Unlikely Conservation Easement Advocates Complete Second Deal

By Beacon Staff

As a real estate agent, Eric Smith fully understands the value of his lush property along the Flathead River. It’s secluded yet just a few minutes outside of Kalispell. It’s beautiful. No doubt the trained eye of a real estate professional could envision a nice home site or two tucked away on the valley floor.

And that’s the problem. Smith can see the development potential all too clearly and he’d rather see animals than houses. That’s why he and his wife Becca Hand-Smith, who works for a mortgage firm, recently finalized a conservation easement that will permanently protect 97 riverside acres on their property. Their property already has a 107-acre easement.

Given that they both work in real estate, the Smiths acknowledge they are unlikely advocates of a practice that takes valuable acres off the market. But they believe conservation easements are vital to the Flathead’s future. As development spreads across the valley, they don’t think every acre should have a price tag.

“You’d think we would be more development minded because of what we do for a living,” Hand-Smith said. “But preserving land like this helps preserve the value of the valley.”

The Smiths worked with the Montana Land Reliance, Flathead Land Trust and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks on their most recent easement. The easement was purchased in part with a grant through the North American Wetlands Conservation Act, a federal program administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Montana Land Reliance also holds the Smiths’ first easement, which was completed in 2000. Their property is located east of Kalispell off Columbia Falls Stage Road.

The Montana Land Reliance is the largest fully accredited private land trust in the country, working exclusively in Montana. The trust holds 771 conservation easements protecting nearly 900,000 acres. Last year, it executed 20 easements for roughly 29,000 acres statewide, including four easements for 942 acres out of the Glacier/Flathead office.

The terms of the easements ensure that no homes will ever be built on the protected acreage, a stipulation that Mark Schiltz of the Montana Land Reliance says is uncommon. Landowners entering into easement agreements often want to allow for some residential development, Schiltz said.

“They gave up a lot,” Schiltz said of the Smiths. “They did it because they want it to be a sanctuary for wildlife.”

Farming is permitted through the easements and several local farmers currently grow wheat and peppermint on the Smiths’ land. Schiltz said many people don’t understand that easements can allow land to remain productive. The Flathead’s prime farmland in the east and lower valleys is home to a cluster of conservation easements.

“I wish more farmers understood that easements don’t restrict their farming,” Schiltz said.

Smith’s mother Annick Smith, a writer and filmmaker, donated a 163-acre conservation easement in the Blackfoot Valley through the Montana Land Reliance in 1996. Hand-Smith also comes from a conservation-minded family. Schiltz said the Smiths recognize how important conservation is to the valley’s long-term viability.

“The people who have the foresight to look at their land this way know there are short-term gains and long-term gains,” Schiltz said, “and this is a long-term gain for the valley.”

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