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the Montana Land Reliance

Private land conservation group helps set up Swan Valley easements

(Editor's note: the following article about the Montana Land Reliance, which has helped landowners in the Swan Valley set up conservation easements and which recently helped Ovando landowners in preservation efforts along the Blackfoot River, has been prepared by Cathy Brenneman of the organization's Bigfork office.)

by Cathy Brenneman
Seeley Swan Pathfinder
August 6, 1998

Montana is home to some of our nation's most productive forested lands for wildlife and fish habitats, watershed protection, recreation and sustainable timber management.

Anyone familiar with the Swan Valley's landscape of scenic open meadows, forested bottom lands, and foothills, all framed by glacial mountain peaks, knows this land to be rich in habitat and resources.

Many of these acres are under public ownership and management. However, a vast amount of forest land is privately held and vulnerable to loss by subdivision and development.

Landowners who wish to ensure that their forest legacy, stewardship goals and conservation values remain with the land have been finding a solution in the Montana Land Reliance (MLR).

Since 1978, MLR has worked with landowners to conserve Montana's irreplaceable productive agricultural and timber lands, open space, and fish and wildlife habitats.

MLR is focused upon the long-term conservation of diverse landscapes for present and future generations. With landowners, MLR has completed 274 conservation easements protecting more than 282,000 acres of Montana's privately owned open space. Providing a private sector solution, MLR is a non governmental, apolitical, non profit organization working only in Montana.

Conservation easements are the primary tool used by MLR to achieve its protection goals. A conservation easement is the legal glue that binds a property owner's good intentions to the land.

Regardless of ownership, the conservation easement stays with the land. No two conservation easements are alike. Despite common elements precluding subdivision, commercial development and other activities detrimental to soil, water or wildlife habitat, each conservation easement is tailored to the unique character of the land and conservation desires of its owners.

The landowner continues to own the property and use the property under the terms of their conservation easement. Once the conservation easement is placed on the property, MLR's stewardship staff visits with the landowner annually to ensure that their conservation goals are being met and to provide technical assistance for the land management issues.

There are many reasons why landowners place conservation easements on their land. The overriding rationale is a desire to protect a piece of land and retain its historical uses and ecological values.

Agriculture, silviculture, fishing, hunting, and recreation, along with wildlife habitat, open space, and watershed protection are examples of these uses and values.

Tax incentives help many landowners take advantage of conservation opportunities as well. The potential tax benefits of a donated conservation easement are two-fold. First, income tax benefits may accrue at the federal level, and, depending on the landowner's residence, the state level as well. Second the conservation easement works as an estate planning mechanism to reduce estate tax liability.

In 1992, MLR opened its Glacier/Flathead office located in Bigfork. Since that time, MLR has completed 62 new conservation easement projects in northwest Montana - ten of those projects are found in the Swan Valley. A conservation easement fulfills different needs for different landowners.

In 1997, Dave and Kay Owen donated a conservation easement to MLR on their Buck Creek property near Condon. The Owens have owned this property since 1967. Dave and Kay's specific objectives were to maintain and/or enhance the inherent conservation values of the property in perpetuity through prudent forestry practices. "Montana has provided us a good life," said Dave, "As Charlie Russell said, 'If we cash in now we are ahead of the game.' Carefully planning with MLR, we strive to convey to our children and grandchildren a sense of humility and respect for what has been there long before us and will be long after." The Owen property is important for its diverse plant species and wildlife habitats. "Our forest has been a continuing classroom while providing us satisfying and productive activity," Kay states. Under the terms of their conservation easement, the land will never be subdivided. A long-term forest stewardship plan is an important part of their conservation easement incorporating wildlife and water quality concerns while allowing for a sustainable timber harvest.

Last year Rich and Sally Thomason stepped forward to protect their 245 acre property in the Cooney Creek area. The Thomasons found that a conservation easement is an essential way to promote the preservation of relatively unspoiled, privately-owned wild areas. According to Rich Thomason, "Montana Land Reliance provides a flexible, personalized assistance to landowners who wish to take advantage of this opportunity to shield their property from development that threatens to impair habitat and scenic quality in the Swan Valley." Rich and Sally also found that, "as conservation easements increase in the area, the Land Reliance is providing more and more forward-looking, coordinated support for planning in the responsible use of private resources in the region."

In a conservation easement completed just this summer, Tom and Melanie Parker, landowners along the Swan River, were concerned about the protection of a piece of land which has not only significant habitat but is also historically significant to the area - the Beck Homestead. Agnes Beck, who has been at home there for years, is glad that the wildlife habitat will remain. "I always appreciated the wildlife on the place. Placing this conservation easement sees they have a place to stay," Mrs. Beck commented.

The immediate goals of MLR's conservation work is measured in acres of land protected from unsuitable and irrevocable development. The lasting benefit is knowing Montana's open spaces will continue to nourish the spirit of future generations. Anyone interested in the work being done by MLR is invited to contact its Glacier/Flathead office at 837-2178 or the Helena office at 443-7027.

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