In the flatter parts of Montana, some ranchers fence out subdivisions

  • Jerry Townsend on his 2,500-acre ranch

    Larry Beckner photo/Great Falls Tribune

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 attention.

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 place.

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.

"The trend 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 mountains.

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 1974.

"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.

"Ten 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 Tribune.

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 (406/444-3939).

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