10 Frequently Asked Questions About Montana Land Trusts

Blasdel Waterfowl Production Area Courtesy of Flathead Land Trust

The Montana Association of Land Trusts (MALT) was created in 2005 to help maintain a Montana policy climate that allows the work of the land trust community to flourish. MALT was created by 12 land trusts, and these 12 members help fund MALT’s operations through a membership dues structure. In addition to a public policy focus, a key MALT function is to work with the membership to support excellence in private voluntary land conservation in Montana through leadership, collaboration, education and outreach.

Here’s a brief series of questions and answers intended to address some of the basic uncertainties about how and what land trusts do.


What is the Montana Association of Land Trusts?

The Montana Association of Land Trusts is a membership association comprised of 12 individual nonprofit land trusts in Montana. MALT is not a stand alone nonprofit entity, and is administratively attached to Prickly Pear Land Trust.


What does the Montana Association of Land Trusts do?

MALT works to coordinate its members on local, state and national program and policy efforts, and serves essentially as a policy leader for its membership. MALT is officially registered with the Montana Secretary of State and is headquartered in Helena, Montana. MALT staff engages regularly with state officials, the Montana Legislature, and federal officials on a wide range of policies and programs, including the federal Farm Bill, Land and Water Conservation Fund, Montana’s open land statute, trails and parks programs, and more. MALT has two employees; an executive director and a partnership position with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. The partnership position is titled Montana ALE Program Coordinator (ALE stands for Agriculture Land Easements, a program created by the 2014 Farm Bill). The Montana ALE Program Coordinator is located in Bozeman, within the state NRCS office.


What do land trusts do?

Land trusts vary widely in their scope of work and project priorities. Generally, land trusts focus on two areas: They work with private landowners to conserve private lands through voluntary agreements called conservation easements. They also work to build and maintain community trails and local parks and expand outdoor recreational opportunities. Land trusts are not environmental advocacy groups in the traditional sense. They are project focused and partner focused. They partner with farmers and ranchers, forest owners, county governments, state and federal land and wildlife management agencies, outdoor recreation groups and others. Land trusts are private, independent, entrepreneurial nonprofit organizations.


Where do land trusts work?

It varies from land trust to land trust. For example, Prickly Pear Land Trust in Helena works in the area in and around Lewis and Clark County, and actively works to build and maintain the impressive Helena area trails system, and to also create and maintain community parks. Prickly Pear also partners with landowners and others on agricultural, open land and wildlife habitat conservation projects. The Montana Land Reliance, also based in Helena, works across Montana on agricultural conservation and wildlife habitat projects and has offices in Bozeman, Big Sky and the Flathead. Bitter Root Land Trust is based in Hamilton, works in Ravalli County, and focuses on agriculture conservation with some recent efforts on community parks and trails projects. Some land trusts work statewide, some in defined geographical areas; some work to conserve specific wildlife habitats.


Land trusts are different from each other?

Yes. Land trusts have many attributes in common, but each land trust in Montana has its own priorities, focus, mission, and goals. Some Montana land trusts are state chapters of international or national conservation organizations. Others are regional or statewide in scope. Others work in carefully defined geographical areas within Montana. All the land trusts in Montana have a common thread running through them, and that thread is a dedication to private land conservation and to the communities they serve. There is a wealth of information throughout this website intended to provide more complete and detailed information about land trusts, conservation easements, trails and parks, healthy forests and the broad range of work that encompasses the phrase “private land conservation.”

Photo Courtesy of Gallatin Valley Land Trust


Are land trusts governmental entities?

No. Land trusts are not a branch of any governmental entity. Land trusts are private nonprofit organizations governed by a volunteer board of directors.


What does “land trust accreditation” mean?

If a land trust is accredited it means it is among the best of the best land trusts in the country. The Land Trust Accreditation Commission was incorporated in 2006 to help “operate an innovative program to build and recognize strong land trusts, foster public confidence in land conservation and help ensure the long-term protection of land.” The commission accomplishes those tasks through rigorous reviews that validate the professional, financial and transactional practices of land trusts. Of the roughly 1,400 land trusts in the U.S., 437 are accredited or reaccredited. Of MALT’s 12 members, 11 are accredited or reaccredited. Montana is number one in the nation for the number of conservation easements held by accredited land trusts and the percentage of conservation easement acres stewarded by accredited land trusts.


What is “community conservation?”

In the mid-1970s, when land trusts were new to Montana, they primarily worked with farmers and ranchers to voluntarily create conservation easements. While retaining a sharp focus on conservation easements, land trusts have since expanded their vision and service in other areas. Land trusts now cooperate with cities, towns and counties to build and maintain trail systems and local community parks. And while a typical land trust conservation easement is silent on the subject of recreational access, land trusts have expanded their partnerships to expand cooperative outdoor recreational access opportunities. The term “community conservation” can be loosely defined as land trusts serving their communities by working cooperatively with landowners and local governments to expand recreational and outdoor opportunities for everyone within the community. See the “Land Trust Parks & Trails” page on this website for examples of, and more information about, community conservation.


Can anyone start a land trust?

Not really. Montana Association of Land Trust members have worked diligently for decades to earn public trust in their communities and among their partner organizations. In addition, Montana land trusts have cooperated with the Land Trust Alliance on an exhaustive series of standards and practices for land trust professional and comprehensive guidelines, and are collaborating with the Land Trust Alliance and the U.S. Congress on legislation to strengthen the integrity of conservation easement transactions. In part because of the federal tax implications of conservation easements, state law stipulates that these easements can only be held by “qualified” organizations.


Where do I get more information about land trusts?

Contact them. They’re glad to answer questions or provide information about their projects and priorities. You’re invited to contact MALT, the Land Trust Alliance (a national land trust membership organization), land trust partners or others. If you’re a landowner interested in working with a land trust you’re going to want to conduct extensive research before you make a decision on a conservation easement. This website is a starting point, but it is only a starting point.