Montana Association of Land Trusts
Private Land Conservation
PO Box 892
Helena, MT 59624
Here are some frequently asked questions about the Montana Association of Land Trusts.Q: What is the Montana Association of Land Trusts?
Q: What is the Montana Association of Land Trusts?
A: The Montana Association of Land Trusts is a formal association comprised of 12 individual nonprofit land trusts in Montana. The members of the association are: the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, Prickly Pear Land Trust, The Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, Conservation Fund, Kaniksu Land Trust, Five Valleys Land Trust, The Vital Ground Foundation, Montana Land Reliance, Flathead Land Trust, Gallatin Valley Land Trust and Bitter Root Land Trust.
The Montana Association of Land Trusts is officially registered with the Montana Secretary of State and is headquartered in Helena, Montana.
Land trusts are private, independent, entrepreneurial nonprofit organizations. Land trusts are not a branch of any governmental entity.
Q: What do land trusts do?
A: Land trusts work with private landowners to protect private land through voluntary agreements called conservation easements. Land trusts are not environmental advocacy groups in the traditional sense, and land trusts work closely with farmers, ranchers, county government, state and federal land and wildlife management agencies and local watershed groups to protect open lands.
Land trusts and landowners work voluntarily to negotiate an agreement that limits future industrial, commercial or residential development on the land. That agreement is called a conservation easement.
Q: Are all land trusts the same?
A: No. Land trusts all have some attributes in common, but each land trust in Montana has its own priorities, mission and goals.
For example, some of the land trusts in Montana work with landowners in a more narrowly defined geographical area, and have formed close cooperative relationships with local governments, state and federal agencies and other organizations in specific counties, valleys and river basins in Montana (Bitter Root Land Trust, Five Valleys Land Trust, Gallatin Valley Land Trust, Prickly Pear Land Trust and Flathead Land Trust). The Kaniksu Land Trust works with landowners in just one Montana county, Sanders County. Other land trusts in Montana protect lands critical to specific wildlife species, such as the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation (elk) and The Vital Ground Foundation (grizzly bear habitat). The Montana Land Reliance started in 1978 and holds more easements than any other land trust in the state, works throughout Montana, and primarily works with agriculture-based landowners who donate easements. The Nature Conservancy is an international organization with a long and steady presence in Montana, and the Conservancy focus is protecting lands and habitats of animals and plants in need of special protection. The Trust for Public Land and the Conservation Fund are national organizations that work in Montana. In Montana, The Trust for Public Land focuses on protecting working forests, farms and ranches that support land-based livelihoods and rural ways of life. The Conservation Fund works through a partnership-driven approach to preserve unique natural resources, cultural heritage and historic places in Montana. The Conservation Fund and the Trust for Public Land don’t hold conservation easements themselves, but work closely on diverse and complex conservation projects throughout Montana.
All the land trusts in Montana have a common thread running through them, and that thread is a dedication to private land conservation.
Q: What exactly is a conservation easement?
A: A conservation easement is a negotiated agreement between a landowner and a land trust that essentially establishes the landowner’s commitment for retaining his or her property as open lands.
In essence, a conservation agreement is a voluntary legal agreement that limits the landowner’s ability to develop the land, and calls for conservation of the property’s natural values.
A conservation easement is negotiated between the landowner and a land trust tailored to the unique character of the land and the conservation goals of the landowner, so easements vary in intent and purpose. But easements typically restrict these land developments: Subdivision for residential or commercial activities, dumping of toxic waste, and surface mining.
By law, conservation easements must accomplish at least one of these three conservation purposes: Protection of open space (including farmland, ranchland and forestland), protection of a relatively natural habitat for fish, wildlife or plants, or protection of lands for education or outdoor recreation of the general public.
So a conservation easement is a negotiated agreement that limits some uses of private lands, protects conservation values and retains working farmlands, ranchlands and forestlands.
The conservation agreement protects the lands in perpetuity, and the easement is recorded at the county courthouse.
Q: How many easements do land trusts hold in Montana, and how many acres are under easements?
A: The number of easements and acres increase on a fairly regular basis, but Montana land trusts and public agencies hold over 1,000 conservation easements that conserve over 2.1 million acres.
Q: Why would a farmer or rancher agree to a conservation easement?
A: In most cases, the landowner seeks out a land trust and begins discussions about an easement. A landowner may do so for many different reasons.
Landowners who donate a conservation easement on their property may be eligible for federal income tax and estate tax benefits. Remember, the easement restricts commercial, industrial and residential subdivision development of the property, so in a practical sense the land value is diminished with the easement. Since that land value is voluntarily diminished – and voluntarily diminished for public benefit – the landowner can receive potential tax benefits.
In some cases, the conservation easement is sold, rather than donated to the land trust. The on-the-ground result is the same: Open lands, continuation of working farms and ranches, protection of wildlife habitat and preservation of what makes Montana such a unique and special place.
In other cases, the landowner donates or in other ways conveys an easement to a land trust for more altruistic reasons. In many cases, the landowner has such a bond with – and passion for – the land that the landowner has one simple wish: To protect the land, to keep the property whole and intact, long after the landowner and the rest of us have departed.
The only way to protect private lands in perpetuity is through a conservation easement.
Q: Do landowners surrender any private property rights through signing a conservation easement?
A: The conservation easement agreement itself spells out exactly what the landowner is “surrendering.” The conservation easement will generally prevent the landowner from dumping toxic waste on the land or developing a surface mine, and limits residential development on the property.
Outside of that, the landowner typically farms or ranches in the same manner as before the conservation agreement was signed. The landowner still owns the property in fee title, the landowner still makes all the farm/ranch decisions, still pays property taxes, and because the goal of the easement is to protect open lands, the goal of the easement is to ensure the elements of a working farm or ranch can continue.
A conservation easement is an extension of private property rights, and can be a valuable tool for farmers and ranchers who want to retain ownership of their property.
Q: If a conservation easement is placed on a ranch, are the cattle and irrigation systems removed from the land?
A: No. In fact, the opposite is true. A typical conservation easement not only allows – it encourages – the property be used for agricultural production, grazing and timber harvesting. In most conservation easements, landowners do not have to modify their management activities.
Q: Is there a reduction in local property taxes for conservation easements?
A: No. Local property taxes continue to be paid by the landowner.
Q: Does a conservation easement allow for active forest management?
A: Yes. Conservation easements allow and encourage forest stewardship and forest health. Landowners are encouraged to take management actions to protect forests from disease, bug infestations and catastrophic fire.
Q: Why is the easement in perpetuity?
A: Three main reasons. One, current landowners who grant or otherwise convey a conservation easement want assurances their property will be protected not just through their lifetime, but permanently. Two, federal law requires the conservation easement be held in perpetuity to qualify for federal income tax and estate tax benefits. Three, there is a concern that if conservation easements granted tax deductions and were allowed for terms – say, 20 years or 100 years – landowners could be tempted to receive the federal tax deductions for decades while speculating on lands that are rising in value, then subdivide that same property later after the term of the conservation easement expires.
Also, keep in mind there are many land use decisions – on both private and public lands – that are made on a regular basis that in essence are made in perpetuity. When a county planning board and county commission vote to allow a 50-lot subdivision, and the land fills with 50 homes, there is no doubt that land will be in residential/commercial/industrial use in perpetuity.
Q: Is public recreational access granted to private lands under conservation easements?
A: In many cases, land trusts work hard to enhance and expand recreational access to both private and public lands. Some members of the Montana Association of Land Trusts have active trail programs that significantly expand hiking and other recreation opportunities in their areas.
The main purpose of land trusts, however, and the main charge land trusts have received through state statute, is to protect and conserve open lands, protect and conserve wildlife habitat, protect and conserve working farms and ranches, protect and conserve healthy forests, and protect and conserve stream corridors. Plus, conservation easements take place on private lands, and by law and tradition in Montana, recreational access to private lands is determined by the landowner.
Q: Can anyone start a land trust?
A: Not really.
Montana Association of Land Trust members have worked diligently for decades to earn public trust in their communities and among their partner organizations. In addition, Montana land trusts have cooperated with the Land Trust Alliance (a national land trust organization) on an exhaustive series of standards and practices for land trust professional and comprehensive guidelines, and are collaborating with the Land Trust Alliance and the U.S. Congress on a systematic and focused accreditation process for land trusts.
Because of the federal tax implications of conservation easements, easements can only be held by “qualified” land trust organizations.
Q: How can I contact one of the Montana Association of Land Trusts?
A: Click here for a listing of all the Montana Association of Land Trusts members, website addresses, telephone numbers and contact persons.