Saving land for the future

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Johnston hikes through the snow on some of the land that he has protected from development through a conservation easement brokered by the Flathead Land Trust. Garrett Cheen/Daily Inter Lake

Couple puts prime riverfront property into conservation easement

Dr. Glenn Johnston remembers clearing rocks from the grain field his father farmed, then using those rocks to build a strikingly visible rock monument on top of a nearby glacial drumlin.

That was 1947, and the rock monument still stands, often causing new neighbors to wonder if it's an American Indian monument or something of that nature.

It is a monument to Johnston's long attachment to the land, nearly 700 acres of which recently was protected from development for perpetuity under a donated conservation easement that was brokered by the Flathead Land Trust.

It is the largest single-ownership easement ever executed on the Flathead Valley floor, said Marilyn Wood, executive director of the trust.

Johnston and his wife, Hazel, also donated the development rights as opposed to selling them. They retain ownership of the land, which can have traditional uses such as farming and recreation, but can never be subdivided or developed.

And it is ecologically rich and diverse land.

Just off Columbia Falls Stage Road is a sprawling, snow-covered stubble field that has been leased for farming since the 1960s. The field transitions into a vast stand of ancient ponderosa pines, easily one of the largest of its kind remaining in the Flathead Valley. Below the ponderosas is a mixed conifer forest leading to ponds and marshland.

The Johnstons' home is located high on a bluff overlooking the most easterly channel in a braided section of the Flathead River. The Johnston property includes forested islands and more than a mile of river frontage.

Back in 1961, when there was still plenty of undeveloped land in the valley, Hungry Horse News Editor Mel Ruder wrote an article that characterized the Johnston property as "one last bit of remaining wilderness" in the Flathead Valley.

The land is teeming with wildlife, including turkeys and deer and waterfowl and even grizzly and black bears that occasionally wander through. Hazel Johnston said she mostly enjoys the wildlife, but for Glenn Johnston, it's the land as a whole.

"Having grown up here, I am steeped in the family history, and I had so many marvelous experiences with my father here as a boy."

It started with Johnston's grandfather Leroy in the 1880s and was pieced together with additional acquisitions over decades to form the single, 700-acre parcel - a rarity in a valley where rural areas have been gradually subdivided.

The decision to protect it through an easement wasn't difficult, the Johnstons say. But it did require the support of their son, Mark, his wife, Joan, and their daughter, Katie.

"Even as land values have skyrocketed Ö I would rather own what we have intact rather than having the money," says Glenn Johnston, who retired 10 years ago and returned to the property with Hazel after a career as a psychiatrist in Utah. "My son, his wife and my granddaughter feel the same way."

Johnston recalls being advised differently years ago by a real estate consultant.

"I remember so clearly he said, 'Don't ever fall in love with the land. It will interfere with your business decisions,'" he said. "Over the years I have thought about that."

And Johnston eventually came to a different conclusion: "What better thing is there to fall in love with?" he said.

Hazel also was advised differently by an unwitting real estate agent who recently stopped to talk with her at the mailbox on Columbia Falls Stage Road. The man said he represented a California client and asked her if she knew who owned the property.

Hazel replied that she happened to know that the property would soon be protected through a conservation easement.

"Stupid, stupid, stupid," the man said, according to Hazel. "Do they know how much money they are throwing away?"

"He didn't even know who I was," she says with a chuckle.

Glenn Johnston said there have been several offers for the property over time, but he has never been inclined to consider them.

The decision to go with a conservation easement is also grounded in estate planning. An enhanced federal tax incentive that expired at the end of 2007 prodded the Johnstons to seal the deal before the end of the year.

The Johnstons now will be able to apply a charitable federal tax deduction over the next 15 years.

The tax benefits will help the Johnston family lessen the pain of federal estate taxes that will likely be steep when the land is passed on. Many people end up having to sell off part of the land they inherit just to pay the estate tax, and that might have been the case for the Johnston family.

"We probably couldn't keep this intact without an easement," he said.

Another major consideration in the decision to pursue a conservation easement was the Flathead Land Trust's leadership in a "River-to-Lake Initiative" aimed at developing a series of protected properties along the Flathead River.

According to Wood, there are now 20 easements along the river - some of them brokered through other conservation partnerships - that provide protection for nearly 5,000 acres. Combined with about 1,500 acres of public lands, a veritable greenbelt to protect water quality and fish and wildlife is gradually being pieced together.

"It's a real impressive commitment for all those landowners," Wood said.

And the Johnston easement, in particular, will serve as leverage in acquiring grants that can be used to secure future easements.

"This is going to help us leverage other projects down the river," Wood said. "In order to get those grants, we have to show that these kinds of projects get done. This piece will help us do that for several years."

For the Johnstons, being part of a broader conservation effort was an important incentive.

"That helps us feel like we're not the lone stranger," Hazel said.

Reporter Jim Mann may be reached at 758-4407 or by e-mail at jmann@dailyinterlake.com

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