Traversing the Lower Valley is a trip through Montana’s existential crisis.
Look right to see endless open fields framed by majestic, snow capped mountains. Look left at shimmering, brick McMansions protected by foreboding iron gates.
Look right to see a pair of white-tailed deer grabbing a snack, a bald eagle standing sentry and a flock of geese gliding in for a landing. Look left at the smiling faces of real estate agents, decorating enticing signs promoting “waterfront properties” now for sale.
But look right, too, to see the wavering world of agriculture. See farmers and their families making difficult choices, threatened by mass production and a sagging commodities market.
Then look left at the tourist dollars and the development dollars pumped into the community. Look left at the people who, by necessity, have pushed this land as a destination despite the objection of longtime residents, many of whom have been here for generations.
“There will be more development here,” said Steve Cummings, who just minutes earlier had looked through a spotting scope, out his window, at a bald eagle in a tree on the outskirts of his family’s land.
“The area is a high growth area and there’s not much you can do to prevent other people from doing what they want with their property. If you look across here you’ll see a couple houses under construction that we can see from here that weren’t here when we built this house.
“But, you know, c’est la vie.”
CUMMINGS AND his wife, Susan, own land on the southern edge of Kalispell that, unless you knew better, would seem just like every other piece of earth surrounding it.
Susan grew up on this farm, purchased by her parents in 1947, and the couple built their new home here 15 years ago. Susan’s brother, Larry O’Connell, lives next door. The Cummings’ son, Jay, and his wife, Mandy Gerth, live and operate an organic vegetable farm just down the road.
The Cummings’ land is farmed by some of Susan’s cousins who have grown wheat, canola, alfalfa and barley there. And there is wildlife everywhere — not just the bald eagle but deer and foxes and coyotes and ducks and cranes and geese.
“And there’s coots,” Susan said. “And the coots aren’t very good parents.”
She and her husband laugh as they look out the north wall of their home and its giant windows, providing an unobstructed view of the wide-open land that stretches almost from slough to slough. It is through there that Susan has watched coyotes scamper through the field, migratory birds soar overhead, geese dutifully march around their young and coots, well, do slightly less.
“They just have one or two (babies) and you’ll see mama coot off somewhere and the babies are on the other side of the pond and she doesn’t pay any attention to them, and the ducks and the geese are right on the kids all the time, they never let them out of their sight,” she said. “I am amazed that there are so many coots out there because they’re such terrible parents.”
Lighthearted tales of coot parenting aside, Susan and Steve — and, eventually, Larry and several other landowners off on the horizon — are trend setters. More than 20 years ago, after Susan’s father insisted to his dying day that his family land remain an undeveloped space, the Cummings did their part to maintain that divide between progress and protection. Between growth and green grass. Between the Big Sky Country and big box stores.
Steve, a lawyer, drew up a contract, and land he and Susan owned was converted into a conservation easement, to be overseen by the Flathead Land Trust. It was the first plot of agricultural land in the Flathead Valley to do so.
PRIVATE LAND trusts, conservation easements, lawyers, documents and the rest of describing exactly what it is the Cummings did — and why it was so remarkable — has the unsurprising effect of making most people’s eyes glaze over.
That, in part, is why the Flathead Land Trust, a 32-year-old Kalispell nonprofit, along with the Montana Land Reliance and Vital Ground, are screening the documentary film “On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of Montana Private Land Conservation” Saturday at 5:30 p.m. at Whitefish’s O’Shaughnessy Center.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize or have the awareness of all this work that’s going on in, not only this community but communities all around Montana, to conserve private lands,” Paul Travis, Flathead Land Trust’s executive director said. “Private land conservation is a little tricky with the public because it’s not something that they can go access. It’s private land.
“But there is a public benefit; the public benefit of conserving that open space, the water quality, streams, rivers, lakes, wetlands, wildlife habitat. That’s public benefit. And so that’s the primary role that land trusts play.”
To describe a private land trust, it’s easiest to walk through the process.
When Steve and Susan Cummings acquired their Lower Valley land, they wanted to guarantee that they could observe Susan’s father’s wishes, even if it meant sacrificing the opportunity to sell any portion of their land to a developer who could build on the property. There is no reason, of course, the Cummings couldn’t have just done exactly that throughout their lives — it is their land after all — but, like Susan’s father, they were driven to keep the land for agricultural use in perpetuity, long after they were gone.
“That was my father’s thing,” Susan said. “He was so worried that he would die and his children would sell this land.”
By agreeing to convert their land into a conservation easement, the Cummings signed over development rights to the Flathead Land Trust and they, in turn, promised to never exercise those rights. The Cummings still own the land and nothing, operationally, is any different than before.
“It’s just the perfect vehicle for preserving land and protecting it,” Susan said.
“While still being able to use it,” her husband added. “It lets us enjoy the property while at the same time preserving the agricultural use and preserving the open space. It gives a sense of space that this valley needs to protect.
“But it’s the combination of things. You’ve protected some land that people are going to enjoy forever and there’s a real satisfying feeling to do that, and in a way, though, that you can also enjoy while you’re alive.”
There are financial benefits, too. The Cummings earned tax breaks for the value of the development rights, as if they had donated that value to a charity. And O’Connell, Susan’s brother, was paid for the value of his property’s development rights through grants that organizations like the Flathead Land Trust are working to secure, along with private donations, to purchase future easements.
There are still obstacles, however, that private land trusts face. Just the word “private” in private land trusts spooks some land owners, and some people — like, say, developers — are never going to be convinced to preserve open spaces.
“I guess what you can tell them is it’s been a wonderful thing for us,” Steve Cummings said. “We’ve continued to use the land in ways that are to us very satisfying, and, in addition to that, we have the knowledge that generations to come are going to look over at that land and say ‘this is sure a nice valley. Still.’”
“ON THE Shoulders of Giants” was produced by the Montana Association of Land Trusts and tells the tale of how two farmers in the Blackfoot Valley first got together to come up with an idea that was, at the time, a new one in the West. Legislation in 1976 passed to allow the creation of private land trusts in Montana, and today more than 2.5 million acres of land are protected in that fashion. The state is widely recognized as a leader in private land conservation.
The movie is the work of Bozeman filmmaker Eric Ian and Saturday’s screening also includes a handful of other short films and a chance to interact with those working to preserve Northwest Montana’s clean water, wildlife corridors and agricultural land. Great Northern Brewery will also be on hand at the event, selling beer and wine. There is no charge to attend.
For more information, visit www.flatheadlandtrust.org or call 406-752-8293.
Entertainment editor Andy Viano can be reached at (406) 758-4439 or firstname.lastname@example.org.