The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) has conserved more than 26,000 acres every year since we began work in 1978. The number is significant because by the end of 2016 it’s very possible that we will have protected our millionth acre. This would be 1,000,000 acres of private land in Big Sky Country—from the tall cedars of the northwestern rainforests, the sagebrush prairie at the edge of the Missouri Breaks, to the rich farmlands of our river valleys—that will never be subdivided, and will sustain agriculture, wildlife, and fisheries for generations to come. Preserving the Montana we know for future generations is and has always been one of MLR’s greatest ambitions.
The role that MLR plays in land protection in this state and across the country, as well as its accomplishments, is no accident. We derive our success from our people, from our leadership role within the land trust community, and from our tireless advocacy for landowners and conservation.
We achieved a major victory in 2015 with the permanent authorization of enhanced tax incentives for conservation easements in the United States Congress. In the late 90s, Rock Ringling and Bill Long, a former managing director at MLR, saw an inequity among landowners considering conservation easements. The existing provisions allowed high income taxpayers to benefit from easement donations more than they did lesser, more typical Montana income earners. For nearly two decades, MLR leadership worked to improve the law so that more landowners could take advantage of all of the benefits associated with donating conservation easements. Their solution entitled landowners to deduct the value of their easement against a greater percentage of their adjusted gross income, and over a longer period of time. In 2007, Congress approved the suite of tax incentives penned by MLR’s and the national land trust community’s leadership.
The problem was that Congress had to reauthorize that tax law in extenders packages every one to three years, sometimes at the end of the year making any semblance of financial planning nearly impossible. When a landowner wanted to put his land into a conservation easement in the hopes of getting a tax deduction, he was betting that Congress would retroactively approve legislation. These extensions did not give many landowners the time to plan and execute an easement on the most important asset they hold.
Working originally with then-Senators Max Baucus (D-MT), Charles Grassley, (R-IA), and most recently with House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and the Montana congressional delegation, MLR leadership saw the tax incentives become permanent in the tax bill passed by the 114th U.S. Congress. This allows a traditional rancher or farmer—whose income varies with cattle prices or wheat futures—to deduct the value of his or her donated conservation easement against 100 percent of his or her adjusted gross income for 16 years. Landowners are now able to realize the full benefit of their easement as they can deduct the value of their easement against current and future income. It is good for people and it is better for the land.
Another aspect of our strength as an organization is our engagement with both the state and national land trust communities. I serve on the Board of Directors and various committees of the Land Trust Alliance (LTA), an association comprised of more than 1,100 land trusts across the country. Jay Erickson serves on its Accreditation Committee, and Rock Ringling on its Leadership Council. Rock serves, also, as the president of the Partnership of Rangeland Trusts, an association of agricultural land trusts from seven states. At our state level, MLR works closely with the Montana Association of Land Trusts, a group consisting of 12 local land trusts. In 2015, we also finalized a merger with Peaks and Prairies, a land trust serving the Red Lodge, Montana area. By working together and by contributing meaningfully to the whole land trust community, we will continue to meet the challenges of conservation in a rapidly-changing world.
I would be remiss not to commend all of our staff. MLR’s leaders unquestionably have the vision and drive to get things done, and so do our boots on the ground. People such as Randy Smith, our Missoula-based land steward who retired this year after 13 with MLR, have contributed enormously to creating and fostering our organization’s near-familial community. As is the case with his fellow land stewards, Randy’s affable character and dedication to the landowners in his region are critical to maintaining the lifetime relationships we have with our conservation partners.
When I reflect upon our year in 2015—our historic wins for conservation tax law, our leadership as an organization, and our people—I have nothing but optimism for 2016. I believe that everything that makes MLR successful will not only drive us to 1,000,000, but will also drive us by that milestone and far beyond in our mission to preserve land for Montanans.