GREAT FALLS, Mont. - Four years ago, Jerry Townsend and his family drove from their ranch in the shadow of the Highwood Mountains in the middle of Montana, bound for their children's track meet a few hours to the west. They climbed the Continental Divide and descended into the famed Blackfoot River Valley on their way to the city of Missoula.
The drive was
lovely, but it was the race to put up new houses that got their
Townsend, who ranches about 50 miles
east of Great Falls, hadn't been to Missoula in years. He was
stunned by how quickly horse pastures and grassy hillsides were
disappearing and how fast subdivisions were taking their
The next year, Townsend put a conservation
easement on almost all of his 2,500-acre ranch with the help of the
Montana Land Reliance, a land trust founded in 1978 by farmers and
ranchers. His gift of the easement makes it tax-deductible, and
while the easement doesn't prohibit logging or even the sale of
water rights, it will keep a mine or a subdivision off his land in
perpetuity - even if the land is sold.
is certainly clear," says Townsend, his horse Windy nibbling green
grass at his spur-heeled boots. "(Development) is not the legacy we
want to leave."
The prospect of ranches in this
open land giving way to developments is not easy to picture.
Cattle, not subdivisions, still dominate the countryside. Black
bear and mountain lion roam the
Townsend is not the only landowner in
this part of Montana who is preparing for the eventual arrival of
developers looking for what Wallace Stegner called "the last, best
place." The Montana Land Reliance has brokered 268 deals that
protect 278,643 acres of this rural landscape. It is the largest of
seven private land trusts and two government agencies in Montana
that have protected 670,230 acres from mining and housing
developments. That's one percent of the state's private land.
Meanwhile, the Montana Agricultural Statistical
Service reports that suburban tracts and other developments have
gobbled up 3.1 million acres of farm and ranch land since
"Hopefully, 100 years from now, somebody
will say, "Gee, these people had foresight knowing what was coming
down the road in 100 years," "''''says Graham Taylor, a wildlife
manager for Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. It is
one of two government agencies and seven private land trusts that
broker conservation easements in Montana.
years ago, people said "I got time," "''''says John Wilson of the
Montana Land Reliance. "Now, they see the subdivisions, the
satellite dishes and pole lights, and they're thinking they don't
have any more time."
Karl Puckett writes
for the Great Falls
You can contact
* Montana Land Reliance, P.O. Box 355,
Helena, MT 59624 (406/443-7027);
* Montana Fish,
Wildlife and Parks, Field Services Division, P.O. Box 200701,
Helena, MT 59620-0701