By Kali Gillete
Preserving this land is an awesome responsibility in every sense of the word. Maintaining open spaces protects our economy, whether it’s through farming and ranching, tourism and recreation, or conservation. Just as important, is keeping our backyard playground free for everyone to enjoy.
Fortunately, there are means to ensure our land is protected, and it doesn’t have to come at the expense of one interest over another. Two of the most successful methods are designated Wilderness Areas, and conservation easements. These protections are vastly different, yet work in conjunction to keep our both our heritage and our land intact.
Wilderness Areas are undeveloped, wild areas of public land protected by the American people for hiking, horsepacking, hunting, fishing, skiing, rafting and many other outdoor activities. Conservation easements are voluntary, private agreements that ensure the land is preserved for perpetuity. Understanding what each of these programs are and how they work is crucial to maintaining our rich land, our economic vitality and our uniquely precious lifestyle.
THE WILD IN WILDERNESS
Certain lands are so pristine and amazing the government determined they should always remain as they are. As such, on September 3, 1964, Congress and President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act creating the National Wilderness Preservation System.
Scott Brennan, Montana State Director of The Wilderness Society explains, “All of these lands are federal public lands owned by Americans. This is what the world was like before development. These are the last remaining places you can go and see America as it was centuries ago, before the natural world was largely dominated by people and our technology and mostly left to its own devices.”
He goes on to say, “We are really fortunate in Montana to have places like the Lee Metcalf, the Bob Marshall and the Absaroka-Beartooth Wilderness Areas. It’s easy to take these areas for granted, but we shouldn’t. The fact is, these places still look like they did hundreds of years ago. They are really special and not just for the beauty and recreation, they are good for business and also great for nearby real estate investments in communities like Big Sky.”
In order to understand the importance of a Wilderness designation, it’s important to understand the difference between designated Wilderness Areas and Wilderness Study Areas.
In Montana, about 5% of the land has been designated Wilderness Areas by Congress. Another 5-6% of the land looks and feels wild. There is no mining, development, gas or oil drilling. However, these lands are in limbo; they are not officially protected and not yet developed. Congress temporarily protected some of these areas to conduct studies before granting an official designation. Today, the studies have been completed and it’s up to Congress to decide what areas should be permanently protected.
Obviously, there are opinions on both sides of the issue. “There’s a right way to get this done,” Brennan says. “You get diverse interests to come to the table and come up with a resolution. It’s not all or nothing, it’s not win or lose. The wilderness guy is not going to get everything, and neither is the snowmobiler but people have to work together to take care of these places.”
IT GOES BACK TO WHAT WE TEACH OUR CHILDREN; COMPROMISE.
A great example of this is the Blackfoot Clearwater Stewardship Act which seeks to add 79,000 acres of wilderness designation to the Bob Marshall, Mission Mountain and Scapegoat Wilderness Areas, promote forest restoration and designate new mountain bike and snowmobile areas. Working together, representatives from lumber, recreation, out tters and conservation interests are working toward a sustainable plan for all. The project champions a sustainable timber industry with a focus on restoration of sh and wildlife habitat. It supports tourism, the fastest growing sector in Montana’s economy, and it protects high-quality wildlife habitat, clean water and recreational opportunities.
For this, and other projects in the works, support from Congress is needed for an official Wilderness designation.
PRESERVING OUR WORKING LANDS THROUGH CONSERVATION EASEMENTS.
America loses more than an acre of farmland every minute. In Montana, we lose 1,500 acres of open space to development each month. However, unlike designated Wilderness Areas, conservation easements are privately held and are the only conservation tool to permanently protect private land. Other than generous income and estate and tax incentives, there is no government involvement. These land easements are voluntarily put into place by landowners to maintain the integrity of their land in perpetuity. From an agricultural perspective, the most essential part of Montana’s economy, these easements protect not only our economic interests, but are vital to food supply.
Kathryn Kelly, Greater Yellowstone Manager of The Montana Land Reliance explains, “Between all land trusts, 2.5 million acres to date have been protected across Montana. But there is much more opportunity, much more land deserving of protection.” There is no other place where this example is more obvious and direct than in the Gallatin Valley. “Due to tremendous development pressure, rich agricultural lands, open space and wildlife habitat are being converted into subdivisions and commercial development at a rapid pace,” Kelly says, “fortunately, there are generous landowners willing to protect their lands and a number of current easement projects in the works in Gallatin, Park and Madison counties.”
Often times, these private lands are adjacent to public land. Easements on these properties can bridge the gap between wildlife corridors, reducing the conflict between humans and animals, maintaining critical migration paths. “If you think about it in a practical sense, animals don’t make a distinction between private and public land. These easements enhance and benefit both public and private lands. They also maintain our riparian zones and ensure clean water, one of the most precious resources in Montana,” Kelly says.
A great example of this is the land behind Moonlight Basin which connects two areas of the 260,000 acre Lee Metcalf Wilderness through a conservation easement. The owners of Moonlight sold 17,000 acres to conservation buyers who put 15,500 into easements, protecting a critical wildlife migration corridor. This area is surrounded by 3 million acres of National Forest, and ultimately joins with the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
To permanently protect their land, landowners work in partnership with a land trust, which are not-for-profit organizations, to create a conservation easement; a voluntary agreement that limits the uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values in perpetuity. Under a conservation easement, the owner retains the title and continues to make the day to day management decisions related to the property. For example, a family owned farm will still operate as such. The owner can opt to sell the property, but the easement runs with the title, ensuring the land is preserved as intended.
“Like anything, you run the gamut of opinions in every direction,” Kelly says. There are people who believe that conservation easements are one of the most valuable tools to protect open space and wildlife habitat. Others are philosophically opposed to the concept.They feel that one person shouldn’t have the right to permanently dictate how land might be used. Sometimes it’s in the context of ‘Why would I tie my children’s hands by putting an easement in place?’ Whereas someone else might say, ‘I’m doing it for the benefit of my family and children’.”
In turn, there are attractive financial incentives for an owner to put land into an easement. Deductions are in place for income, estate and gift taxes. To underline the importance of this, in 2015 Congress made enhanced income tax benefits for conservation easement donations permanent.
To determine the value of the conservation easement, a qualified appraiser measures the difference between the value of the property before and after the easement restrictions are put in place. The difference between the two values is the amount that can be donated to the land trust and taken by the landowner as a charitable donation on their tax return. In the year the conservation easement transaction is completed, a landowner can deduct up to 50% of their adjusted gross income and for an additional 15 years thereafter until the charitable contribution value is used up. Landowners who are considered qualified farmers and ranchers can deduct 100% of the annual adjusted gross income, also for up to 16 years in total.
IT BOILS DOWN TO THIS
Without Congressional or private protection our wilderness, farming and ranching land is vulnerable to mining, clear cutting and development. As Brennan puts it, “Once it’s done, you can’t go back. It’s one thing if the land is disrupted by a forest fire, in 100 years it will return to it’s natural state. But you can’t just ‘make more’ of these really special, natural areas once they have been developed.”