Montana Association of Land Trusts

Private Land Conservation

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Glenn Marx
Executive Director
PO Box 892
Helena, MT 59624
406-490-1659
montanamalt@q.com

Conservation Conversations

Conservation Conversations is a 12-part series of interviews from the Montana Association of Land Trusts that seeks to present a deeper and broader understanding of private land conservation and the work of Montana’s land trusts. Each month in 2010, a leader within the Montana land trust community will voice their personal perspectives about the value private land conservation brings to Montana’s landscape, to the people of Montana and Montana’s economy. The interviews are conducted by Glenn Marx, executive director of the Montana Association of Land Trusts. This is number one in the series.


Jim Cusker

January 2010

Jim Cusker, age 77, is a retired high school science teacher who deeply respects farms and ranches and open land. He is president of the Five Valleys Land Trust board of directors, a member of the Missoula County Open Lands Working Group, and a former 4-H leader who has been living on - and working at - the Cusker family ranch in the Grass Valley of Missoula County since he was six years old. His family moved to Grass Valley from Wolf Point in 1938, and during his years as a public school teacher he worked his ranch during the summers and when not in the classroom. He is respected and admired for his views, his commitment and his abilities, and has been a Missoula County conservation and agricultural leader for decades.

Q: You’ve seen some substantial changes here around Missoula, haven’t you?

A: I grew up on a little ranch after my parents moved here from Wolf Point, and I’ve seen an astounding change in land use during the past 70 years. As a kid growing up coming to school, every place I passed before entering the city was an active farm or ranch. That’s very, very different now. Now there are residences, a big box store and commercial businesses, and the farms and ranches are gone.

When I was growing up, everyone realized the value of the land. The land sustained us, and we sustained the land. It troubled me that as time went on I saw some of the original ranch descendents were now looking at the land in a different way. They were looking at the land in a way of “how can I get the most money from it?” When the land was sold for development - not agricultural - purposes, it troubled me greatly.

So when the opportunity arose to be more active in conservation work after I retired from teaching, I jumped at the chance to do so. The work with Five Valleys Land Trust, and with some of my neighbors, has been very rewarding.

Q: What does the word “conservation” mean to you?

A: It means conserving the natural values that exist at the property. It means preserving the property from encroaching development. It means preservation of the soil for future generations and ensuring crop production for years into the future. There are other values out there that are associated with farms and ranches that are truly important as well…stream corridors, riparian zones, the quality of the water and the wildlife that inhabit those areas.

Q: You taught high school science for 40 years in Missoula. When you retired, a NewWest article about you said your ranch became your new classroom and the preservation of agriculture land was your new curriculum. Can you talk a little about that?

A: Well, conservation was always something I was extremely interested in. From an early age, I had a feeling that land needed to be preserved for agricultural purposes. Retirement has been good in that I can focus more on this interest, to the point that I wonder how I ever found time to teach.

One thing I did at least 20 years ago was completely fence the riparian zone of the ranch. We’ve got about two miles of the Clark Fork River running through our ranch, and cattle can be destructive on new seedlings near rivers and streams. I obtained a small grant and we protect that river reach now.

I’ve been approached by university professors and conservation organizations who’ve asked to bring their classes or groups out to see what we’ve done with the property or asked me to speak on the subject of conservation, and I’m very pleased to do so.

Q: In 1998, you placed your ranch in a conservation easement held by Five Valleys Land Trust. Why’d you do that?

A: Since I felt so strongly about the value of that property and its agricultural productivity, and as I learned more about how conservation easements work, I thought this would be a nifty way to make sure this place was protected…forever.

We live in a kind of little valley, and my parents worried about the ranch next door possibly being developed, and (smiling) I think they always wondered a little about what my brother and I would do with the place as well. So when a chance came up to protect our ranch, I jumped at it.

Q: You’re quoted as saying your parents would be proud of the conservation easement. Why?

A: Well, if they’re looking in from time to time, they’re not going to have to worry about the place covered with asphalt and homes every half-acre.

And a very, very neat thing happened just two years ago. Our present neighbors on the adjoining ranch became active in Five Valleys Land Trust and placed their property under a conservation easement. I feel good about that; I feel good knowing the place next door my folks had always enjoyed looking at is permanently protected.

Q: In 2002, four full years after the easement was placed on your property, you joined the Five Valleys Land Trust board. Why’d you decide to do that?

A: It started gradually.

First, I realized when I placed the easement on the ranch that Wendy Ninteman (Five Valleys Land Trust executive director at the time) was someone I could work with. She was extremely helpful and I was very impressed with her and the land trust.

When one of the Five Valleys board members at the time asked me if I would help on the land trust’s banquet committee, I said sure. I did for two or three years. Then I was asked if I was interested in serving on the board. All of the time, between 1998 and 2002, I became even more acquainted with Five Valleys work, and I thought it was definitely an organization I wanted to help.

Q: That leads right into the next question, which is from your perspective, how important to Montana is the work land trusts do?

A: I see no other way, really, how private land can be protected in perpetuity.

Of course, conservation easements don’t just happen. Land trusts have to be there to work with the landowner to set up the easement in ways in which everyone is comfortable.

As far as protecting agricultural land, forestland or scenic views, there is no better way than with a conservation easement.

Q: Can you tell the story about the irrigation pipe photos?

A: (Laughs) Well. It happened when I was on the County Open Lands Working Group, a committee I was appointed to by the county commissioners. The assignment to the committee members was to investigate tools to conserve agriculture and timbered lands in Missoula County. We were a countywide group, and it was essential that all reaches of the county be heard from. We were told to go back to our region and bring back photographs of lands we felt should be conserved.

I didn’t realize at the time, I guess, but I brought back many pictures of irrigated farmland with working irrigation pipes and sprinklers, because I think a way you conserve and improve land is by irrigating it. It was a subconscious think on my part, I guess, but irrigation is one of the parts about farming and ranching I enjoy most. It thrills me to get the water to the land and have it respond with growth and green vegetation in a highly productive way.

Q: Missoula County is one of four counties in Montana that have passed open lands bond measures. Has the open land program in Missoula County made a difference in land conservation?

A: An open land bond program is certainly one tool we can use to conserve land.

We in Missoula County realized the importance and the value of conservation easements as a tool, and we also realized that not everyone can afford to donate all or a portion of the easement. Not everyone is in a position to take advantage of the possible federal income tax breaks.

So if a landowner is “land rich and cash poor” and a developer comes along with an offer, the landowner may not have the option of conserving that land. On the other hand, if the landowner can be reimbursed for the value of the easement itself, then they would be - hopefully - more eager to go the conservation route.

So one of the main tools that the Missoula Open Lands Working Group highly recommended was the open space bond. The commissioners accepted the recommendation, and the voters also endorsed the recommendation.

During the first year the county open land bond funds were available, many projects came forward, were reviewed almost immediately and approved. Land trusts had been working on them for years and had been trying to find funds for a purchased easement. Some federal programs require matching funds, and the open land bond funds were now available for the final little bit of money to help fund some marvelous projects.

Things have slowed down a bit, in part because it takes so much time to put together the project and funding for the easement. But my feeling is purchased conservation easements are going to become more common than donated easements simply because the landowners need reimbursement so they can stay on the land to farm and ranch.

Q: People say you’re not anti-development, but you’re pro-agriculture. What’s that mean?

A: Well, certainly development is inevitable. And there are places where you can build homes and businesses and won’t encroach upon the agricultural lands of the Missoula Valley. There were only 26,000 acres of land with soils designated “prime” by the Natural Resources and Conservation Service, and a lot of it happened to be in the Hellgate and Grass Valley areas where I grew up. They are among the highest productivity soils in Montana.

Keep in mind the designation of “prime” soils in Montana usually means irrigated ground because of the lack of precipitation in Montana to realize the potential of such fertile soils. On a worldwide basis there is just not that much land designated as prime.

These 26,000 acres in Missoula County are highly productive, but unfortunately they can grow anything, even buildings. They are typically on level ground so it’s an easy place for development. Those are areas I would suggest should not be developed. These soils are a natural resource and have been described as a national treasure by the USDA Soils Handbook, which suggests that government at all levels should strive to protect this treasure.

So am I anti-development? I’d have to say I am if you’re building homes and businesses on prime soil. It is easy to find other areas in the county, where we don’t see highly productive soil, where development can occur. There are some folks who don’t like to see houses on the hillsides…I’m not one of those. When they build on hillsides they may spoil the scenic view, but they for sure are not destroying the agricultural potential of the lands those buildings occupy.

So there are places we can build - and those are the places we ought to build - and not destroy this national treasure of our prime soils.

Q: Someday all of us are going to leave this place called earth. How do you want to be remembered, Jim?

A: (Laughs) I would certainly hope that the many students I taught received something of substance from my teaching.

From the conservation point of view, I hope my personal family appreciates the fact that the family ranch will be there forever. If my descendents are (smiles) stupid enough to give the land up, whoever the new landowner is…is bound by the terms of the easement.

And as far as my work in conservation goes, I guess I’d like to be remembered as someone who cared deeply for the land and did everything I could to protect it.


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