Conservation easements
growing in Swan Valley

The Parker's property straddles the Swan River.


July 19, 2001
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
Seeley Lake, Montana

Swan Valley's Future

-The Landholder's Legacy

 

A Magnificent Array

 

Why have you come to the Swan Valley? To partake of its breathtaking beauty, to enjoy recreation, wilderness adventure, water sports, solitude, time with family and friends, fishing and hunting? People have been coming to the Swan since before recorded time, drawn to the lush forests and plentiful water in its fens and bogs, streams, rivers and lakes. This abundant valley provides food and home to a magnificent array of plant and animal life, including the human population.

 

 

 

 

 

The Abolt house in the Cooney Creek drainage is nestled in the trees with mountains in the background, a clearcut surrounded by mature forest, and a more recent cut, in front of the house.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Vision for the Future

Long-term residents as well as more recent arrivals are looking to the future of this jewel within the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem, and have a vision for the Swan Valley as it will be. Some see the opportunity for continued recreational, commercial, and timber development. Others reflect on the opportunity for their grandchildren to come and enjoy a wildlands experience similar to the experience that captivated them when they first arrived. One vehicle to insure a variety of experiences are available to future generations is through a conservation easement. A conservation easement is the legal glue that binds a property owner's good intentions to the land in perpetuity. Typically, no two conservation easements are alike. Despite common elements precluding subdivision, certain commercial developments, and activities detrimental to soil, water, and wildlife habitat, each conservation easement is tailored to the unique character of the land and the conservation desires of its owners. The landowner retains ownership and management, but certain rights, such as the number of home sites, are limited or restricted. Thus, protecting open space and wildlife habitat, and the economic viability of the land and region.

 

The homestead cabin on the Parker's property.

 

A number of landowners in the Swan Valley are placing conservation easements on their land and working with a land trust, such as the Montana Land Reliance, to ensure their legacy remains. Since 1978, the Montana Land Reliance (MLR) has been working with landowners across the state to create conservation solutions that include their long-term family, tax, and financial goals. As Montana=s only statewide, privately funded, non-profit land trust, MLR and private landowners have conserved more than 440,000 acres of open space, productive lands, and wildlife habitat. Amy Eaton, MLR Regional Director, has been actively and creatively working with landowners in the Swan since 1993, and has helped 17 families to achieve their land management and estate goals by placing 1,941 acres in the Swan under conservation easements. Last year, MLR made its most significant conservation gains to date, adding five new projects and 870 acres.

 

Many of these landowners have lived in the valley for years, some for generations. Some operate businesses from their land, while others use it as recreational property. Stewardship, a common theme among these landowners, is a desire to responsibly manage the land to promote sustained timber growth, wildlife habitat, and watershed protection; a desire shared by many people in the Swan.

 

Consuming Forest Fire Leads to Forest Management

 

In 1910, fire swept through the Swan Valley consuming much of the forest. Dense stands of lodgepole pine sprouted and grew after the fire. Today, the lodgepole pines are diseased and aging; some are capsizing due to wind and heavy snow. Easement donors, such as Dave and Kay Owen, and Hal and Arlene Braun, are actively working to create a healthy forest. Thinning timber stands not only reduces fire danger on their land but also provides posts, poles, and some saw logs for sale. Propagating and planting seedlings of native species such as larch, grand fir, white fir, and Douglas-fir speeds up the forest succession process. All forest work is done in accord with forest plans for their land, some predating their conservation easements by years. Jane Kile, MLR Land Steward, provides forest management planning assistance for landowners with easements. Annually, she meets with each landowner to review the easement's provisions and tour the land. Her ability to listen is well received and her thoughtful suggestions are much appreciated.

 

"Putting your money

where your mouth is"

Tom and Melanie Parker own land which is under conservation easement and through which the Swan River flows. From this idyllic setting, they operate an education and research center called Northwest Connections. Business activities on the land are carefully choreographed to accommodate spring use by wildlife including sandhill cranes, deer, elk, grizzly bears, black bears, and nesting geese. Tom felt strongly about "putting his money where his mouth is" and keeping the "functional connectivity" of their land intact. It was this philosophy which compelled him to donate the easement. MLR played a critical role in creatively putting together the pieces to allow the easement to happen.

 

 

The Parker's interest in the land also has a historical connection. As a 25-year resident of the Swan, Tom leased pasture for years on land he ultimately purchased from Ed and Agnes Beck. Ed Beck's family homesteaded in the Swan in 1915. Ed grew up on the property now under easement with the MLR. His family raised cows, harvested timber, and sent milk and butter on the mail train to Missoula to be sold there. Tom says, "Ed and Agnes did an amazing job of land and resource management" in raising livestock and being vigilant with weeds. Agnes now resides in a home on the property near the old homestead buildings, and is pleased with the future of the land on which she spent so much of her life.

 

Some landowners, such as Mary Phillips, simply enjoy the tranquility and solitude of their land. She has lived along Rumble Creek since the 1970's, and manages her forest to reduce fire danger and keep it healthy. Her goal is to insure that the solitude she enjoys is available to her children in the future. Her children are "in total agreement" with her decision to place a conservation easement on her land, and Mary feels "supported by both her family and the MLR staff" in her decision to maintain the integrity of her land.

 

Stewardship Leads to Legacy

 

While stewardship is a common theme among easement donors, a sense of neighborhood and common goals is also a recurrent theme. Russ and Larraine Abolt are more recent arrivals in the Swan, and felt an "instant connection with the land". They also feel a connection to the community through the shared beliefs and goals of fellow easement donors. In 2000, MLR found that 70 percent of easements donated were within five miles of existing ease