Vehicles drive past wild sunflowers growing on the side of Valley Center Trail on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020.

By Perrin Stein – Bozeman Daily Chronicle

The money from a 2018 voter-approved tax hike for open space is now being divided into separate funds for conservation and recreation projects.

Most of the revenue from the tax increase — about $1.1 million this year — will go to conservation projects, such as conservation easements and the purchase of land.

Applications for conservation projects for this year will open soon. The open lands board will then review the applications and make recommendations to the commissioners, who decide which projects to fund.

A small portion of the tax revenue — about $264,000 this year — will be allocated to recreation projects, such as maintaining trails and purchasing trail easements.

The open lands board will likely solicit applications for recreation projects this winter, said county planning director Sean O’Callaghan. The commissioners will then award funding for specific projects in the spring, so work could begin next construction season.

As in previous years, some of the tax revenue — about $176,000 this year — will be used for county parks.

Last year, the county created a reserve of $141,000 for tax delinquencies that will be carried forward into this year’s budget.

EJ Porth, associate director of the Gallatin Valley Land Trust, said setting aside money specifically for conservation and for recreation would ensure that the county invests in both. With the division of funding, she said projects like those in the Triangle Trails Plan, a roadmap for creating trails in the area west of Bozeman, could come to fruition.

“We know that we have a lot of work to do on conservation, but we also know there is plenty of work to do on the recreation and public access side,” she said.

The Montana Land Reliance, which often applies for funding from the open lands board to purchase land and complete conservation easements in Gallatin County, said it supports the new funding system.

“We’re growing so fast that all the conservation that we can do is going to help protect what we all love so much in the county for the future,” said the group’s Greater Yellowstone manager Kathryn Kelly.

The Gallatin County Open Lands Program began in the early 2000s with two voter-approved bond issues totaling $20 million to finance conservation easements. The bond money was fully spent by 2017.

In 2018, commissioners decided to continue the program but chose to do so with a mill levy. Unlike the bonds, the county can now only use the money it has in the open space account from the tax increase instead of borrowing money through a bond issue.

“The transition from bond to levy was challenging — although I think it will ultimately be more successful — and this is really the final piece of getting that done,” said commissioner Don Seifert. “And it sets the program up for the future really, really well.”