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What makes Southwest Montana such a preferred locale? Is it the presence of Montana State University, the local ski areas, top notch fly fishing, or a positive culture to grow an entrepreneurial business? While all of those factors may be true, there is no one right answer. However, it is likely that the abundance of and accessibility to the beautiful outdoors is generally ranked among the top choices.
On June 5th, voters in Gallatin County will have the opportunity to help decide the future of the Open Lands Program. I’d like to first step back briefly and share some history of the program taken directly from the www.foropenlands.org website. In 2000 and again in 2004, bonds were approved in the total amount of $20 million for the purpose of purchasing land and conservation easements to conserve open space. Those funds have been used to protect “nearly 50,000 acres of land as natural areas, ranches and wildlife habitat. It has also provided resources to create the county’s 100-acre Regional Park, Chestnut Mountain Trailhead, and North Cottonwood Trailhead.” Those funds have now been depleted, so the upcoming levy would provide renewed funding to carry forward the momentum of the Open Lands Program as the county experiences continued dynamic population growth.
The upcoming ballot will present the Open Lands Mill Levy which, if approved, will raise 4.5 mills for conservation efforts; 4 mills dedicated to open land conservation and .5 mills for Gallatin County Parks and trail improvements and maintenance. In more general terms, it would provide more than $20 million for conservation efforts over the following 15 years. The amount taxpayers would see on their bill is approximately $6.00 for every $100,000 in property value.
To paraphrase from the website again, the priorities of the program which will require the renewed funding moving forward include the following: prime agriculture crop, range and forest land; large parcels of land; wildlife habitat and migration corridors; protecting water quality; lands facing development pressure; lands with recreational value. More specifically, the resources will support the Gallatin County Regional Park and other parks throughout Gallatin County.
The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) is another example of what commitment to preserving Montana’s natural features can look like. Just last August, the group’s members were able to revel at a notable achievement at a Million Acre Celebration. While gathered at the Hilger Ranch near the Gates of the Mountains, those present witnessed the signing of a conservation easement which allowed the total amount of acreage in easements held by MLR to go over the one-million-acre threshold. The organization exemplifies how collaboration among unique groups can result in retention of some of Montana’s most striking landscapes for future enjoyment.
As development spreads out in all directions, it becomes increasingly important that there is access to a variety of open space to recreate, hike, explore, and utilize for agricultural purposes. Additionally, we have become accustomed to enjoying arguably one of the finest viewsheds that exists. In order to preserve all of those amenities for the enjoyment of generations to come, professionals with the expertise to manage wildlife habitat, keep water quality at a high level, and protect certain land from being developed require the necessary funds.
When you chose to make your home in a given community, staying apprised of local issues and contributing where you can is the best role you can play. Being involved reminds you why you decided either to come Gallatin County or why you stay here. The heritage, the history, the agriculture and the way of life that made this remarkable valley into what it is today can still be protected. Growth is inevitable. Smart growth is achievable. Remember to vote June 5th.