela-
tionship. Marx stressed that conservation
easements don’t make sense for every-
body. Decision factors include commod-
ity prices, estate taxes, tax and cash flow
situations, and “simple altruism.”
“They want to respect the tradition
and legacy of that property,” he said of
landowners seeking easements. “They
believe in conservation. They believe in
agriculture. A conservation easement
helps them achieve those goals.”
Financial tools can make that easier
to do so. But landowners can often find
The Vital Ground Foundation is a Montana-based land simpler ways to profit from their property.
trust conserving and connecting habitat for grizzly bears “If an owner only wants revenue,
and other wildlife. Learn more at they should look at other options,” Marx
or Phone: 406.549.8650. said. “At its core, it’s a commitment to
lasting conservation.”
And so far, the owners of 2.8 million
acres—an area bigger than Yellowstone
National Park—have decided to make
that commitment.

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