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Missoula Measures - Conservation Easements


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Why this topic?

Conservation easements are a valuable tool for protecting natural resources on private property. A conservation easement is a contract under which a landowner voluntarily gives up the right to conduct certain activities on the property but continues to own and manage the land. The activities given up usually include subdivision, commercial timber harvest, mining, floodplain alteration, livestock grazing in riparian areas, and other uses that would degrade natural resources. The lead indicator reports the acres of private lands in Missoula County under conservation easement.

How are we doing?

The number and acres of conservation easements in Missoula County continues to increase. As of 2005, a total of 29,883 acres of private land, about 10% of all private acreage in the county (excluding holding of Plum Creek Timber), are under easement. This is good news for wildlife, vegetation, and the quality of our rivers. It also helps protect rural lifestyles for future generations. It is also an indicator of the increasing pressures to develop land. Not many decades ago, owners of agricultural or timber lands were secure in knowing that their land would continue in its agricultural or natural state. With increased residential development in traditionally rural areas and the subsequent inflation of land values, making a living on the family ranch has become difficult. Hence the desire to ensure protection of the land through a binding contract.

Indicator

Privately Owned Acres Placed Under Conservation Easement in Missoula County:  51,357

 

Facilitating Agency Total Acres as of 2010
City of Missoula 79
MT Land Reliance 967
Vital Ground Foundation 597
Rocky Mtn. Elk Foundation 3,711
Nature Conservancy 3,370
5 Valley's Land Trust 40,077
MT Fish, Wildlife & Parks 1,839
US Forest Service 717

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Brief Background

Why give an easement?

Landowners who place a conservation easement on their property do so to protect the land long after they no longer own it. While organizations or government agencies occasionally pay a landowner to establish an easement, most are voluntary donations. The federal government considers this a charitable contribution, allowing the landowner to use it as an income tax deduction spread over a number of years. Its value equals the amount forsaken by not harvesting timber, subdividing, etc. The easement can also stave off an increase in property taxes caused by subdivision and land speculation on adjacent parcels.

Advantages of Easements

Conservation easements have many advantages over other resource protection tools (such as public acquisition and regulation). Conservation easements are established voluntarily at the discretion of a landowner. The public receives a benefit with no fear of "governmental takings." With private protection of resources, the public does not need to raise funds to purchase the lands and does not lose all of the property taxes generated by them. Often the expense of operating public lands is beyond the means of local governments, and easements ensure capable management. Conservation easements also allow families to continue their livelihoods on the property. Conservation easements are not only used by longtime owners to keep a large property intact, but also by recent purchasers who intend to use the parcel mostly as their residence. (Related costs associated with donating an easement include appraisal, baseline inventory, stewardship donation to a land trust, and legal documentation. See below for possible assistance for these costs.)

Using Easement Land

Conservation easements do not inherently change the public’s access to property. The standard laws (trespass, stream access, hunting, etc.) governing public use of private land apply unless more public access is specifically granted in the easement. Sometimes easements prohibit public use during certain seasons (for example, on big game range) or allow specific uses (for example, hunting on land with easements purchased by Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks).

Local Efforts

Encouragement of conservation easements is one of Missoula County’s main tools to protect privately owned conservation lands such as riparian areas, big game winter range, and wildlife linkage corridors. This is accomplished in partnership with nonprofit organizations, landowners, and grants.

Five Valleys Land Trust is a not-for-profit, regional community based organization dedicated to protecting wildlife habitat, riparian areas, agricultural lands, and scenic and historic places throughout west-central Montana.

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Save Open Space (SOS)

Formed in the Spring of 1993, Save Open Space, Inc. (SOS) is a local grassroots organization whose main goal is to preserve open space located within the greater Missoula urban area. This is mainly achieved through the donation of conservation easements to SOS from private land owners. SOS currently holds eight conservation easements, totaling about 187 acres of open space. Public education concerning the benefits of open space to the community are also stressed, as well as advocating for local open space acquisition and management. The SOS Speaker's Bureau is available to give presentations to groups interested in learning more about open space preservation in the Missoula valley. An all-volunteer organization, SOS is set up in a way that encourages local residents to be actively involved in the preservation process. Past SOS projects include: working with other local conservation organizations to get the Open Space Bond passed; helping with the "Save Mount Jumbo" campaign; and, facilitating the transfer of a three acre marsh from private to public ownership.

For more information or to become an SOS member contact:

A 1995 grant of $100,000 allowed the County to help "land rich and cash poor" property owners establish easements to protect riparian areas. Funds helped defray the costs of establishing easements. By January 1998, this grant had helped protect approximately 1300 acres of land with $25,000 — a cost of $20 per acre. (OPG)

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Related Websites

Land Trust Alliance - information on all aspects of this topic.

Missoula Office of Planning and Grants

Five Valleys Land Trust - can help create a conservation easement.

 

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