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I want so badly to celebrate the end of this difficult year, to say to you, “We did it, it’s over.” Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to have devastating effects on our community. In the new year we cannot lose focus on our physical and mental health, or that of our neighbors. This year-end is not the end we long for, but we can use it as a marker, a reflection point. For the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, 2020 has shown us the true strength of the communities we serve and it has illuminated the coming challenges for all of us.

As a relative newcomer, I can attest to how lucky we all are to live in this magical place. Imagine trying to cope and get through the hardships and stresses of the pandemic without all the rivers, trails and open space we are so fortunate to access. My family and I straddled the pandemic in two different communities. What a literal breath of fresh air to arrive here and spend so much time outside on the trails against the grandeur of these mountains. I hope you too spent more time outdoors this year, taking it all in, safely enjoying all that this landscape has to offer. GVLT feels fortunate to have had the opportunity over the past three decades to conserve some of the places that are so special to this community.

Despite a chaotic year, I’m very proud to say that GVLT pressed on. We closed six conservation easements with generous landowners, permanently protecting more than 1,200 acres, including a 60-acre farm along the East Gallatin River that we protected just this week! We continued our trail projects and planning efforts with the city of Bozeman and Gallatin County with an eye to future connectivity and improved trail experiences. Our staff, board and partners kept their respective feet firmly on the gas pedal despite fundraising uncertainty. As local and national publications have cited, population growth in the Gallatin Valley accelerated despite the pandemic. With this increased development pressure on our open land and our community’s constant use of our outdoor spaces, this was no time to slow down.

The last year also exposed looming challenges around recreation in our growing community. Busy trails, crowded parking areas, overflowing trashcans, too fast, too loud, off trail, off leash… the list goes on. We heard more concerns over these pressure points than ever before. Once quiet, “undiscovered” trails landed on the Facebook group bucket list. Our community ventured farther out of town, further up the trail, and deeper into the mountains. While the outdoors remain our COVID retreat, they are also home to our region’s most iconic wildlife. 2020 showed us what it could look like to love a place to death. It is not “growth” alone that threatens what we love about this place; it is us, old timers and newcomers alike.

GVLT has been reckoning with this challenge for years. How do we conserve a place and create ways for people to explore and appreciate it? How do we accommodate a growing community’s need for access to public lands and protect the wildlife that live there? There are no easy answers or solutions to these questions. However, with population projections estimating 50,000 new residents in 27 years, we cannot ignore them either. Thanks to the support of many you over the last 30 years, GVLT has learned how to lean into these hard conversations. Finding creative solutions to plan for recreation while balancing the conservation of wildlife habitat will not be easy (but neither was building trails to connect Main Street to the Mountains!). Together we are capable of confronting messy and thorny issues in our growing community because this landscape is worth it. Your outdoor experiences are worth it. The wildlife are worth it. Your kids are worth it.

We need your help to think ahead about our recreation. We need wildlife voices, trail lovers of all stripes, land managers, and the next generation. We need to recognize the impact we all have by living and playing in this landscape and then we need to build a shared responsibility for caring for it. We need to explore common-ground solutions for its future.

The last year illuminated challenges that will only be exacerbated by our valley’s continued growth. But this year also taught us that hard things are easier when we tackle them together. Our resilient community is capable of remarkable things. With your help, we can work toward recreation and conservation solutions for 2021 and 2050.

Chet Work is the executive director of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust.

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