Why I conserved my East Gallatin Ranch

March 02, 2015

Mark Kehke, Guest Columnist

Nine years ago, my wife and I bought our property on the East Gallatin River–the East Gallatin Preserve. We were drawn to this part of the Gallatin Valley by the beauty and serenity of the East Gallatin River, by the surrounding agricultural community and the abundant wildlife on the property: moose, deer, fox, sandhill cranes, geese, coyote, bald eagles, red-tailed hawks, kingfishers, trout and pheasants, just to name a few.

 Over the years, our love and appreciation of this unique place deepened and we knew we needed to ensure that it stays special, as a retreat for our family and for the wildlife that inhabit it, and as a small agricultural operation that produces hay and alfalfa. So, last year we decided to donate a conservation easement on it to the Gallatin Valley Land Trust.

 This voluntary agreement limits the future residential development of the property while keeping it in our private ownership, allowing us to continue using the land as we always have, and ensuring that it will never be converted from wildlife habitat and agricultural uses.

 In making this commitment we feel we are being good stewards of this land and at the same time leaving a legacy not only for our grandchildren, but for the citizens of the Gallatin Valley and all Montanans.

We learned a lot about conservation easements through the last year, and we hope a brand-new program just starting in 2015 will help families like ours who choose to conserve their land.

Over $3.7 million was just allocated by the U.S. Natural Resource Conservation Service to new conservation programs in the Gallatin Valley, called the Regional Conservation Partnership Program. The Gallatin Valley project is the only one to be funded in Montana and one of just 115 in the nation — out of nearly 600 original applicants — exemplifying the national significance of our valley.

This new funding measure, created under the 2014 Farm Bill, will ensure that dollars are dedicated to conservation programs that improve the water quality and protect soil health along the East Gallatin River, Camp Creek, Bridger Creek, Bozeman Creek and other impaired waterways in our valley. Nearly every dollar of the $3.7 million will go directly into the hands of landowners who want to leave a legacy of conservation and continue their good stewardship of private land.

This funding will be used for two purposes. The first is to purchase conservation easements from farmers and ranchers on agricultural land, assuring that the land is available for agricultural uses and protecting the exceptional Gallatin Valley soils that help grow our nation’s food. Coupled with our county open space bonds and significant tax incentives, this can be a fantastic way for a family to receive financial benefit from doing nothing more than keeping the land in its current uses.

 The second purpose is to pay landowners and producers to implement conservation practices that protect water quality, prevent soil erosion, and improve wildlife habitat. Projects like fencing, weed control, tree and shrub planting, irrigation improvements, and wildlife enhancements are eligible for funding.

 The five-year program is a partnership among over 20 local conservation, farming, and ranching organizations and is led by the Gallatin Valley Land Trust. This partnership gives our local community-based organizations an opportunity to help guide the implementation of national policy, responding to local needs and local vision for protection of water quality and soil health.

We in the Gallatin Valley have an incredible opportunity — and responsibility — to use this new program to foster a lasting conservation legacy that will protect our rivers, agricultural heritage, and wide open spaces. Truly protecting the valuable resources of our valley will require a community-wide effort. I’m proud to be a part of that legacy and hope our easement on the East Gallatin River will soon be joined by dozens more to make a meaningful impact in our valley.

Mark Kehke and his wife Nanette have permanently conserved their East Gallatin River property. Mark is joining the Board of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust this year.




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