The three-year-old Bitter Root Valley Land Trust “had a pretty good few weeks at the end of the year,” says Steve Powell, a Trust board member. Three Bitterroot landowners approached the Trust for assistance in putting their land into conservation easement, to protect it from development for all time. That brought to four the number of properties protected in perpetuity.
The Trust began slowly and cautiously negotiating its first land deal in 1999, and then three more at the end of 2000. To date, the Trust has helped Bitterroot landowners place a total of 430 acres into permanent conservation easement. The Trust also held the deed to three acres of riverfront property near Darby, which has now been turned over to the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, at the landowner’s request, for development as a public access site.
Land trusts are not new concepts. They’ve been around for decades, though the Bitter Root Valley Land Trust only got its start in 1997 at the prompting of Missoula’s Five Valleys Land Trust, says Powell. Five Valleys didn’t have enough time to take on Bitterroot Valley projects, and urged Bitterrooters to form their own trust. “They had a full plate dealing with things closer to Missoula,” he says.
Land trusts protect basic values, like riparian areas, critical winter range, open space, and even viewsheds, by offering the landowner a number of options. The landowner works with the Trust to determine what values are worth protecting and what types of future activities can take place on the property. Each land deal is then tailored to meet the needs of the land and the landowner. Nothing is ruled out; sustainable logging might be appropriate for some properties, for instance, but not for others. Once the deal is sealed, it’s set in stone. In return for giving up future development rights, the landowner receives a tax deduction.
Mick and Jane Iten of Hamilton recently placed a 210-acre piece of property into conservation easement with help from the Trust. The land, about four miles south of Hamilton, is critical mule deer habitat. Several years ago a Fish, Wildlife and Parks biologist tried to convince his superiors in Helena to buy the land—and the larger piece that surrounds it—to protect it from development. But state officials declined, saying that land prices in western Montana were too high.
“We understand the value of the land,” says Jane Iten. “It was worth the trade for me. The Trust really went out of its way to see this accomplished in a timely fashion. I hope we can set a trend here.”