GREAT FALLS (AP) — Candland and Alice Olsen didn’t want to see their small Montana ranch in the forest on the Upper Big Hole River split into smaller parcels once they’re gone.
Now, the 515 acres they own in the forest southwest of Jackson is protected thanks to a conservation easement that restricts development. The couple worked with The Nature Conservancy on the transaction. The easement, Olsen said, will protect the “sanctity of it.”
“I felt that I had too much concern over the wildlife and everything,” Olsen said.
The conservation easement put the Olsens at ease about the future of their cherished land. And, combined with another recent easement on the Rocky Mountain Front, this one 14,000 acres, it put the The Nature Conservancy over a million acres of land protected in Montana.
That’s about an acre protected for every resident.
“To me it’s unbelievable we’ve reached that size,” said Dave Carr, a Nature Conservancy program manager in Helena and a 24-year employee. “That’s a very large amount of land we have helped protect and conserve, and many of those lands are what I call working lands. They’re still being used. They just won’t be subdivided.”
It took 35 years for TNC to reach the million-acre milestone, which the group announced earlier this month. The largest conservation organization in the world, TNC opened its doors in Big Sky Country in 1978 when it secured its first conservation easement in the Blackfoot River Valley, one of the state’s first private conservation easements, Carr said.
Today, the organization has had a hand in protecting 1,004,308 acres of land statewide, from ranches in the Rocky Mountain foothills of north-central Montana in grizzly bear habitat to unbroken native prairie on the northeastern plains to forested land in the river valleys of western Montana.
Lands TNC works to protect often are privately owned ranches that feature native habitat and wildlife, but the aim isn’t to end agricultural uses.
“We very much like to see lands stay in some productive use,” Carr said. “We feel that for long-term conservation, if the community is not part of that decision or doesn’t buy into that, it won’t be lasting.”
One of its main means of preservation is the conservation easement.
When TNC first began working in the state, there was misunderstanding about what conservation easements were, Carr said, with landowners unsure about what they were giving up and what they gained.
“Over that time, I think the awareness of conservation easements and the use of them as a tool has increased dramatically,” Carr said.
Conservation easements are tailored to the needs of the landowner, but generally speaking they restrict development rights and preclude subdivisions, drainage of wetlands, plowing of native prairie and commercial gravel pits.
Easements The Nature Conservancy works on allow the landowner to continue to ranch. In some cases, harvesting timber to manage trees for beetle kill or fire hazards is allowed.
Sometimes The Nature Conservancy purchases the easements from landowners, other times they are donated. The recent 14,571-acre easement on the Rocky Mountain Front that helped push the group past the million-acre mark was an anonymous donation.
Meeting rising costs is a challenge for ranching families, and landowners, particularly those on the Rocky Mountain Front and Blackfoot River Valley, are using easements as a planning tool to keep the family ranch in business, Carr said. Money they received from The Nature Conservancy, for example, can be used to buy adjacent lands.
“So they’ve been able to expand their land base to increase the size of their ranches so they are more economically viable,” Carr said.
Almost half of TNC’s protected acreage falls within western Montana, in a geographic region called the Crown of the Continent, but some 200,000 acres (including TNC’s partnership with other land trusts, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks and The Conservation Fund) is now conserved along the Rocky Mountain Front and another 66,000 acres is located on northern Montana prairies. Another 320,000 acres won’t be developed in southwest Montana.
Easements aren’t the only tool TNC has used to protect land.
In 2008, it purchased 310,586 acres of commercial timber land from Plum Creek timber company and has since been selling the land to public and private owners. Most recently, the U.S. Forest Service purchased 11,600 acres of that land in the Lolo and Flathead national forests. The Plum Creek deal is TNC’s largest to date in Montana.
Numerous groups are working on conservation easements to protect sensitive lands in the state today, along with several public agencies as well. TNC stands out in a few ways, Carr said. It also owns and manages land such as the Pine Butte Swamp Preserve west of Choteau, Crown Butte Preserve near Simms and the Matador Ranch in northeastern Montana.
And it has the size to complete large projects, with the Plum Creek purchase-and-sell transaction an example, Carr said. It also prides itself on coming up with creative ways to conserve land, Carr added.
“It has a low population, which means that raising funds is always a challenge,” Carr said of TNC’s work over the years on land conservation in Montana. “We’ve done a huge amount of conservation given our small population base.”
Candland Olsen, 77, is a retired orthodontist. He purchased the 515 acres 40 years ago “when I was young and not very smart.” Today, about 125 cow-calf pairs graze on the ranch during the summer. It features several miles of river frontage and is 70 percent forested.
Olsen has taken Montana State University Extension courses on range and forest stewardship in order to take good care of it.
The land would be appealing for cabin sites but the conservation easement prevents that.
“Forever, it will never be subdivided,” Olsen said.