It all started at a kitchen table in the Blackfoot Valley. Back around 1970. Local folks like us, including our good friend and neighbor Bill Potter, worried about increasing recreational pressure on the river, our property and the lands surrounding ours.
We knew what we wanted to do, but we weren’t sure how to do it. We knew we wanted to engage the public. They had a stake in the river and the land that surrounded it. So we got together — landowners, river users, hunters, agency folks — to see what kind of options or solutions we could come up with.
What we wanted to do was find a way to protect property rights and conserve land now and in the future. The idea of voluntary private land conservation appealed to us. So we sat around kitchen tables in the evenings, maybe passing around a bottle of Old Crow, before it was over, talking about the future and what was important to us, our families, and in our case, the Blackfoot River.
Truth was, in those days, we didn’t know what a conservation easement was. Luckily, we heard more about easements from a guy named Huey Johnson, who if we recall correctly, in those days was the only Nature Conservancy employee west of the Mississippi.
What has happened since is astonishing. Remarkable, really. We never anticipated it. We’ve been told that since 1976 landowners have worked with land trusts and public agencies to conserve more than 2.4 million acres of Montana private land. There are a dozen land trusts working throughout the whole state. Montana’s a national leader in land conservation. That wasn’t our intent. We know celebrating Montana Open Land Month in July is a big deal. It’s wonderful to see, but that sure wasn’t what we were trying to do.
1975 Montana law
The first try, in 1974, to pass a bill in Helena creating conservation easements, failed. We were pretty naïve, but we gave it our best shot. We did get support. And some of the people who killed that first attempt liked the idea but not the bill. They helped us sort out what we were really trying to accomplish, and in 1975 legislation passed. In 1976 the first conservation easement in Montana history was created up the road from us, right here in the Blackfoot Valley.
Sure, there was some opposition. Conservation easements were new, and different. People would ask us, “How can you do that to your children or grandchildren?” The answer was, “We’re not doing it to them. We’re doing it for them. For their benefit.”
Our first thoughts about conservation easements mainly focused on lands along the banks of the river. But things took off when we started thinking about community. Not just about a single property but about the whole Blackfoot Valley, ridge top to ridge top.
There’s been a conservation easement on the Lindbergh Ranch for almost 40 years. Why someone puts a conservation easement on their place varies with each landowner. There’s an easement on the Lindbergh place because it’s a stupendous piece of ground, along a beautiful river that people were enjoying every year and enjoying in every way. And we wanted that to continue. People should be able to enjoy that tremendous experience.
Here, in the Blackfoot, it all starts with the river. It’s a river that’s very alive, very powerful. It sustains everything in this valley, and everything in the valley flows back into it. And that includes all our conservation efforts. If you listen carefully, the river will tell you how you’re doing.
When you allow a conservation easement on your property it comes with a responsibility. Not so much a legal responsibility but a personal pledge to continue to carry on what you treasure about the property. You need to look beyond immediate financial gain or loss or what you can personally make from the property to help make a better life for others still to come. What we do in our lifetime for the generations still to come is far more important than any gain we might have as an individual in our lifetime.
Look at what we have in Montana. Just look at it. Open land and land conservation are vital to our way of life. Open land is the definition of the Montana way of life.
And it will only get better. Our advice is to start local. Be collaborative. Include everyone. Focus on what you agree on.
Congratulations to Montana on the 40th anniversary of the state’s first conservation easement. It all started with people around a kitchen table, and continues today with people around a kitchen table.