Preserving Montana’s land, water, and way of life.
STORY BY FLATHEAD LAND TRUST
Our Family’s Story
Ron de Yong
“M y dad grew up on a piece of land right next to what would become our family farm, about a mile west of Fair-Mont-Egan School. He originally worked as a packer for the Forest Service in the Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park. During the Depression he bought a 160-acre parcel, then a second one. Those are the same 320 acres we’re now in the process of putting into a conservation easement.
I grew up on the farm. I’d go down in the woods and play for hours, and I learned how to fix all kinds of stuff. Combines were smaller and simpler then, and my dad would hand me a wrench and have me climb into the places he couldn’t reach. But I didn’t always plan to be a farmer; I knew how hard it was to make a living that way.
Still, after I went to college, the land called to me. I wanted future generations of my family to experience life on the farm, so I rented the land for two years from my parents to give farming a try before I purchased it. I told my wife that I wouldn’t farm forever, but I thought prices were good enough to make it work. And it did—I farmed full-time until my youngest was out of high school, then my wife and I moved to San Luis Obispo and I taught agriculture policy and economics at Cal Poly State University during the school year. I still came home to farm every summer, until I accepted the position of agricultural director for the state of Montana in 2007 and we lived in Helena for nine years.
We’re putting our acreage into a conservation easement because we believe that open agricultural space helps connect us all to the land. While housing is necessary, especially as our valley grows, we believe it should not come at the expense of productive agricultural land. My nephew will continue to pasture cows here, to grow wheat and canola and alfalfa on the same acres his great-uncle and I cultivated. Some of my grandkids are growing up in the family farmhouse, playing in the same woods I did. All of my grandkids, and the generations beyond will be able to enjoy this open land.”
Sylvia and Henry de Yong in the early 1950s with their children: Bonita, Ron and Cheryl
The de Yong farm, east of the Flathead River
“For sale” signs, close-packed subdivisions, and storage units are popping up like new crops, as explosive growth continues across the Flathead Valley.
As the newspaper headlines continually announce new development proposals, many people are wondering how we can preserve the viewsheds, open space, fish and wildlife habitat, clean water, and productive farmland that are so central to our quality of life. How do we preserve the essence of what called us to make Montana home, while also allowing for growth?
Conservation easements are one answer. A conservation easement is a voluntary legal agreement that a landowner places on their property. The landowner continues to own and manage the property, often still farming or ranching on it; the easement protects it from subdivisions or industrial development. A nonprofit land trust holds the easement and is responsible for monitoring and enforcing its terms. Because the details of each easement vary with the desires and needs of the landowner, there are several common misconceptions about what it actually means to place a conservation easement on a piece of property.
The landowner loses control of activities on their land.
Many Montana families have a deep history and way of life enmeshed with the land. Agricultural operations, running cattle, and logging have often been the bread and butter for these families for generations, and many want to continue this lifestyle, but without the fear that descendants may be tempted to subdivide and take the money, leaving the family legacy behind. Conservation easements can retain these and other property rights. Landowners can also run small businesses, thin forests, cut firewood, or build more structures on properties under conservation easement. The easement protects both the landowner’s rights and their conservation goals for the property.
Conservation easement tax incentives are just for the wealthy.
Landowners who donate a conservation easement do receive generous federal tax incentives. The best-known is the Enhanced Conservation Easement Tax Incentive, which allows the appraised value of a donated conservation easement to qualify as a charitable tax deduction on the donor’s federal income tax return. The myth that easements only benefit the wealthy arises because income tax deductions may not benefit everyone—retirees often have low taxable income, so the tax benefits of a conservation easement will be correspondingly low. But there are additional economic incentives that can benefit people of all economic levels.
Grant programs can provide up-front cash incentives in the form of purchased conservation easements. Properties that are important to wildlife, including fish and migratory birds, are often a good match for these programs, and so is prime agricultural land. Conservation easements can also be a significant and useful estate planning tool. Easements typically reduce property values for estate and gift tax purposes, which can ease the financial burden of passing property onto heirs, making it easier for the property to remain in the family. The financial benefits of conservation easements can benefit everyone, including land-rich, cash-poor families who wish to maintain a family heritage.
An easement opens land to public access.
The question of public access is entirely up to the landowner. An easement only has to include access rights for the land trust’s annual monitoring, usually a short visit from a staff member. Some landowners want their land to be accessible for public recreation, including hunting, fishing, and access to trails. For example, the bird viewing area at the West Valley Wetlands allows public access on private farmland that is protected with a conservation easement. In addition to conserving the farmland and bird habitat of the property, the landowner granted an additional public access easement on a portion of their land to allow for a public viewing area. No one can force a landowner to include public access, though, and the majority of conservation easements preserve private land.
Conservation easements are anti-property rights.
Just as choosing to sell land to a developer is a property right, a landowner’s decision to protect their land with voluntary conservation easement on their property is also a property right. Both decisions affect the future of the land forever.
So many landowners love their land, whether their family has owned it for generations or they have recently acquired it. Conservation easements ensure that open space—from farmland to wetlands to recreational land—will be protected forever, no matter who owns the land in the future. Land trusts and landowners work closely together to design individualized conservation easements that consider the historic use of the land and its conservation values through the lens of potential future needs and wants. The careful, collaborative planning process balances land use and conservation. The end result is peace of mind for the landowner, who knows that the family’s legacy with the land and its ecological values will be conserved. Forever.
“I have the satisfaction of knowing that, regardless of who ends up owning the land, it will never be apartment buildings; no one will ever fill in my slough and bird habitat, or pave over my prime farmland. And I have the great joy of knowing that my father’s wish – that the land always remain farmland – will forever be a reality.”
– Sue Cummings, conservation easement holder
Sue Cummings, conservation easement holder
Photo by: Aaron Agosto
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