Out past the hummingbirds and house finches lingering near the feeders on the porch, Clifford and Shirley Brenneman look east through their kitchen window at emerald green fields of grain rolling toward the wall of mountains rising from the valley floor.
New hotels, subdivisions and chain restaurants are announced with increasing frequency in Flathead County, home to Montana’s second fastest-growing population and a booming recreation industry built on its surrounding rivers, lakes and thickly forested mountains.
But Clifford Brenneman, who last month inked a conservation easement on his 155-acre farm bordering a meandering slough of the Flathead River, says the view from his porch has changed little since his father bought the land in 1951.
“It’s beautiful,” he said, smiling down on the pastoral view from his kitchen table. “When you look over the back end, with the mountains there, I thought, if it all gets into housing, there won’t be much beauty left.”
After first toying with the idea four years ago, Brenneman and his wife now have a permanent easement to preserve their piece of the Flathead Valley’s agricultural heritage.
Mark Schiltz, who helps coordinate conservation easements out of the Montana Land Reliance’s Bigfork office, said it’s the latest of several land use agreements along Steel Bridge Road that will permanently prevent future subdivisions and restrict commercial development to agricultural operations.
His organization, a nonprofit based in Helena, focuses on preserving the state’s open land, a strategy that has helped secure conservation easements on nearly 1 million acres of private land throughout the state.
“One of the reasons we’ve been so successful is we protect farmland,” he said. “We believe the landowner is truly the original sustainable operator.”
Already this year, the Montana Land Reliance has seen growing interest in conservation easements throughout the state after a set of federal tax incentives was permanently authorized last December as part of Congress’ omnibus spending bill.
The organization was a driving force behind the 2006 passage of a federal tax incentive that allowed property owners to deduct the value of donated conservation easements from their income taxes.
The open lands group’s eastern manager, Kendall Van Dyk, said the deductions were bundled with other tax breaks that would be reauthorized some years while at other times lapsing from the tax code.
“It made it really complicated, when you’re talking to someone in April, especially a traditional landowner, and they’d ask what the tax implications are, and you’d have to look at them and say, ‘Well, it kind of depends on what happens mid-December this year.’”
Along with the permanent authorization, the deduction’s cap was raised to allow easement holders to apply it to 100 percent of their income, spread out over 15 years.
“That’s really for folks who are making a living on the land,” Van Dyk said. “Higher-income earners can burn through a tax deduction in no time, but it didn’t necessarily pencil out for someone making a living on a cow check.”
From an environmental standpoint, the Brenneman property was a valuable conservation easement.
It spans meadows and wetlands bordering more than a mile of shoreline, including Brenneman Slough — a spring-fed tributary to the Flathead River that rarely freezes over in the winter and provides migratory waterfowl with an oasis of open water on the valley’s frozen landscape.
But Schiltz said the property is also an important part of a disappearing legacy of working farms that for most of a century formed the bedrock of the Flathead’s economy.
“When you look at the valley here, we’re not going to run out of room to build houses, but we are running out of agricultural lands,” he said. “The number of farms has actually increased, but they’re smaller. This area started as ag. That’s what really settled the valley.”
Beholden to commodities prices, farmers are used to economic ups and downs, and Clifford Brenneman knows firsthand the difficulty of keeping the family business afloat.
“There’s not much of a way that you can buy land and farm it and even make poor interest,” he said.
Local farms already feeling the pinch from last year’s poor growing season likely face continued drops in grain prices. Schiltz said financial incentives for easements often provide a needed cushion for struggling farmers.
Savings from the easement deduction, along with a grant to partially compensate them for the easement, will go toward keeping the Brennemans’ land in the hands of their seven children.
Brenneman can still remember his father’s herculean effort to clear the cottonwood trees from the land after buying it in the 1950s. Gone are Clifford’s days of working in the fields, but he said he still relishes the chance to watch newborn calves clumsily “trying out their new legs.”
Seated across the table from him, Shirley talked of the eagles, herons and pheasants that frequent the property, and she’s glad it will remain a family farm once she and her husband have passed away.
“It’s a place the children have always wanted to come back to,” she said.
For Schiltz, keeping the land in farmers’ hands is part of a larger effort to retain the Flathead Valley’s charm, which he worries could become its own undoing.
“People that move here want that agricultural land and those traditional values. But by developing it you’re actually destroying that,” he said. “By establishing these easements, you’re creating value for everybody. When you’re driving down the highway and you see an open field, that makes people feel good.”
Reporter Sam Wilson can be reached at 758-4407 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.