Landowners keep an eye on the future

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Last year was a big year for conservation easements in the Flathead Valley, with a series of landowners making important decisions that will help maintain the quality of life locally for generations to come.

Most significant, perhaps, were a donated easement from Glenn and Hazel Johnston that protected some 700 acres, plus easements purchased from Tom and Terry Siderius, Charles Siderius and Dan Siderius that combined to protect about 670 acres.

All the property protected by these families include rich farmlands and Flathead River islands and frontage.

There were many other easements that were brokered last year through a variety of partnerships with nonprofit organizations and government agencies, and they were preceded by many generous easements in recent years.

A broad effort called the River-to-Lake Initiative has so far led to the protection from development of 5,000 acres along the Flathead River, with easements that allow for traditional uses such as farming and timber harvesting.

The value of these often-selfless contributions should be as plain as the new retail stores or subdivisions that you drive past each day.

Booming development in the Flathead Valley needs some sort of counterweight, and landowners are providing it of their own accord, often in the most critical areas.

The importance of open space often comes up in planning board meetings, and open space or park land often is required as a fraction of a subdivision or other development. Those who have signed on to conservation easements, however, are guaranteeing big chunks of open space for generations to come.

And they are not providing just an aesthetic value, such as a quaint barn on a sweeping grain field that will please the eye of a person driving by - there are enormous ecological benefits as well.

The University of Montana's Flathead Biological Station, for instance, has amassed volumes of research on the nature of the Flathead River flood plain.

The station's top scientists for years have insisted on the importance of maintaining a dynamic flood plain, one that is not hemmed in by roads and riprap and structures. They can show in detail how life - from insects to fish, birds and wildlife - emanates from the flood plain. And they can show how a healthy flood plain maintains water quality and the condition of Flathead Lake.

It is heartening that there are so many landowners who understand and appreciate these are major elements in the local quality of life.

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