Early Use of Conservation Easements in Montana

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1978

Montana Land Reliance was founded in 1978 by Barbara Rusmore and Christina Torgrimson, who wanted to preserve Montana’s beautiful outdoor scenery and “provide permanent protection for private lands that are significant for agricultural production, forest resources, fish and wildlife habitat, and open space.” The John Hay Whitney Foundation provided a startup grant, and the group made the most of its resources by becoming one of the aggressive early users of the then-brand-new concept of “conservation easements”—which protect land without requiring it to be purchased from the owner.

Easements can be purchased with money provided by donors (for far less than the cost of buying the land), or gifted by public-spirited landowners. In either case the property remains on the tax rolls, while the owner gets a partial credit. Easements are extremely flexible. On a working farm an easement might forbid housing subdivisions, but allow any desired agricultural structures to be built. An easement on property containing a rare plant or animal might sign away all development rights on the areas it occupies. Conservation easements can be applied to just a portion of a property, or all of it. Each agreement is crafted to meet the particular needs of the landowner while respecting the conservation goal for that land.

Land Reliance didn’t buy up land and then sell it to the government, like some land trusts. Rusmore and Torgrimson wanted the preserved plots to remain in private hands—which helped win over local landowners who were skeptical of government involvement in their areas, and local officials who didn’t want too much land leaving the tax rolls. Relying 100 percent on easements as their conservation tool, MLR soon built a strong base of support from Montana landowners.

Wheat farms and ranches had historic as well as farming and ecological value that made them one focus of the group. MLR also put a great deal of effort into encouraging stewardship of the private property surrounding Yellowstone National Park and Glacier National Park—land which is important to wildlife, tourism, and state beauty. Today, Montana Land Reliance is a model statewide land trust, and the voluntary conservation easements the nonprofit has acquired from private landowners protect 907,425 acres of ecologically, agriculturally, and historically important land, plus 1,577 miles of stream frontage. These include nearly 500,000 acres of elk habitat, 10,000 acres of wetlands, the watersheds supporting Montana’s now-thriving trout fishery, and more.

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