LF Dairy

LF Dairy on West Cameron Bridge Road was the first property to receive money through the open lands mill levy. The money enabled the dairy to place a conservation easement on 598 acres.

Over the last 20 years, more than 50,000 acres have been conserved as part of Gallatin County’s open lands program, protecting agricultural lands, scenic views and wildlife habitat.

Two $10 million bonds — one approved in 2000 and another in 2004 — funded that conservation. With the bonds spent, the county is now using money from a four-mill levy approved in 2018 and has revised its open lands program to accommodate the new revenue source.

The four-mill levy will generate $1.27 million this year and will bring in a similar amount each year, said Mike Harris, the county’s open lands coordinator.

With about $1 million available annually, the open lands application process will likely become more competitive. While the bonds enabled the county to approve several large projects at the same time, the mill levy is likely to allow fewer large projects to be funded each year.

“We’ll have to be mindful of the money that’s available each year and will make sure to bring forward the projects that do the most conservation,” said Kathryn Kelly, the Greater Yellowstone manager for the Montana Land Reliance, a land trust that works with the open lands program.

Projects must now be completed in three years unless they receive an extension, Harris said. The change will help the county keep up with new projects.

The application process for conservation easements will open in the fall and close in the winter. This year’s application period opened last month and will close Jan. 17.

The application questions are similar to those in previous years. Questions include how much land the project will protect, what the scenic value of the property is and how the owner plans to use the land in the future.

The Open Lands Board, a citizen advisory group, will review the applications, score each project, visit the properties and meet with the land trust that will hold the conservation easement.

The board will recommend projects to the county commissioners for approval.

Brendan Weiner, program manager for the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, which works with the open lands money, said the program will continue to enable conservation by providing matching funds for private, state and federal dollars.

“More than anything we’ve had one of the best open lands programs in the state for the last 20 years, and we expect it will continue to work well,” Weiner said. “The big picture is we’re grateful we have a county and taxpayers that want to invest in conservation.”

County voters approved the four-mill levy in June 2018. Initially, land trust groups pushed commissioners for a bond issue, but they declined. The groups then started a citizens petition to force the vote but eventually shifted to a mill levy to avoid competition with bonds for other projects like a new Law and Justice Center.

“How it all works out in the practical sense remains to be seen, but the Montana Land Reliance, Gallatin Valley Land Trust and the county with Mike Harris we’re all committed to making this work to achieve the greatest amount of conservation in Gallatin Valley,” Kelly said.

Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.

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