Saving the Best Forever

The following article originally appeared in Montana Outdoors (November-December 2016).  It is adapted with permission from the author and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks.

Montana appears to be overflowing with farmland, yet many of the most productive lands along river bottoms have been converted to housing and highways.  According to American Farmland Trust, Montana has lost 204,100 acres of prime farmland to development since 1982 – much of it in wildlife-rich river valleys with sweeping mountain views.

Tempted by real estate developers’ lucrative offers and pressured by rising property taxes, a growing number of landowners have turned to conservation easements to hold on to their property.  Landowners know that conservation easements protect both critical wildlife habitat and family farms, and are an important tool for wildlife management through land management plans and hunter access.  The easements are voluntary legal agreements between a landowner and a land trust nonprofit or public land management agency such as Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks (FWP).  On FWP conservation easements, the landowner restricts certain development on the property, such as subdividing parcels, plowing native grasslands, or leasing land for hunting, in exchange for a one-time payment of roughly 40 percent of the property’s value.  That cash allows struggling ranchers to stay on their land and even helps pay inheritance taxes.

Landowners either sell or donate easements to FWP while maintaining ownership of the land.  The property can be sold or passed on to heirs and allows for continued farming, ranching, and other private uses under certain conditions. “Many people don’t understand that conservation easements help landowners keep doing what they’ve been doing, which is working the land,” says Rick Northrup, chief of FWP’s Wildlife Habitat Bureau.  The land also remains on the county tax rolls.

FWP conservation easements protect the state’s most important wildlife habitats – riparian (riverside) areas, intermountain grasslands, and sagebrush-grasslands – that are vulnerable to subdivision development and intense agricultural practices.  FWP often tries to acquire conservation easements that connect existing easements and other protected lands.  When linked, habitat is even more beneficial to wildlife because it allows for greater unobstructed movement.

Since its first easement purchase in 1994, FWP has acquired – either by purchasing or through donations – another 62 conservation easements statewide for a total of 458,824 acres safeguarded from development.  The easements are financed largely through the Habitat Montana Program, funded by hunting license fees.  The program collects about $4 million a year.  “These are hunters’ dollars being put to work for hunting and wildlife,” says Northrup.  Donations from many conservation groups assist in easement purchases.

To help buy easements in western Montana, FWP applies for competitive grants from the Forest Legacy Projects administered by the U.S. Forest Service.  The federal agency stipulates that Forest Legacy dollars be used to conserve threatened forests that provide timber harvest, wildlife habitat, and public access.  Most FWP conservation easements funded with Forest Legacy dollars have been purchased from timber companies.

For instance, Stimson Lumber Company sold FWP a 28,000-acre easement near Troy that contains critical habitat for grizzly bears, wolves, Canada lynx, bull trout, and westslope cutthroat.  It’s also prime timber land.  “The attraction for us, as we look at our lands and where our mills are, is that it’s getting harder and harder to make timber work for the long term,” says Barry Dexter, inland resource manager for Stimson.  “We were willing to give up first development rights for that harvest income.”

Most FWP conservation easements start as conversations between a landowner and a wildlife biologist.  “I’ve had a lot of coffee at kitchen tables,” says FWP biologist, Cory Loecker, who helps negotiate easements. Just as important as what he says to landowners about the value of conservation easements, however, is what other easement holders say.  “Landowners all know each other, so they can visit with a neighbor and see how the easement works and decide if it would work with their operation,” he says.

Why doesn’t FWP just buy prime habitat from willing sellers and make them into wildlife management areas?  Often it does.  “But other times we can get more bang for the buck with an easement,” says Ken McDonald, head of the FWP Wildlife Division.  “And sometimes landowners prefer to sell or donate the easement to us so they can continue working the land and pass it on to their kids.”

So that conservation easements benefit wildlife and the hunters who pay the lion’s share of costs, the legal contracts contain specific provisions for land management and public access.  FWP negotiates management plans with the landowner until both parties reach agreement.  Many FWP easements stipulate grazing to be done on a rotational schedule to invigorate shrubs, grasses, and forbs.  On one ranch, the management plan required seeding 350 acres into dense nesting cover for upland birds and waterfowl.  Haying is allowed on the ranch’s ungrazed fields, but only after birds have finished nesting, to prevent machinery from killing broods.

Conservation easements are perpetual, meaning the land management and development stipulations last forever.  Most conservation-minded heirs welcome the restrictions and recognize they are there for good reason.  Conservation easements exist to protect critical wildlife habitat, not just for a few decades but for all time.  One of the biggest benefits to landowners from the agreements is that their vision of their land is preserved.  “We view those protections as a property right,” says Cindy Kittredge, a Montana landowner.  “Other people might have the right to develop their land in ways that can ruin it forever, and we have the right to protect our land forever.  We see conservation easements as a tool for enshrining that property right.”