Conservation Easements Protect Gallatin Valley Rivers

Matt Flynn is seen on his property, south of Belgrade, in June 2013. With help from the Gallatin Valley Open Space Board, Flynn will soon protect his property with a conservation easement.

Three Gallatin Valley landowners have joined dozens of others in preserving not only the rural character of the valley but also the health of its rivers.

On Tuesday, the Gallatin County Commission approved grants for conservation easements on two riverfront properties and gave its blessing to a third easement, all of which will end up protecting segments of the Gallatin and Madison rivers.

Conservation easements can benefit both landowners and area residents who moved to Montana to get away from larger cities. The problem is, as more people move into the Gallatin Valley, the open spaces are slowly being filled in and valuable agricultural land is lost.

That won’t happen to Matt Flynn’s 185-acre farm along the Gallatin River southwest of Belgrade, which he and his mother took over after his grandparents died a few years ago.

Now he’s continuing the tradition of raising cattle, grain and alfalfa. He has to work a job too because the operation is too small to be self-supporting. But he didn’t want to see it turned into a subdivision, so the easement will help him keep the property that holds so many memories.

“My great-grandfather bought it, and then my grandpa farmed it with his three brothers. His parents passed away early, when he was maybe 12 or 13, so he had to basically take over,” Flynn said. “We wanted to make sure we preserved all that my grandfather had done. It’s a fitting tribute.”

If Flynn did try to sell the property, he could make about $665,000 more if the property didn’t have an easement limiting development. So that’s the amount he could receive some reimbursement for.

“This is a really nice piece that will do a great job helping to protect the river. It also helps protect rural feel of the Cameron Bridge fishing access,” said Brendan Weiner, Gallatin Valley Trust Fund project manager. “This is one of the larger parcels in that area that remains undeveloped.”

The commission approved a grant of $115,000 out of the Gallatin County Open Space Bond program to help secure the easement, which will be bounded by state land on either side.

Commissioner Joe Skinner approved of the fact that Flynn will donate the rest of the lost property value.

A second easement helps to fill another important gap along the Madison River.

Tom and Nikki Fink want a conservation easement on their 188-acre property between Three Forks and the Missouri Headwaters State Park.

A little over half of the property is in the floodplain so development there is unlikely. It’s been designated a special habitat area that is important to many species of birds and wildlife.

For that reason, the Finks requested only $52,000 of the $245,000 lost property value from the Open Space Bond program. Weiner said that was just enough to cover transaction costs.

The Finks will also receive a $75,000 matching grant from the North American Wetlands Conservation Act.

“My concern has always been, if you’re going to take money out of the Open Space fund for an easement, the purpose of that is to limit development,” said Commissioner Steve White. “I probably wouldn’t have voted for it, but the east side does have developable land.”

The final easement is on an 86-acre property along the East Gallatin River northwest of Belgrade.

The commissioners were informed about it but did not have to approve any grant money because the property owner, Mark Kehke, was able to absorb all the lost value. The owners can apply for a one-time tax credit on any amount they absorb.

“A half mile of the East Gallatin flows along the property so one of the main goals is to protect water quality and habitat,” Weiner said.

The Montana Department of Environmental Quality lists the East Gallatin River as impaired for sedimentation so the easement will help by maintaining natural healthy streambanks.

GVLT has been guiding all three properties over the hurdles of getting easements, and they happened to work out at the same time, Weiner said.

“We’re pretty excited about having three nice river projects in this year,” Weiner said.

Laura Lundquist can be reached at llundquist@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2638.

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