The Early Years

The existence of The Montana Land Reliance (MLR) is due, in part, to apple trees in the Bitterroot Valley. During the “apple boom” of the early 1900s, real estate investors in the valley saw an opportunity. They bought up the land, planted apple trees, then subdivided the valley into small 5-, 10-, and 20-acre parcels. The land, which had been purchased for as a little as $2 an acre, was then sold for $1,000 an acre to eastern buyers who were led to believe that they would get rich with little effort growing and selling delicious McIntosh apples. By 1920, there were over 750,000 fruit trees in the valley covering over 10,000 acres.

Christine Torgrimson, left, and Barbara Rusmore

Every boom is followed by a bust and by 1950 the Bitterroot supported fewer than 40,000 fruit trees. Growers’ dreams of apple cider riches were squashed by two kinds of pests: swindling middlemen who took the apples and never paid, and the coddling moth, which showed up in the 1930s and burrowed deep under the apples’ skins, turning the sweet fruit into sour mush. During the 1960s and 1970s failing orchards were ripped from the landscape and replaced by subdivisions, golf courses, and shopping centers. Land prices in the valley soared, making it increasingly difficult for the remaining agricultural producers to stay on the land.

The transformation of the Bitterroot Valley was of special concern to a young undergraduate student at the University of Montana (UM) named Christine Torgrimson. She worried that if something wasn’t done to help farmers and ranchers stay on the land, the same type of unchecked subdivision and unplanned development would befall other Montana valleys. Christine grew up in Missoula, a stone’s throw from the Clark Fork and a short drive from the Bitterroot’s orchards. She came from a ranching family and was raised, in part, by her grandparents, who had homesteaded at Camas Prairie near Plains, Montana.

While at UM, Christine completed a study on land development in the Bitterroot Valley. That led to work with the Environmental Quality Council, and then with the Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC). At MEIC Christine led a statewide subdivision inventory. With a team of volunteers, they hand drew 3-by-5-foot county maps depicting the spread of subdivision activity in the state. The team estimated that in 1975 around half a million acres in Montana had been subdivided into 20-acre or smaller lots.

Christine’s research was presented to the Montana Legislature in conjunction with the lobbying efforts of ranchers in the Blackfoot Valley who sought to pass a comprehensive easement law allowing for private land conservation. The effort failed in 1974. However, in 1975, the ranchers tried a different approach by amending the existing 1969 Open-Space Land Act, which only allowed for conservation by public entities, to also allow for private land conservation through a qualified nonprofit or land trust. This effort was successful and the amended act, named the “Montana Open-Space Land and Voluntary Conservation Easement Act,” became law under House Bill (HB) 341. With the passage of new legislation, the stage was set for the founding of MLR.

Three years after the legislation passed, an energetic Californian with experience in private land conservation showed up on the scene. Like Christine Torgrimson, Barbara Rusmore saw her own Silicon Valley transform from a maze of apricot orchards and productive agricultural lands into subdivided and expensive real estate that catered to tech companies. She recalled as a twelve-year-old girl being emotionally attached to the orchards and feeling anger and sadness as the trees were “torn from the landscape, their carcasses piled on the side of the road, to be burned or chopped into oblivion.”

After graduation, Barbara worked on private land conservation projects on the west coast and developed relationships with foundations focused on environmental and social issues. She also spent time meeting with agricultural producers who discussed the difficulties of staying in business, especially given the speculative nature of land values in California. In 1975, Barbara met and fell in love with Jack Schmidt, a geomorphologist who found work in Helena, Montana. After moving, Barbara found MEIC and Christine. The two quickly discovered their shared interests and began looking into ways to address the fragmentation of agricultural lands in Montana.

Christine had just finished writing a proposal with the goal of matching aspiring young farmers with producers who were retiring. The idea was to create a system of land transactions in which farmers and ranchers could pass on the land to the next generation rather than selling out to developers. Barbara added context to the proposal, with other important input from Phil Tawney at MEIC, The Nature Conservancy (TNC), and environmental lawyers in San Francisco that Barbara knew. The two women looked at conservation models on the east coast and in Canada. They liked the Saskatchewan Land Bank in particular because it took the speculative nature of land out of the equation. In Canada, the provinces owned the farmland, and made it available to farmers and ranchers via long-term leases.

However, a model so bold as a land bank in Montana would have required more legislation, and there was not time or money for that. Instead, Christine and Barbara narrowed their focus to conservation easements and forming a land trust that could take advantage of the newly passed HB 341. In a tiny office down the hall from MEIC, the two women came up with a name, the “Montana Trust for People and Land,” and wrote down a mission statement:“to establish a renewable and equitable agricultural way of life in Montana.”

The Montana Land Reliance is Born

Right out of the shoots, they ran into a problem. The state wouldn’t recognize the name. At the time, the banking industry had exclusive rights to use the word “trust.” Barbara recalled that they sat for several hours with a thesaurus and flip chart writing names on the wall. At some point Christine said, “Land Reliance, that’s it!” The name felt right, and for good reason. Reliance means to depend on or trust in someone or something. MLR intended to be the organization that land owners, especially farmers and ranchers, could depend on and trust in.

MLR’s early Board of Directors

So, in 1978, with little fanfare, MLR was founded. For a board Christine and Barbara recruited Bill Milton, Chase Hibbard, and Jon Roush. Bill Long, a recent graduate in economics at UM and friend of Christine’s, was hired to help get things moving. The next year, George Olsen, Allen Bjergo, and Sharon Peterson joined the board, bringing additional expertise. Phil and Robin Tawney at MEIC and Bill Bryan at Northern Rockies Action Group (NRAG) were also among MLR’s early champions, as were Max Milton, Dana Milton, and others.

Laying the foundation of an organization is hard work, and MLR faced two major challenges. First, the staff and board needed to clearly define their vision. Second, they had to figure out how to fund it. George Olsen recalled sitting in the MLR office with butcher paper taped to the walls. On the paper were written the staff and board’s ideas and the goals that they wanted to achieve. Those early brainstorming sessions were critical in defining how the new organization would look and operate.

Chase Hibbard, a fourth-generation Montana rancher who had a background in banking, advised the group to keep the focus on providing good options. He recalled recommending, “Don’t legislate it, don’t force it. Provide landowners the right tools, and if it’s right for them, it will fall into place.” From the beginning, MLR decided to stay out of the land management business, and instead, focused on providing information and expertise in the area of conservation easements.

Patience, trust, and a focus on preserving agriculture and ranching were several of the core tenets that emerged from those early meetings. So was the commitment to remain apolitical. As longtime board member Rick Berg put it, “MLR has worked extraordinarily hard since the beginning to remain politically neutral. It would be easy to veer to the left or right, but doing so would have taken away the ability to talk with neighbors and build relationships.”

Building relationships with both landowners and prospective supporters was especially crucial in the early years as MLR had not yet established a pipeline for funding. The situation became dire in 1981. George Olsen, MLR Board Treasurer, showed up to the scheduled board meeting and reported that they had $39 in the bank with payroll due at the end of the week. It was a critical moment. Allen Bjergo, who was at the meeting recalled, “We had three completed easements, and $39. We sat and looked at each other, said, ‘Shall we fold this thing up?’ But we decided to forge ahead.” A hat was passed around the room and the board members wrote checks; enough to pay the staff and keep the doors open.

It was at this low point that MLR hired Bill Dunham, a fire alarm salesman who loved American Literature and fly fishing. Bill brought an entrepreneurial spirit and energy to the nonprofit that was needed. By that time Christine Torgrimson and Barbara Rusmore had left MLR to pursue other interests. So, with the support of the board, Bill Dunham and Bill Long began developing new relationships with a wide array of people from all over the United States, primarily through fly fishing. On the banks of Montana’s famous trout streams, potential easement donors and benefactors learned about MLR. This new experiment in fundraising became known as the “trout route.”

During the summer of 1982, Bill Long and Bill Dunham fished with Herb Wellington. Herb had a firm on Wall Street and owned the Longhorn Ranch in the Madison Valley. The previous fall MLR had begun the process of completing a conservation easement on Herb’s ranch. It was only MLR’s second easement in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and one of the biggest projects the young nonprofit had undertaken. Bill Long recalled, “MLR was not the only organization wanting to work with Herb. A national organization ran hard after him. They wanted him. He had such a great ranch and connections on Wall Street. But for some reason he picked us. MLR was new, we didn’t have it figured out yet, but Herb believed in us.”The same was true for Sam Gary, who lived in Denver but owned a summer home on Flathead Lake. Sam fished the Missouri with Bill Dunham and Bill Long and gave generously. Herb and Sam’s donations gave MLR the financial infusion needed to move forward.

With a growing network of individual donors, MLR was able to look to the future. In 1983 the organization changed its mission statement to focus on “open space” conservation. It became increasingly clear that ecological, habitat, and social benefits could be realized simply by keeping land undeveloped. So, MLR simplified its mission statement and became an open space, private land conservation organization with one product: the conservation easement. It was also evident that money would be needed to pay for monitoring of easements. That was the promise MLR made to landowners; that they would ensure the terms of the easement were honored, forever.

During the winter of 1984, Bill Long met an aspiring broker named Andy Laszlo at the Dean Witter office in Billings, which at the time was nothing more than a double wide trailer. Andy recalled that he had no idea what MLR was about, he just needed work. Over the years, Andy became one of MLR’s major supporters, and placed his ranch in the Madison Valley under easement soon after Herb Wellington protected the Longhorn Ranch. Under Andy’s tutelage, MLR’s original Land Protection Fund investment of $32,000 grew to over $12 million. Today, Andy continues to oversee MLR’s investments totaling over $25 million.

Wild West Years of Conservation

Gaining momentum, MLR made important hires in Jan Konigsberg, Lois Delger-DeMars, John Wilson, Chris Phelps, Amy Eaton Royer, Chris Montague, and Rock Ringling. If you talk to some of these staff members, they’ll often refer to the 1990s as the “wild west days of conservation in Montana” and blame (or thank) a fishing movie for getting things going. In 1992, Robert Redford released his award-winning film A River Runs Through It, which showcased spectacular Montana landscapes and romanticized the sport of fly fishing. Seemingly overnight, Montana riverfront property became a hot commodity.

MLR rode the current reaching out to recreational property owners across the state, especially in central and western Montana. By and large, these new landowners had no interest in subdividing their properties. They bought ranches for their aesthetic qualities and recreational opportunities, and took advantage of the tax benefits associated with donated conservation easements. Between 1978 and 1989, MLR completed a total of 27 easements. During the Wild West era (1990-2000), MLR completed 415 easements, averaging nearly 38 easements per year.

While staff and board members were pleased with the conservation of recreational properties, they felt that easements weren’t doing enough to help agricultural producers and their families. The high interest rates of the 1980s and speculative land values of the 1990s had been particularly tough on producers. MLR understood that for easements to be more useful in succession planning, the incentives needed to be better. At the time, the maximum federal income tax deduction a qualified farmer or rancher could take for an easement donation was 30 percent of his or her adjusted gross income every year for up to six years. In many cases, farmers and ranchers who made their living off the land would never see the full tax benefit of their donations.

During the winter of 1998, Rock Ringling and Bill Long drove from Helena to Rock Creek to meet with the family of an easement donor who had recently passed away. On the ride over the divide, the conversation turned to the history and finances of Rock’s family ranch, which led to a discussion about what could be done to help agricultural producers that rely primarily on agricultural income. Bill recalled, “We asked each other, what could we do to go beyond the 30 percent?” By the time the two returned to Helena, they had ideas.

Chris Montague, who was hired as MLR’s Eastern Manger in 1997, and had worked for Senator Max Baucus in Washington D.C., recalled discussing easement incentives during a fishing trip with Rock Ringling and Bill Long. He remembered, “It happened over cold beer and ham sandwiches on the banks of the Big Horn River. Under the St. Xavier Bridge we talked about what could be done to better incentivize ranchers and farmers.” In the end, they identified the issue: thirty percent was too little, and six years too short.

When MLR staff reached out to national land conservation organizations about their idea to lobby for changes, nobody paid much attention. The five years that followed were particularly frustrating. As Chris Montague recalled, “Nobody, except us, believed it could be done.” Rock Ringling remembers spending hours on the phone mobilizing and educating the conservation community. MLR reached out to all 1,200 land trusts in the U.S. which put pressure on the national land trust community to get on board. Eventually, they did.

In December of 2015, Congress authorized enhanced tax incentives for conservation easements. It took over a decade and more individuals than can be named here to improve the law. Bill Long estimated that MLR put in over one million dollars’ worth of out-of-pocket expenses and staff time to get the legislation passed, but the benefits were worth the effort. The new easement tax incentives allowed qualified farmers and ranchers (who could show that at least 51 percent of their income was derived from agriculture) to offset up to 100 percent of their taxable income every year for up to 15 years, plus the year the easement was completed. Farmers and ranchers could now take full advantage of the value of their easement donation over a much longer period of time.

In addition to improving the conservation easement product, MLR worked hard to improve its internal tracking and day-to-day operations. Tom Patterson, a young graduate student attending Harvard Business School, reached out to MLR Managing Director John Wilson in the 1990s about the prospect of writing a case study about MLR for his program. Tom compiled information from easement donors and board members about what they liked and disliked about the easement process and shared the information with MLR staff. He recalled, “The MLR folks were a really neat group of people. They delivered conservation in a very efficient way that met customers’ needs and had a long-term positive outcome.”

Patterson held brainstorming sessions where staff gained perspective and discussed ways they could improve. MLR was facing growing pains and needed to scale its operations. From these discussions MLR developed a conservation easement toolkit. The toolkit included an easement tracker, an early version of an Excel spreadsheet, which standardized the way each easement moved through the review process, as well as several templates for drafting easements. By standardizing the tracking and drafting process, MLR brought consistency and discipline to the organization. Another growing pain involved easement monitoring.It was physically impossible for Chris Phelps, MLR’s Land Manager, to visit each property annually as is required by law. So, he developed a system in which seasonal land stewards helped him with the work. He found ideal candidates in retired Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management employees, and farmers and ranchers who lived near the easements who perceived themselves as advocates of conservation, not “building police.”

As MLR continued its growth into the 2000s and beyond, staff retired, and new faces came on board. Jay Erickson was hired as a Managing Director in 2000 to replace John Wilson. Doug Mitchell, who was hired in 2007, moved into the position of Managing Director in 2009 to replace Bill Long. Five years later, Doug Mitchell left MLR and Lois Delger-DeMars took over. By 2015, Rock, Lois, and Jay managed a staff of 12 full-time employees and 13 seasonal land stewards. The original three-person board that helped found MLR in 1978 had grown to twelve, and the Council of Trustees to over 25. While the wild west days of the 1990s were officially over, MLR continued to see success, including easements on the Flathead and Blackfeet Indian Reservations overseen by Western Manager, Amy Eaton Royer, and the conservation of the 40,000-acre Sieben Livestock property owned by the Hibbard family, which continues to be the largest conservation easement held by MLR in the state.

Cows, Not Condos

In 2017, MLR achieved a milestone: 1,000,000 acres and 1,700 miles of streambank under easement. When asked what inspired him to throw out the million-acre number at a staff meeting in the mid-1990s, Rock Ringling said, “You know, we needed a goal. Nobody thought it was necessarily attainable at the time, but it gave the staff and the board something to focus on.” In August of 2017, easement donors and holders, supporters, staff, board, and trustees from across the country gathered at the historic Hilger-Hereford Ranch outside of Helena to celebrate the accomplishment. Newspapers noted that 1,000,000 acres is roughly the size of Glacier National Park or the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

To protect such an impressive amount of land took the work of many. There are important names and stories not mentioned here who have been integral to MLR’s success over the last four decades. Forty years is a long time for any organization to stay in business. MLR’s accomplishments can be attributed to its clear vision, its tenacious staff and board members, and the landowners who have chosen to exercise a conservation ethic. If you recall, forty years ago Christine Torgrimson and her team walked into the legislature with hand drawn maps showing that half a million acres in Montana had been subdivided. Today, due to the efforts of many, MLR has mitigated that impact two times over. No other land trust has done more to protect Montana’s open spaces, and there is still much work to be done. MLR will continue to remain true to its past and build on the legacy of those who came before.