Montana Association of Land Trusts

Private Land Conservation

Glenn Marx
Executive Director
PO Box 892
Helena, MT 59624

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 four in the series.

Rock Ringling Rock Ringling

April 2010

Rock Ringling is a managing director of the Montana Land Reliance and has been involved in Montana private land conservation for twenty years. He was born in the White Sulphur Springs area and as a child lived on the family’s Smith River ranch. Later, his family moved to Springdale near Livingston and then in 1967 the Ringling family moved east to a ranch between Miles City and Ekalaka, and Rock’s father still resides on the ranch. Rock attended Montana State University and graduated from the University of Montana. In spring of 1986 he and his wife, Bobbi, settled in Helena and in 1990 he was recruited into the world of private land conservation by the Montana Land Reliance. Although his plan was always to return to the ranch in eastern Montana he said he “kinda hasn’t made it back there yet.” Rock is a recognized state and national leader in private land conservation. The Montana Land Reliance holds over 700 conservation easements that protect over 830,000 acres of open land. He and Bobbi have owned the historic Sanders Bed & Breakfast in Helena for 25 years.

Q: The name “Ringling” conjures up images of trains and elephants and circuses.

A: My great-grandfather, Alf T. Ringling, was one of the five Ringling brothers who founded the Ringling Brothers Circus in 1884. Then my grandfather and his uncle, John, who was the youngest of the Ringling brothers, decided to settle in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. They liked the country, ran sheep, and also built a little railroad from Leaderville, which is now the town of Ringling, up to White Sulphur Springs.

My grandfather, Richard, married a local White Sulphur Springs woman named Aubrey Black, and commuted between White Sulphur and Sarasota and New York, for the circus. My dad was born on a circus work trip in New York, and his lament has always been he wished his mother could have held on until she was back in Montana to give birth.

My dad was raised in White Sulphur on the ranch. After WWII he left the circus and took over running the Ringling ranches around White Sulphur. And so we lucked out - we got to grow up in Montana and not on the circus trains.

Q: How did an eastern Montana ranch kid like you end up a long-time professional in the world of private land conservation?

A: Part of it was fate.

Deeper underneath that is that my dad truly was and is an “environmental rancher.” I always accused him of being a closet birder - a member in good standing with the Audubon Society. Dad really truly did believe that agriculture provided for wildlife habitat - for birds, water quality and such - and you could run a ranch and have all those wildlife and natural attributes.

Then, while growing up in Montana, I always appreciated the vast open space we have here. And for a long time I’ve been concerned about rural subdivisions and the fragmentation of agricultural lands. I think that agricultural production and the role it plays not only in the United States but worldwide has always taken a backseat to a very well-defined real estate policy in the US. I think you can look over the past three years and see where that real estate policy has pluses and minuses.

But the sheer loss of productive agricultural land is a concern. One of my favorite little statistics these days is in 1880 there was an acre of arable land for every man, woman and child in the world. At the end of 2008 there was a half acre of arable land for every man, woman and child in the world. And as we in America develop more farmland and ranch ground we’re forcing agricultural production and food production onto smaller lands all the time. That has always been a concern of mine, and one of the attractions about land trusts is that they provide the preservation of an agricultural base. Once you develop it, and lose that agricultural base, it’s gone.

Q: That leads to the next question. Rumor has it you came up with the bumper sticker “Cows not Condos.”

A: Thinking of myself as a bit of a wit, occasionally (laughs), I did come up with that. One day in a conversation I was asked, What is the Montana Land Reliance all about? And my answer was, Well, you know, we sort of like cows more than we like condominiums. That got shortened to “Cows not Condos” and it sort of sums us up around here. Nothing wrong with condominiums, but we’re much more orientated to production agriculture.

We’re sort of the undevelopers.

Q: Define the Montana Land Reliance business model.

A: (Pauses) I can try. Our philosophy has always been that we trust private landowners to do what’s right. And we look at private land conservation as a way for private landowners to take their goals for their property further into the future.

The business model, if you will, is the facilitation of those transactions. The Montana Land Reliance was able to work on those transactions in two different ways. We live in a large rural state, we’re largely a low income western state, so we knew we could not support the type of private land conservation in Montana using Montana’s financial resources. The resources - public state funding - just weren’t available.

If you look historically at the west, whether you were a merchant, a gold miner or anything else, you looked to bring in your resources - capital - to do the job. And as the Montana Land Reliance was working with private landowners we looked around and asked, Okay, Who benefits from the work of the Montana Land Reliance? Who really benefits from the conservation easements that we do? And we decided who benefited the most were mostly people from the coasts - either the east coast or west coast where there was a higher degree of wealth - who came to Montana for recreational activities. And we developed the Montana Land Reliance business model to work with both the in-state landowners who want to conserve their land and those people who came to Montana to recreate. We melded those two together into a business model that continues today.

Q: And the Montana Land Reliance focuses on agricultural properties and donated easements?

A: Yes. That’s the way we want to operate, and again, it’s truly a reflection of economics in the west. There are 60 million acres of private land in Montana and if you look at the ability of the state to publicly finance that scale of land conservation….there just is not enough capital to purchase the development rights across that kind of landscape.

When the Montana Land Reliance started out there was no public money. None. Everything was private. As you move forward here in 2010 there is a modest amount of public funding available, but there is still not enough public money to go out and purchase development rights across the state, especially in places where we operate outside the urban areas that are truly rural. I mean truly rural. Where the population of a county might be 2,500 people. There is no open space bond money and targeted government money just isn’t available. So what is available? Donated conservation easements and working with people on other needs, such as succession planning.

Now, are there a lot of conservation easements the Montana Land Reliance is not going to be able to participate in because we work with donated and not purchased easements? Yes. But we fill a niche, and there’s still a very active niche there.

Q: One of the more intriguing ways the Montana Land Reliance raises funds from folks on the coasts is to take them fishing in Montana on what is called “The Trout Route.” So let me ask you this, is it possible to fish too much?

A: No. That’s the short answer.

Q: What’s the long answer?

A: The long answer is: Absolutely not. (Laughs)

100 days in Montana fishing is not enough. People tend to migrate toward dry fly fishing these days and you can’t fish too much when right down the road you’ve got places like the tailwaters of the Missouri River between, say, Holter Dam and the Craig/Cascade section of the river. That’s some of the best dry fly fishing in the world. And you can’t fish there too often or too long.

I have other places that I thoroughly enjoy that in the tradition of trout fishing shall go unnamed. (Laughs)

Q: One of the major Montana Land Reliance conservation easements is the Hibbard easement north of Helena. In many ways it also is a good example of the way MLR operates. Walk us through the lengthy negotiations and discussions that took place on the Hibbard ranch north of Helena.

A: Well, the Hibbard easement is a good example about how private land conservation works and about how private landowners work. A member of the Hibbard family, Chase Hibbard, was one of the members of the original Montana Land Reliance board back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. So he knew about private land conservation, and his brother, Scott Hibbard, was on the MLR board in the early 1990s. In talking with them, we knew the Hibbard family - four generations of the Hibbard family - always wanted for the ranch land to stay intact.

But like a lot of landowners, they did not want to make any decisions that would adversely impact the economics of the ranch where it might have to leave family hands. So they grappled with that from about 1980 to about 2008…trying to put all those financial and ranch management pieces together while at the same time keeping the family together on the ranch in order to make succession planning work.

And it seems like an incredibly long time (1980 to 2008), but working through family dynamics in a lot of ways is the same as building up genetics in a herd of cattle. It takes about 15-20 years before you kind of get it all figured out. It takes time to get yourself as a landowner comfortable with one of the most conservative decisions that you can possibly make. Private land conservation is inherently conservative. It’s a very conservative action to make the decision to leave something as it is. That’s about as conservative as you can get.

Having said that, it takes a long time to get it right. And I think the Hibbard family should really be commended from the standpoint that they did the work, they saw laws change, they kept in touch with the MLR every year, family members grew up, kids graduated from college, new decision makers came into the family, but at the end of the day, they really did what they wanted to do, which was keep the ranch in the family. They got it right, and you have to respect that. And private land conservation is what made that possible.

Q: Among the many accomplishments of the Montana Land Reliance is the discussion you and Bill Long (former MLR managing director) had that eventually became nationally-recognized and congressionally-approved legislation in the form of federal conservation tax incentives. How did all that start and what was MLR’s involvement?

A: Like a lot of things that happened in Montana it began during a conversation during a long drive. Bill and I had a lot of long drives together across Montana and we’d talk about what we saw as a disincentive for production agriculture within the financial framework of donated conservation easements. Generally, what we saw was that if you were in agriculture and you wanted to donate an easement, unless you were doing it for estate tax purposes, there really were no benefits from an income tax deduction standpoint. If you had a ranch or farm you generally had enough cattle or equipment you were depreciating to the point where there really weren’t any income tax reasons to do a conservation easement.

But recreation buyers who were coming to Montana had a certain amount of wealth and a demonstrated need for a tax deduction, since they had high cash flows and significant tax exposure. So they could use the tax incentives that existed then.

So while Bill and I were driving across the state we kept talking about ways to equalize the disparity we saw between the ranch owner and recreational buyer within the federal tax code.

Our first idea was that if you met certain criteria as an agriculture producer, you’d be eligible to receive a tax credit. We were told by Senator Grassley in the Senate Finance and Claims Committee that tax credits weren’t going to work. But he asked us what we thought about 100 percent deductibility (farmers and ranchers being able to deduct up to 100 percent of their federal income taxes based on the donated value of the easement for up to 15 years) and we said…Well, that would work!

An important part of the full deductibility was that the carry-forward of the unused portion of the deduction would be consistent with other parts of the tax code (15 years) so the cyclical part of agriculture was taken into account.

The incentives also raised the non-agriculture deduction to 50 percent (it was 30 percent) because over the years as Congress reduced taxes the 30 percent deduction didn’t make sense to many landowners. These were great incentives to not subdivide or fragment the farm or ranch, and the incentives worked pretty well.

(Note: The tax incentives were in place from 2006-09, but expired at the end of 2009. A major effort is underway to extend the tax incentives or make them a permanent part of the tax code.)

Q: You’ve been involved in private land conservation in Montana for twenty years. How has it changed, where is it going, and what are its challenges?

A: The biggest change I’ve seen in private land conservation is the advent of public money. When the Montana Land Reliance started out, there really wasn’t any public money. And as that public money has become available it has changed, to a certain extent, private land conservation. It has also brought in new people. As public money has become available it has enabled in a very positive way local communities to have their own land trust. These land trusts can work, say, in a more dense urban setting than the Montana Land Reliance, who works in truly a more rural setting.

Another change public money has brought about is the facilitation of trails work and public parks, and it has facilitated the purchase of private lands into public hands. Things we didn’t see back when MLR was getting started.

Also, when you have more players you have more success with more land coming under protection and conservation easements, and with that success came more political scrutiny. This scrutiny came in a very positive way because I think it helped people recognize that private land conservation is an exercise of private property rights and that it’s important to Montanans. Private land conservation policy became an item that legislators and policy makers needed to take a look at and decide if it was something they wanted to see continue. And I think that’s happened. Private land conservation has been discussed, studied, debated and legislated, and people want it to continue.

Looking ahead, the challenges for private land conservation is that there are so many people involved in conservation that one of the big challenges is going to be communication. Another challenge is going to be the unified proper direction of expenditures of public money. Another challenge is because of the sheer volume of conservation easements in the state of Montana the monitoring and caring of those easements going forward is going to a greater and greater burden that people are going to have to pay attention to.

And the other challenge - probably the biggest challenge I see in Montana private land conservation - is bringing new people in. There are a lot of us who have been around awhile, and it would be wise for us to bring in new board members who are in their 30s and staff members who are in their 20s. The next generation will be raised with different experiences and different expectations and they’ll redefine private land conservation and how it will be supported. It’s going to be interesting to see how that transforms.

Q: Why is what you do so important to you?

A: (Pauses) It’s important to me because at times in America I think we have incentives for the wrong reasons that lead to the wrong outcomes. I have a deep and abiding love for the open spaces of Montana, I love working on deals, I’m proud of my work for the Montana Land Reliance and I like the fact that I can drive anywhere in Montana - anywhere - and I can drive by conservation easements that have been completed by the Montana Land Reliance or Prickly Pear Land Trust or Five Valleys Land Trust or The Nature Conservancy that will protect land in perpetuity. That land will always be available for agriculture, and is always going to be available for fish and wildlife habitat.

And I have enough of an ego to think that the private landowners of Montana in conjunction with land trusts have utilized the tax and land protection incentives the right way. We’re going to leave a legacy that my grandkids and others can appreciate, because you know what, they’re just not making more open land these days. And I like that legacy. I like the way open land looks.

Q: In one of your early TNC columns you wrote, “Our strength lies in our dedication to conservation that delivers benefits for the ages.” In your mind, why is that so important?

A: With each of us, you have to go back and ask what you think your purpose in life is. What intrigues me is that people in every generation come along and pick up the conservation gauntlet. I’m just so impressed by the people who had the vision to create Yellowstone National Park. To save Yosemite, they fought every fight.

People in our generation are continuing that tradition. We’re saying perpetuity is important… that it’s important to protect opportunities for people 200 years from now to reconnect with nature. If we lose the places where the wild things live, we lose a lot of our soul. That connection is critically important to us as people.

I think one of the great values of what TNC and other groups are doing is staking places on Planet Earth and saying, “These places are really significant.” We’re creating a constituency for why these wild places are important and need to be protected. And that’s the defining difference of the work that other groups do. We’re talking permanence so that 200 years from now, people can say they saw a grizzly bear or a Canada lynx, and we’re talking about honoring our promise of stewardship to future generations.

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