Montana Association of Land Trusts
Private Land Conservation
Helena, MT 59624
Here is a series of short examples of private land conservation success stories. This is not a comprehensive list, but an illustrative list, which provides recent examples of the type of projects land trusts do and the types of benefits conservation easements represent.
For more detailed information about the work of individual members of the Montana Association of Land Trusts, visit the membership page on this website and click on the name of any MALT member:
“Preserve this landscape, and hopefully preserve the ranching lifestyle as well”
“Making sure mountains will always remain open and wild”
Bozeman Pass – Wildlife Passage, Rock Climbing and Much More
We wanted to “Keep that Ground the way it is.”
Birds and Cows
Bud, Bears and Vital Ground
The 40,064-acre Sieben Live Stock Company ranch, located in Missouri River country south of the small town of Cascade, has been in operation for over a century, and thanks in part to a conservation easement on the ranch it has the chance to operate for another century.
The easement, held by the Montana Land Reliance, was signed by the fourth generation on the property – brothers Scott and Chase Hibbard – and supported by the fifth generation. The conservation easement especially guarantees the sprawling cattle and sheep ranch will be passed intact from the fourth generation to the fifth generation.
Thanks to a tradition of sound stewardship on the ranch, it is home to sandhill cranes, curlews, northern harriers, bald and golden eagles, blue grouse, Hungarian partridges, waterfowl, pronghorns, deer, elk, mountain lions, black bear and moose. The ranch adjoins a state game range and is part of a major wildlife corridor.
And the ranch founder, Henry Sieben, a member of the Cowboy Hall of Fame, pioneered an ethic that has resulted in at least six major stewardship, historical or community awards for the ranch.
“A lot of the decision (to place a conservation easement on the property) has to do with honoring our legacy,” said Scott Hibbard.
“Our history and character and the soul of that ranch defines who we are and has become our identity as individuals and family members,” said Chase Hibbard.
Anyone visiting or living in Missoula has noticed - whether they were aware of it or not - the beauty of the city’s two signature mountains, Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo.
Mount Sentinel, south of the Clark Fork River, and Mount Jumbo on the north, together form a spectacular backdrop for Missoula. Both projects were protected through a series of conservation easements and acquisitions negotiated by Five Valleys Land Trust, and both properties are protected thanks to impressive and dedicated efforts by land trusts, community members, and many others.
The Mount Jumbo conservation effort not only protects a critical 1,600 acres of Missoula history and landscape, it also was the catalyst that helped county residents understand the benefits of passing a county open lands bond to protect other critical lands throughout Missoula County.
The conservation easements and acquisitions on Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel are studies in collaborate conservation. In both cases, Five Valleys Land Trust and others secured financial assistance from residents, state and federal agencies, other land trusts, county and local government and others to turn what had been a dream - keep the face of Mount Jumbo and Mount Sentinel open - into not only reality, but a permanent reality.
Mount Jumbo, reports the Five Valleys Land Trust website, will continue to be “a fixture of life in Missoula (that will) continue to shape and define our community for generations to come.”
And thanks to a “proud tradition of private-public partnerships” Mount Sentinel “will always remain open and wild for all of us to enjoy.”
The spectacular eastern gateway to the Gallatin Valley, Bozeman Pass is also one of the most imperiled wildlife corridors in the Northern Rocky Mountains, providing a critical link between Yellowstone National Park and the Gallatin Range to the south and the Bridger Mountains to the north. In 1991, the Gallatin Valley Land Trust completed its first 181-acre conservation project on Bozeman Pass. Since then, GVLT has worked with nine Bozeman Pass families to conserve more than 3,300 acres of private land - permanently protecting prime habitat and scenic views.
This success represents just part of the 51 square miles of wildlife habitat and working farms and ranches GVLT has conserved in partnership with 73 families in Gallatin County and the adjacent counties. At the same time, GVLT has also played a leading role in creating the Bozeman area’s extensive network of urban trails.
GVLT has teamed up with the Trust for Public Land and the Gallatin County Open Lands Program to complete many significant land conservation projects, and this partnership along with the Schmidt family and Gallatin National Forest recently produced the most important Bozeman Pass conservation project to date. After seven years of negotiations to structure the deal and secure funding, 1,240 acres of Schmidt family land is now permanently protected through a conservation easement held by GVLT, while another 815 acres straddling I-90 has been acquired as public land by Gallatin National Forest. The new public land provides permanent access to a popular rock climbing area and will soon include a spectacular new trail to the top of Chestnut Mountain south of I-90.
At the same time, thanks to a National Forest Foundation grant, GVLT helped organize a cooperative weed management area with eleven partner organizations and eighty percent of the landowners in a seven-square mile area including the Schmidt property. Another broad partnership of public agencies and non-profit groups is working to improve safe passage for wildlife across I-90.
Most importantly, this landmark 2055-acre conservation project is adjacent to three other GVLT conservation easements, including the original 1991 property which will host the first half-mile of the new trail. GVLT’s goal is to continue to link new conservation projects to ensure that Bozeman Pass remains a spectacular scenic gateway and a safe passage for wildlife.
Prickly Pear Land Trust in Helena is a small land trust with a limited budget and four employees, but through working with landowners Ron and Vonne Schatz they and the Schatz family were able to make a big difference on the landscape near Mullen Pass.
Ron Schatz is a fifth-generation landowner of about 1,500 acres west of Helena and just west of the Continental Divide. His family has been on the place since 1865. There is a lot of history located around there, everything from the historic Mullen Road and old stage stops to the landing site for Cromwell Dixon when he made the first flight over the Continental Divide in 1911.
The Schatz place is home to far more than history. The ranch is located along an important wildlife corridor and streams on the property are home to native trout species. Through sound and thoughtful stewardship by the Schatz family for over 140 years, the ranch has been home to not only the Schatz family but also cows, wildlife, fish and hunters. Through the conservation easement, public access will continue to be provided.
Prickly Pear had abundant partners who saw the value of the project and helped see it through. The project is another study in “comprehensive collaboration” and the result is tangible, beneficial and most important of all, permanent.
The Nature Conservancy is an international organization with a major presence here in Montana. TNC has been active on projects along the Rocky Mountain Front, Swan Valley, Blackfoot Valley, Centennial Valley and many other areas where the group works with local landowners to achieve both agricultural and conservation goals that help sustain farm and ranch incomes and at the same time protect habitats of sensitive plants and animals.
An excellent example of TNC’s philosophy in action is the Montana grasslands project in north central and northeastern Montana.
Perhaps no other vertebrate animals in North America have shown a more troubling population trend – of the species surveyed, 70 percent are in decline – than grassland birds. Examples include the long-billed curlew, mountain plover, lark bunting and burrowing owl.
To conserve these grassland birds, TNC partnered-up with an eastern Montana family to purchase the 60,000-acre Matador Ranch in Phillips County, south of Malta, with the goal of developing “conservation strategies that support the needs of working ranch families.” Since 1982, over one million acres of Montana grasslands has been diverted to other uses. Management of the Matador Ranch seeks to preserve native grasslands by managing the ranch as a livestock operation that maintains prairie habitat.
Cows and imperiled birds, and conservation and agriculture, are succeeding side-by-side, and perhaps even hand-in-hand, thanks to the TNC and ranch stewardship.
TNC also manages the 1,130-acre Comertown Prairie Preserve in northeast Montana near Plentywood. The mix of wetlands and prairie grass offers abundant mixed-grass habitat for native bird species.
You’d be hard pressed to find a better conservation partnership than the one existing between Bud Moore and the Vital Ground Foundation.
Bud Moore, author of a book called The Lochsa Story, is a Forest Service legend who retired in 1974 and bought property in the Swan Valley he calls the Coyote Forest. The Vital Ground Foundation is a national land trust headquartered in Missoula whose mission is protecting critical grizzly bear habitat in Montana, other states and in Canada.
Bud’s 80-acre Coyote Forest is managed to produce multiple benefits for multiple purposes, including commercial timber for his “mom and pop” sawmill. The Coyote Forest also provides important habitat for grizzly bears, and sits alongside one of the federally-designated “linkage zones,” travel corridors that connect the Mission Mountains and the Swan Mountains for grizzlies. Bud wanted his land to permanently provide wildlife and forest health benefits, and worked with the Vital Ground Foundation on a conservation easement that will assure those goals are permanently met.
The conservation easement was a partnership effort that involved the Forest Service’s Forest Legacy Program, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and other funding sources, plus assistance from other land trusts. The project serves as a model of conservation cooperation for an imperiled species in a critical area.
In a 2006 Vital Ground newsletter, the article announcing the Coyote Forest conservation easement ends with this: There are not many like Bud Moore left in the world, those men molded by long years of intimate daily connection with wildlife and wilderness. To understand how best to care for the wildlife and the wild places, he says, “Listen to the land.”
The Conservation Fund is a national land trust with an office in Missoula, and the Conservation Fund’s Montana efforts have been extremely successful in helping to conserve more than 130,000 acres of Montana wildlife habitat, working ranchlands and historic sites.
The Conservation Fund has been active in protecting the Bear Paw Battlefield, hallowed ground in north central Montana that marked the final battle for Chief Joseph and the Nez Perce in 1877. The Conservation Fund also helped protect Traveler’s Rest, the historic campsite of Lewis & Clark, located southwest of Missoula near Lolo.
In January 2007, the Conservation Fund, working with partners including the Elkhorn Conservation Initiative, State of Montana, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, the Montana congressional delegation and Bureau of Land Management, completed one of its more challenging – and rewarding – projects, on the 5,548-acre Iron Mask ranch in the Elkhorn Mountains.
Encroaching development put wildlife habitat for elk and antelope at risk, and at peril was critical winter range for elk and year-around habitat for antelope. In an example of remarkable collaboration, all the partners worked side-by-side for five years, to transfer the property in federal BLM ownership for the benefit of wildlife, hunters, wildlife watchers, area ranchers and more.
Thanks to a group of committed partners and the Conservation Fund, near one of Montana’s fast-growing areas, elk, bighorn sheep and antelope have “new room to roam in Montana’s Elkhorn Mountains.”
The Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, created over a coffee table by a small group of Montanans back in 1984, has helped protect 5.7 million acres of elk habitat throughout the U.S. and Canada, and has “torn down No Trespassing signs on 1,000 square miles of elk country.”
Close to home, RMEF worked with landowners Dean Dutton and John Ottman in the Drummond area to create two conservation easements that protect about 2,200 acres in prime elk habitat, and to foster sound ranch and forest management stewardship principles. Dutton and Ottman have received multi-million dollar offers from land investors, developers and real estate agents, but instead of developing the land they opted to conserve the land.
The easement agreement includes weed control, grazing management, water quality provisions and other incentives to protect wildlife habitat while still maintaining a traditional ranch operation. The easement allows farming and ranching, and also allows for reduction of forest fuels and logging to ensure a healthy and sustainable forest that is resilient to catastrophic fire. The conservation easement also allows for a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation fire lookout tower on the Dutton ranch.
The Missoulian article announcing the conservation easements reported that, “Dutton and Ottman said they signed conservation easements so they and their descendants would be able to continue cattle ranching and timber harvesting on the family homesteads.”
“It was the right thing to do,” Ottman told the Missoulian.
Both RMEF and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks praised the Dutton and Ottman families for their commitment to ranch stewardship and wildlife conservation. Which also was the right thing to do.
Perhaps no fly fishing river in Montana is more fabled than the Madison, and perhaps no conservation easement along the Madison is more appreciated than the 1,700-acre easement on the historic Olliffe Ranch.
At a dedication ceremony along the Madison in 2006, more than 400 ardent supporters of the project gathered along the banks of the Madison to pay tribute to the Olliffe family and project partners. The Trust for Public Land was a lead partner in the project and organized the dedication ceremony. Other project partners included U.S. Senator Conrad Burns, the United States Department of Agriculture and a host of recreational and conservation organizations. The Olliffe family received richly deserved praise for their commitment to the project.
The Olliffe conservation easement embodies the priority tenants for The Trust for Public Land: Protection of land, conservation of resources, access for recreation.
The conservation easement project accomplished some marvelous and miraculous goals. The conservation easement expanded access on the Madison River near the famous Three Dollar Bridge site, protected big game hunting on private land, and allowed the Forest Service to establish a trailhead on private land for access to national forest lands and the Lee Metcalf Wilderness Area. Those three accomplishments make the easement a virtual Holy Grail of Madison River conservation and recreation objectives.
“One of the main goals of our work at TPL is to make it possible for the public to enjoy a closer connection with nature and to provide better access to the lands we cherish,” said Alex Diekmann, who heads TPL’s Greater Yellowstone program.
The Olliffe easement, for many reasons, has been hailed nationally as an outstanding example of the value and benefits conservation easements bring not only to the land, to wildlife and to natural resources, but to people and to the local economy.
You’d be hard pressed to find a more conservative group of folks than the residents of Ravalli County. It is no secret that disputes and disagreements, especially about land use and natural resource management, can at times take on an elevated level of disharmony in the Bitterroot Valley.
Yet in 2006, motivated by threats to agricultural lands and their agricultural culture, 58 percent of Ravalli County residents voted to increase property taxes to create and fund an open land bond program. The purpose of the program is to protect critical farm and ranchlands through creation of conservation easements.
Bitter Root Land Trust, a small local land trust, headquartered in Hamilton, has been working with landowners and protecting open land in Ravalli County since 1996.
It was natural that Bitter Root Land Trust engage with the county and work with a local family on the first conservation easement to emerge from the open land bond program. There have been more since, and more to come, but that first project continues to inspire a natural measure of pride and accomplishment for all involved.
The proposed conservation easement, on Wood Family property that had been settled in 1896 and remained productive agricultural ground ever since, received unanimous project approval by the Ravalli County Open Land Board and the Ravalli County Commission. The conservation easement protects some of the richest bottomland soil in the county, and according to Bitter Root Land Trust executive director Gavin Ricklefs, “anchors the most productive agricultural corridor in the Bitterroot Valley.”
“As owners of this historic and productive ranch, we believe that preserving the family heritage and protecting the agricultural way of life in the Bitterroot Valley is the best legacy that we can leave to the valley,” said Laurie Wood-Gundlach, one of the descendents from the Wood family who settled the property over 110 years ago.
And importantly, Ravalli County residents agreed with the program, the project and the purpose.
“We’re finally coming together as a community to protect this valley,” said Ricklefs.
For a small, local land trust that operates in a narrowly defined area of two counties, the Clark Fork-Pend Oreille Conservancy has a lot going on. Created in 2002 and headquartered in Sandpoint, ID, the CFPOC works in two counties – one in Montana (Sanders) and one in Idaho (Bonner) – within an area generally described as the lower Clark Fork area in Montana and Lake Pend Oreille area in Idaho.
The CFPOC has completed some major projects in both work areas, has 12 active projects and – impressively – has eight more projects on a waiting list.
The CFPOC’s signature project to date in Montana is on the Scalf Ranch, along the Bull River in the Bull River Valley. The 146-acre conservation easement protects the historic ranchlands that in Montana’s colorful past also served as a stagecoach stop.
The Bull River contains bull trout and westslope cutthroat trout, two native fish species that have lost significant amounts of habitat. The bull trout is listed as “threatened” on the Endangered Species List, and efforts like the conservation easement on the Scalf ranch are essential to restore healthy populations in the fish’s historic range. The river area and adjoining wetlands are also home to ducks, geese, osprey and many other waterfowl.
The ranchland itself is also a key travel corridor for Cabinet Mountains grizzly bears, and also provides habitat for bobcats, otter, moose, black bears and mountain lions.
By any measurement, at any time or in any place, it is an ambitious project. The Flathead Land Trust, together with ten local, private, state and federal partners, are seeking to protect 1,600 acres along the north shore of Montana’s legendary Flathead Lake.
It is difficult to explain the historic, cultural, economic, agricultural, recreational, natural or environmental significance of the North Shore to people outside the Flathead Valley. But residents know that undeveloped shoreline – of their North Shore – is unmatched in Montana or anywhere else in the U.S. The North Shore offers a unique combination of unparalleled beauty, habitat and importance. And, those 1,600 acres are also “imminently threatened by subdivision and development.” The Flathead Valley is a high growth area and can accommodate additional growth. But Flathead Land Trust and a group of North Shore landowners would like to see that development directed elsewhere.
So they have banded together with one goal in mind: Protect their North Shore. They are seeking to obtain financial incentives to offer landowners choices to help conserve farmland and open lands. The open lands will protect critical waterfowl habitat, protect the lake’s water quality, enhance traditional public access and hunting opportunities, and expand other recreational opportunities.
Partners in the project include the Flathead Lakers, North Shore landowners, the American Bird Conservancy, Flathead Basin Commission, Trout Unlimited, The Nature Conservancy, Doris Duke Foundation and state and federal agencies.
The project has already secured a $1 million grant through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, and that funding requires the project partners to match the $1 million with an additional $5 million.
Flathead Land Trust has been instrumental in the project, and Marilyn Wood, Flathead Land Trust executive director, sees great value in the project and significance in the North American Wetlands grant.
“It really shows recognition for the value of our rivers and wetlands, to clean water and wildlife habitat here on the North Shore,” she said.