Conservation in Moderation

By Kellyn Brown

When a Beacon reporter called planners in other Montana counties to get their perspective on conservation easements and a November initiative to preserve land in the Flathead, some were taken aback. They were likely surprised it was approved for the ballot at all, assuming that preserving land is not a priority here and that the bond has little chance of passing.

Yet a survey recently presented to Flathead County commissioners found that a whopping 64 percent of county residents would approve a $10-million bond and 61 percent would approve a $15-million effort.

In actuality, the sentiment in the Flathead probably falls somewhere in between. Conservation isn’t a four-letter word here like some may perceive, but I doubt two-thirds of county voters will embrace it whole-heartedly. The vote this fall will be close, but I think it will squeak through. Either that, or the polling company out of Portland, Ore. that conducted the survey should refund those who paid for it.

The bond would cost $19 a year to the owner of a $215,000 house, or less than a cup of coffee a month, which seems like a screaming deal to preserve land. Yet any new tax in tight economic times will also be greeted with a fair amount of skepticism. The commission, which has denied a similar request twice, were partially convinced by the cited poll numbers in allowing voters to decide for themselves. That was the right decision.

If this first bond passes, however, the onus will be on those appointed to spend it wisely in order to convince local voters that investing in future conservation efforts is worth their while. In Missoula and Gallatin counties, similar bonds are widely popular, passing by good-sized margins. After all, voting for an “open space” bond does make you feel like a Good Samaritan.

But while effective, there can be unforeseen drawbacks. Ravalli County, which passed an open space bond in 2006, hasn’t even used any of its money yet. That’s partially because landowners who could benefit from it are concerned that a simultaneous countywide zoning effort there may devalue their property. And elsewhere, government officials have blamed the open space efforts for siphoning votes from other essential bonds, such as those for infrastructure.

In 2004, for example, when Gallatin County was poised to vote on its second of two $10-million open space bonds, the county attorney said it was irresponsible to put a luxury item on the ballot when a new jail was so badly needed. He worried that if voters agreed to tax themselves for more preservation, they may be wary of supporting a jail bond. The second open space bond passed and four years later there is still no jail.

Open space bonds have worked at balancing growth. But, if this first one passes, it could be used as a scapegoat if future requests for so-called essential services are denied. With squeezed budgets across the valley, it would be hard to blame government officials for arguing that, at least right now, potholes are more important than preservation.

Proponents, however, argue that they need money for open space before large swaths of the Flathead are gobbled up by subdivisions. Now local voters get to decide if their argument is convincing – I think it is.

But enthusiastic supporters of the bond should also realize that they are asking to dip into the tax well for a luxury item – a well that is bit more shallow than usual. If this bond passes, they better stretch the dollars it provides, and be sure not to go back to the well too soon.

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