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Available money for conservation and recreation projects in Gallatin County has nearly doubled this year, ringing in at just over $2 million.

The money comes from a 2018 voter-approved open space levy, which channels tax dollars into the Gallatin County Open Lands Program. Just over 81% of the money — which is about $1.8 million — will be available for conservation projects this year.

The other approximately 19% will go toward recreation projects, like trail upkeep. About $177,000 of the program’s remaining funds will go toward upkeep and maintenance in county parks.

The program had around $1.1 million available last year for conservation projects, most of which take the form of conservation easements.

But for there to be an easement, there needs to be a willing landowner. Chet Work, executive director of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, said that no two conservation easements are the same. His organization looks at easements from a community-based point of view and determines if a contract will work based on what it offers people in the county, like scenic views and sustained agriculture.

“That’s essentially the easement, it’s this private contract between two parties that perpetually restricts that development potential on behalf of the community values there,” Work said.

The money is available through grants from the county and can be obtained by an application process with the Open Lands Board. The deadline for initial applications is set for Oct. 15.

Just over $1.69 million of the money comes from this year’s open space levy, with additional unused money being rolled over from last year. Only three projects were approved last year, said Sean O’Callaghan, the county’s Open Lands coordinator and county planner. There were only three applications submitted.

“It varies from year-to-year depending on landowner interest, and what the land trusts are able to pull together in time for the application cycle,” O’Callaghan said.

In 2019 there were more applications than money available, O’Callaghan said. Since switching from voter-approved bond issues — which generated around $20 million for the program over nearly two decades — to an open space levy in 2018, the money has been more consistent, albeit at the cost of becoming finite.

A smaller pool of money breeds more competition.

“From the taxpayer perspective, hopefully the result is that the quality of the projects are getting even better,” O’Callaghan said.

But this year there is more money to go around, meaning more opportunities for landowners and land trusts, like GVLT and the Montana Land Reliance, to partner to conserve land in the county.

Kathryn Kelly, the manager for the Greater Yellowstone region of the Montana Land Reliance, said Gallatin County is one of four counties in the state — including Missoula, Lewis and Clark and Ravalli counties — that have open land programs.

It would be much more difficult to conserve land in those areas without those programs and the financial aid they provide to conservation easements, she said.

“With the huge development pressure we have more and more people coming in, more and more land being developed, we’re in — many ways — fast-losing all of those qualities that are bringing everyone here,” Kelly said. “And through conservation easements, that is one way that we have to preserve the important open space.”

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Alex Miller is the county and state government reporter and can be reached at amiller@dailychronicle.com or by phone at 406-582-2648.

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