Updated: 3 days ago
Over the last few months there has been much talk about a new proposed project in Southwest Montana, called the Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area. Many people have concerns and questions about what the project would do, and rightfully so, given that the future of this area is deeply important to us all. After vetting this project, attending the public scoping meetings, and discussing internally, the RVSA voted unanimously to submit supportive comments regarding the proposed Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area. Below is a summary of what we have learned through the process.
What is the Proposed Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area?
The Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area, if approved, would create an area within Southwest Montana where funding could be made available for the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to purchase conservation easements from willing, private landowners. These easements would be minimally restrictive and would be focused solely on protecting working ranchlands and the wildlife habitat they provide. Conservation easements in this area would help conserve important wildlife habitat and protect the open space and working lands that make Southwest Montana one of our state’s main agricultural strongholds. This process of defining a target area so that an agency can access funds is very similar to how NRCS must identify a Targeted Implementation Project area in order to fund TIP projects in our region.
What would the Conservation Area do?
The Proposed Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area would allow USFWS to acquire conservation easements using Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) dollars from willing, private landowners within the Conservation Area.
What would the Conservation Area NOT do?
It would not authorize USFWS to purchase land or undergo any fee title acquisition
It would not affect public land management or create new public land
It would not prevent mineral rights development or timber harvest on private or public lands
It would not impact the county tax base
It would not affect water rights
USFWS easements do not require public access
What would be the benefits of the Proposed Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area?
For decades, private organizations and other public agencies have worked with a number of landowners in Southwest Montana to place conservation easements on their properties. However, these existing efforts are increasingly falling far short of servicing the full scale and diversity of landowner interest in easements. Adding USFWS’ easement program would offer a complementary option to interested landowners in the region. Additionally, RVSA has heard from land trusts that they simply cannot access
enough money to match the cost and level of interest in easements that they are receiving from our area. The Proposed Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area would help alleviate these issues by offering a different and minimally restrictive easement option while introducing a new funding source into local economies.
Where does money for this program come from?
The Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area would be funded by Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) money. Using zero taxpayer dollars, LWCF directs earnings from offshore oil and gas leasing to help strengthen communities, preserve our history, and protect our national endowment of lands and waters. This funding source is only available to federal agencies and can only be utilized in this instance if a Conservation Area is established.
The Alliance believes that keeping both working ranches and public lands viable and intact is essential to achieve our long-term conservation goals. To this end, RVSA is supportive of tools that help keep working lands working while also conserving the wildlife habitat, open spaces, and clean waters that our ranches have stewarded for generations. It is our understanding that other FWS Conservation Areas in our state, such as the Blackfoot and Rocky Mountain Front Conservation Areas, have been a positive tool for those agricultural communities.
We know that it will take more than conservation easement funding to keep our patchwork of private and public working lands sustainable for people and wildlife into the future, but we are supportive of efforts that diversify options that help us to that end. Given that all the proposed Missouri Headwaters Conservation Area does is bring new money and a new conservation easement group to our region, we are in favor.
To learn more, you can visit the projects website: https://www.fws.gov/project/proposed-missouri-headwaters-conservation-area