Montana Association of Land Trusts
Private Land Conservation
PO Box 892
Helena, MT 59624
Conservation Conversations is a 12-part series of interviews from the Montana Association of Land Trusts that seeks to present a deeper and broader understanding of private land conservation and the work of Montana’s land trusts. Each month in 2010, a leader within the Montana land trust community voiced their personal perspectives about the value private land conservation brings to Montana’s landscape, to the people of Montana and Montana’s economy. The interviews were conducted by Glenn Marx, executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. This is number twelve in the series.
Steve Powell is a Bitterroot Valley native and a 1969 graduate of Hamilton High School. He is a former Ravalli County Commissioner (elected in 1988), was a founding member of the Bitter Root Land Trust in 1997 and has served as BRLT lands program director since 2005. Steve attended Stanford and the University of Montana, is a licensed land surveyor and has played piano with the Big Sky Mudflaps since 1976. He has served on the board of the Teller Wildlife Refuge, the Bitterroot Literacy Program and on the area Nordic and Downhill Ski Patrol since 1995. Steve and his wife, Maureen, have been married for 37 years and have one daughter, Charlotte. Bitter Root Land Trust focuses on land conservation in Ravalli County and currently has four full or part-time staff members and over 350 members. One of the organization’s major events is the annual “Tour of the Bitterroot” cycling event, which offers participants a dynamic ride through the area and includes chances to view BRLT’s conservation projects. Bitter Root Land Trust had its most successful year ever in 2009 and since 1997 has worked with 16 local landowners to help protect 2,627 acres.
Q: What led you and a group of local residents back in 1998 to create a local land trust here in the Bitterroot Valley?
A: The context in 1998 was that there was a lot of residential development at that time, starting in about 1993-94…and things were changing rapidly. There was a fair amount of panic about the lack of political will to do anything about that, in terms of land use planning or zoning. So the planner at the time, who I had hired during my tenure as county commissioner, really encouraged us to look at creating a local land trust. He believed a local land trust could play a meaningful role here, particularly within the context of land conservation.
We weren’t really familiar with land trusts, and as we looked into it and met with folks from Five Valleys Land Trust and the Montana Land Reliance we received a consistent message that we needed to form a local land trust.
Q: When Montana’s population was experiencing rapid growth, the Bitterroot Valley more or less led the way. What challenges to the area came with that population growth?
A: There was a lot of controversy then about every residential development project. It was pretty clear we didn’t have the basis for judging what development projects were appropriate, either in size or location. There was a lot of concern about stress on local services from emergency services providers, on public health, on impacts to the school and there was anxiety over water quality and quantity being impacted by the new residential growth.
The agricultural community was feeling uncomfortable by the possibility of something incompatible (to farm and ranch operations) popping up next to their land. They worried about the impacts to their farms and ranches and created a Right to Farm movement to protect their ability to operate.
Ravalli County has still not been able to enact any official policies to address density or types of land use. There are several “voluntary zoning districts” in the county initiated by residents in a defined area that were established several years ago. Agreements with a land trust are the only other option for a landowner who wants to do something proactively on their ground, or a neighborhood that wants to make a commitment to long-term conservation. We certainly hope the experience of those neighborhoods will encourage others to think about conservation with their neighbors. It will allow them to drop off to sleep a little more peacefully rather than worrying about what’s going to happen on their neighbor’s ground when they decide to sell or the kids take it over.
Q: On a recent grant application, Bitter Root Land Trust described itself as “one of MALT’s smallest and youngest members.” What challenges come with being a fairly small and fairly young land trust?
A: We had to try to come up to speed quickly when we started, and that was a challenge. Fortunately, as I said, we were supported by other land trusts already operating in the area. The Land Trust Alliance gave us a lot of technical assistance as far as what the standards and practices were and how to work toward quality projects with landowners.
We faced a big challenge just explaining the concept of a land trust to our community, and it was a challenge gaining enough credibility so we would be invited to talk with landowners. We did extensive outreach to civic groups and farm organizations and just about anyone else who would listen to us explaining conservation easements, which was an unfamiliar concept to many.
Finding adequate funding to have the staffing to do good deals and support landowner projects has been a challenge. Until 2006, when the voters approved an open lands bond to support these voluntary projects, we’d be going to landowners and not only asking them to do the right thing with their ground and giving up a lot of value, but also asking to take money out of their own pockets to pay for transaction costs. Many motivated landowners were discouraged by the costs.
Q: How important is a local land trust to the community, and what are the strengths of local land trusts?
A: There’s a growing appreciation for the work this land trust does. We’re having more fundraising success and we’re seeing more interest from landowners in doing these projects.
Without having local faces associated with this organization, it wouldn’t as successful. Most of our contacts are coming from someone who interacted in a personal way with these landowners. Some of these contacts have been through survey clients of mine, some contacts have been through associations with our board members or other landowners who have done agreements. Having local folks who know the landowners has been a huge thing. The landowners are more comfortable dealing with someone they see in the grocery store every once in awhile.
I think a local land trust is well positioned to participate in the community discussion about our changing relationship with our landscape. Rapid residential development is not likely to be an issue for several years, but the challenges to agricultural and natural land remain. These include low crop prices, high equipment and fuel costs, deferred maintenance on irrigation delivery systems and the large number of aging land owners. I’m optimistic that solutions will be found working at a local scale and think that land trusts can be in the middle of that.
Q: What does a land trust “lands program director” do?
A: Like most small organizations it’s a fairly organic position that matches what I can bring to the organization. My responsibility is really to keep projects in the pipeline and identify potential landowners who might be interested in land conservation. I conduct outreach, explain the program to landowners and help them walk through it.
What we’ve learned is that you have to be patient in this business. Some of these project discussions start and might not become serious for six or eight or even ten years. You have to wait until the opportunity ripens for the landowner…until they become more comfortable with the process. These are not decisions people should take lightly or make quickly. Being patient with this “trust” relationship is important. It takes time. My job is to identify opportunities and start those discussions.
Q: You play piano in a band called the Big Sky Mudflaps. Your website says, “The Big Sky Mudflaps have entertained discriminating listeners and joyful dancers since before your parents got married, and amazingly enough, you will actually enjoy them too!” So what kind of music do you play?
A: The answer to that is, “Yes” (laughs). We play a little bit of everything. We started off doing a lot of swing jazz and western swing, we still do some country flavored tunes, we do a lot of early rock and roll, some rhythm and blues, some Latin flavored tunes. So it’s across the board. We don’t do a lot of pop music or rock.
Q: What is your role on the Nordic and Downhill Ski Patrol?
A: The Nordic Patrol is not very active now, but we do get out and do a lot of cross country skiing. I’ve been on the Lost Trail Downhill Patrol for the last 13 years.
There are usually many times during the day when you get to just ski. You carrying a radio, respond to reports of incidents and attempt to render appropriate first aid. You try to get people in where it’s warm and call for ambulances and helicopters. So, it’s satisfying and fun to work with a lot of great people.
Q: Ravalli County is one of four Montana counties with a county open lands bond program. How important is that program to valley residents?
A: It’s been very important, very helpful, and has allowed us to do a lot more projects than before. It has helped with transaction costs and helped compensate some of the landowners for some of the value they give up.
We have two projects in the process now for which we plan to apply to the federal Farm and Ranchland Protection Program. The local bond funds will be used as the required match - along with contributions from the landowner - to support those applications.
The Open Lands Program has been popular with most of the public here and has been well supported by the County Commissioners so far. I feel that it will continue to be popular and will help build confidence as the community considers its options for land use.
Q: Why, in your mind, do landowners partner with land trusts to create conservation easements?
A: What I see real consistently from landowners is the sense of commitment to the land that they’ve put a lot of work into through their stewardship. They believe there’s something special about their land. They’ve worked to protect those special attributes and make it a successful working farm or ranch.
They respect their property - respect the viability of the farm or ranch - and want to see that viability going forward. In many cases there’s a family legacy component of this…the current family might be the third or fourth generation attached to that land. They’re very passionate in seeing that the commitment they’ve made is respected by any future owners.
Q: BRLT recently went through a fairly comprehensive strategic planning process. What were some of the goals or objectives that came out of your planning process?
A: We acknowledged a need to have a more articulated conservation plan to set our priorities and guide our outreach. Land trusts, I think, are inherently opportunistic in that landowners approach us for projects and we do not want to turn them away, whether or not it’s on your list of important ongoing projects. But we should be strategic about what types of land - and what kind of attributes of an area - we prioritize as we expand our work with landowners.
I think that plan will also be helpful in coordinating efforts with other local organizations. We have a local water forum that advocates for appropriate water use and other conservation organizations working here. Hopefully this plan will help us better partner with them and leverage outside funds coming in to the county.
We also talked about our identity and about the changes in the operating environment now compared to when we started. Ten to 15 years ago we were facing a lot of residential development… rapid transfers of ownership and transitions of land use. Now that’s not the case and my guess is that there will not be a lot of land development in the next 5 to 10 years. So we need to change some of our messaging and redefine our identity. We have always acknowledged that some developments and some areas for development are appropriate. We want to encourage development that respects the natural attributes and values of the ownership and the surrounding area. I think we can make a pretty good case that conservation agreements can add value to an ownership and its neighborhood by insuring a more predictable land use future.
Q: Where do you see the Bitter Root Land Trust and private land conservation going into the future here in the Bitterroot Valley?
A: We have a short-term challenge, which is the immediate political environment. A majority of the county commission changed during the November election, and since the commission signs off on open land projects we have an immediate challenge to help the new commissioners appreciate the work of the Open Land Board, landowner donors and the land trust. And I think we’re going to be fine. There’s just too much success and too much opportunity for this work for them to not support our efforts and the Open Land Program.
Looking long-term, I’m optimistic that the work we do with landowners and groups of landowners will continue to be compelling to the Valley. People live here because we have high-quality landscapes and wildlife habitat and a successful economy of which agricultural production is an important component.
So I see our work being increasingly appreciated, regardless of renewed development pressure. My perspective is this place is so nice compared to the rest of the world that people are going to keep coming. The more we can do to help residents value what’s here, that attractiveness will only increase along with the satisfaction of living here.