The 2010 National Land Trust Census, released in mid-November, reveals information that from a Montana standpoint is both illustrative and encouraging.

The land trust census is produced by the Land Trust Alliance based on information from America's land trusts. It is conducted every five years with the information just released highlighting a five-year period ending in 2010. The data reflect national and state-by-state trends among land trusts, nonprofit organizations that work with landowners on agreements - conservation easements - that protect working farms, ranches and forests.

Montana landowners and communities have long been recognized as a private land conservation leader, and the 2010 census validates that recognition. The census found these trends within Montana from 2005-2010:

• Land trusts in Montana have protected 1,130,808 acres - this represents a 41 percent increase in acres conserved since 2005. Montana ranks fourth in the nation in acres conserved, and first in the Northwest.

• Montana increased its full- and part-time staff and contractors 23 percent in five years, for a total of 91 paid positions in 2010.

• Land trusts in Montana drew upon the work of 579 active volunteers (an increase of 37 percent since 2005) and the contributions of 5,283 members and financial supporters.

• As a signal of the land trust community's commitment to excellence, there are now three accredited land trusts in Montana. Together, these three groups have protected 954,624 acres as of 2010.

It is significant to note that during troubled economic years, Montana private land conservation continued to flourish, a testament to the commitment of landowners and land trust supporters.

When you consider conservation easements that landowners have entered into with land trusts, and state or federal government agencies, Montana - and Montanans - have protected more than 2.1 million acres of private land since the first Montana conservation easement was signed back in 1976. That is a remarkable achievement.

While maintaining a beneficial pace of conservation, Montana land trusts have also ramped up commitment to professional excellence. Three members of the Montana Association of Land Trusts have achieved accreditation from the National Land Trust Accreditation Commission, the highest standard for land trust excellence. Four additional Montana land trusts either are or soon will be engaged in the exhaustive accreditation approval process.

For decades Montanans have intuitively understood the value of private land conservation. Montanans have ensured that we have a variety of local, state and national land trust organizations to enable this work within our borders, and the number of Montanans who volunteer for and support these efforts continues to grow. For example, Montana land trust volunteers increased by 37 percent between 2005-2010. Their energy and passion are integral to the stunning success of land trusts in recent years.

True recognition, however, belongs to Montana landowners. A land trust holds a conservation easement, and that easement is essentially a promise to the landowner and to the public that the terms of that easement will be permanently honored. It is Montana landowners who make a decision to benefit us all by voluntarily conserving working lands, wildlife habitat, open lands, intact forests and outdoor recreation. Land trusts serve to proudly and professionally hold and enforce that landowner decision.

On the 35th anniversary of Montana's first conservation easement it is encouraging, but not surprising, that the 2010 National Land Trust Census finds Montanans striving for excellence in and expanding our support for private land conservation.

Grant Kier is the executive director of Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula, an accredited land trust. He is also chairman of the Montana Association of Land Trusts executive committee. Visit land-trusts/land-trust-census/census for more information about the land trust census.


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