In Montana we value our personal liberties, individual rights and property rights, and those rights can be used to permanently protect our own private land if we so choose.

A handful of state legislators, unfortunately, want to abolish that voluntary right. During the last two sessions in Helena, legislation has been introduced that would ban perpetual conservation easements. Conservation easements are agreements that limit future development while allowing landowners to continue owning and managing their property as they always have, conserving the agricultural resources, wildlife habitat, and open space beyond the owner's own lifetime.

These legislators think by confiscating the right to permanently protect land they're doing landowners a favor. These legislators falsely believe they know what's better for the landowners' property than the landowners themselves do. While these legislators generally assert that Montanans need less government and more freedom, elimination of these landowners' rights actually means more government and less freedom.

Taking a tool away from Montanans that permanently protects private land would do landowners an injustice, agriculture a disservice, and would cause actual and serious financial harm to Montana farmers and ranchers and do irreparable damage to Montana's landscape.

Deciding the ultimate fate of your own land and how it will be managed forever is an incredibly Montanan ideal. Legislatively taking that right without compensation seems just that: a taking. Especially considering that denying the right to permanently protect private land prevents Montana landowners from possibly receiving federal income tax deductions from the full or partial donation of a conservation easement.

Many families donate conservation easements so that they can more easily pass the land on to their heirs, because easements reduce exposure to federal estate taxes. Why would the Montana Legislature - and why would anyone professing to advocate for property rights - ever champion a proposal that would increase federal taxes and make it harder to pass a farm or ranch to the next generation?

Through conservation easements, landowners can intentionally decide what can happen on their property in the future, but make no mistake - most of the land use decisions we make have consequences in perpetuity. When have you heard a rancher say he was going to buy a section of land with a cluster of houses, remove the homes, and run some cattle or grow some hay there? Although we never talk about it this way, once land is developed it will be developed forever. A subdivision is the last crop that land will ever grow.

Perpetual conservation easements, entered into voluntarily by willing landowners, ensure that land is always available for agriculture and wildlife, managed by private landowners, leaving options for future generations.

In fact, conservation easements are not just good for the families who donate them, but for every Montanan. By state law, conservation easements do not change property taxes, so the land continues to be taxed as it was before the easement. Further, conservation easements reduce sprawl and help cluster development in appropriate locations, reducing the costs of public services. Perhaps most importantly, these conserved lands help keep local agriculture viable, local food available, wildlife habitat intact, and all of Montana's incredible natural resources protected. Every Montanan benefits.

With nearly two million acres of private land conserved through these voluntary conservation agreements, Montana is one of the most successful states for private land conservation in the U.S. And it's no surprise - Montanans value private property and the use of private property rights.

Landowners throughout Montana will be making the journey to the state Capitol and their clear message to the Legislature will be this: It's our property and it's our property right to proactively, proudly and permanently decide whether to pass on our land the way it is.

Kelly Pohl, a Bozeman native, helps private landowners with voluntary conservation projects as the program director at the Gallatin Valley Land Trust.