Montana's working lands provide us with open space, clean water, healthy wildlife habitat, access to wild backcountry, and high-quality recreation. In the Ruby Valley, they are also the foundation for a multi-generational agricultural heritage. Families are practiced at making long-term decisions about their properties and conservation easements are one important tool for doing so.
Landowners in Montana have been granting easements for public benefit for the last century and a half. Road, ditch, and utility easements are good examples. Some of those were paid for, but many of them were donated by willing landowners, rich or poor, who had the best interest of their community and the State of Montana in mind. Nearly all those easements are permanent and those that were purchased were often paid for by public dollars.
A bill was recently introduced in the 2023 Montana State Legislature that seeks to limit the duration of conservation easements funded by “State funds” to no more than 40 years (SB 357). To suggest that a Montana landowner should be prevented from, or impaired in, creating a permanent conservation easement upon their property is an affront to the legacy of Montana’s strong heritage of private property rights. What can possibly be wrong with a willing Montana landowner donating or selling an easement to protect our precious, vanishing agricultural lands and preserve the tremendous wildlife habitat that those lands offer for all the citizens of Montana to enjoy?
Supporters of the bill express their discomfort with decisions being permanent. But does anyone really consider the urban sprawl and the unfettered residential parceling of valuable agricultural lands as temporary? The fertile soils under the Bozeman suburbs, the Bitterroot Valley subdivisions and the sprawl in the Flathead are a few examples. Those encumbrances are permanent. Never again will those lands raise a cash crop, pasture livestock, or provide the habitat needed for a sustainable wildlife population. Furthermore, those “permanent easements” encumbering those lands, are supported by a wealth of public dollars. Schools, roads, emergency services and utilities must be provided for with public funds.
In the late 1860’s, my ancestors packed up their possessions and made a permanent decision to travel west to the Montana frontier. They soon owned land and established several agricultural operations. The IH livestock brand that my family still uses today was registered in Virginia City in 1873. I am certain that their intentions were for future generations to carry-on the tradition, and we have. Recently, our family made the decision to place a permanent conservation easement on our ranch in the Ruby Valley. Protecting forever the legacy, and the valuable agricultural lands and wildlife habitat it provides.
All landowners should have the freedom to make lasting decisions about the future of their property. Legislators should consider the ramifications of starting down the slippery slope of removing a tool from the toolbox of private property rights. This bill is wrong for the Ruby Valley, and wrong for Montana.
- Les Gilman
President of Gilman IH Cattle Co. and RVSA Member