State of Montana Website Montana State Parks Website
  Home » Doing Business » Reference Information » Montana Challenge » Research Reports » The State of the Land—Analysis of Land Use Change in Montana and the Three Regions
The State of the Land—Analysis of Land Use Change in Montana and the Three Regions
Hauser dam sign.Sign and fence at Hauser Dam


The importance of the issue of land use change is encapsulated by the rural subdivision where elk used to graze in winter or the "No Trespassing" sign inevitably nailed to fencepost after the real estate closing papers have been signed. It is also the image of the farm going up on the auction block and another family moving to town. Do those images match reality? Is Montana really losing farm and ranch land at the rate suggested by the number of rural homes recently built? Analysis of the most recent Census of Agriculture data at the three regional levels suggests not. In fact, at the state and regional level, agricultural production is unexpectedly stable.

There are many impacts resulting from change on private lands and certainly Montana is experiencing most of them. Given the data available to researchers however, the extent of change and the associated impacts are exceedingly difficult to track. Public natural resource agencies concerned with the impacts of land use change can provide a critical role in ongoing policy deliberations over the causes and consequences of rural land use change through the implementation of a comprehensive program on fine scale data collection and monitoring of land use change in Montana. Such an effort would allow for a better understanding of the nature of land use transitions and, if conducted at fine scales, their geographic location.


Perhaps nothing ties all Montanans together as much as the land. For many, it the source of agricultural wealth, for others, the open spaces that stretch across the plains to the Rocky Mountains are reason enough to live here, or stay. For many, the mix of public and private land is where we recreate and work. These lands are the source of our clean water and home to wildlife. They are the lands that burn in summer and are rejuvenated after spring rains. The land represents mix of social, cultural and ecological amenities that attract in-migrants to rural towns and the surrounding countryside where, given a choice, many of us would prefer to live.

There is a perception among land managers, the environmental community, and others that the traditional use of private land—and in Montana that is primarily agriculture, is giving way to rural homesites, roads, and development. There is an emergent bias that where possible, operating farms and ranches in the rural western states should be conserved. Through their conservation, we can hold back the encroachment of urban sprawl and in the process preserve the traditional heritage and culture of the West. Additionally, intact agricultural open space provides valuable native species habitat and are important for the preservation of water quality.

Land use and land use change is the result of complex interaction between the physical, socioeconomic, and legal setting within a geographical context. And that geographical context is itself is a complex spatial and temporal scale filled with uncertainty and error within virtually any description of land resources. In other words, any examination of land use is, by definition, imprecise and incomplete.

This analysis will use data primarily from the Census of Agriculture for the decade 1987-1997, the latest year available, to examine changes in the farm structure and to production patterns across the state. This is done by first examining statewide trends and then trends for the three regions. I also analyzed the changes in, the number of farms, the amount of land in farms (acres), farm sizes, and the changes in irrigated land for the five fastest and five slowest growing counties in the state between 1987-1997. Finally, four sidebars are presented. The first examines the nature of rural residential development in part of Gallatin County, the second shows how the USDA Conservation Reserve Program can constrain sprawl as it preserves agricultural land and the wildlife and open space qualities it produces. The thirdsidebar points to the unexpected impacts of rural residential development in Paradise Valley and the fourth describes an effective methodology for documenting land use change at a fine (subcounty) scale in order to focus on a local perspective.

Whereas some states (i.e. Colorado, Vermont) benefit from a well-developed statewide strategy of the study of land use change, Montana has no such body of research to draw on. As a result, the Census of Agriculture is particularly useful for this analysis because it is a universal survey of private land production that includes all counties and collects the same data over time. This mandatory survey is sent to everyone who, in the past, operated a farm or ranch during the last Census of Agriculture even if they do not currently do so. Further, the data contained in the Census provides insights into not only land in production but the lifestyle of the landowner as well.

The problem with the census data is that while it may show a change in the amount of land in farms for example, it provides no information about the specific land that may have changed and tells us nothing about the present land use. As a result, while we can document change at a state, regional or county level, we have little idea what the transition looks like on the ground. In other words, if it is shown that the amount of land in farms has decreased for a given county, it is not possible to determine the spatial location of that land, if the land was sold to a developer for homesites, if it was used as a commercial building location, or if it has simply fallen out of the agricultural production stream for some unknown reason. The most recent Census of Agriculture was conducted in 2002 but the data is not yet available. Clearly, we expect some major changes to have occurred during the interval of five years but the lack of data makes that observation impossible.

Finally, a major problem for any study of population growth and land use change is why people find Montana and specific communities in the state such an appealing place to live. The question has received a great deal of attention and the emergent consensus is that natural and community amenities such as quality recreation; proximity to national forests and national parks; scenic beauty; and clean, safe, and friendly communities are powerful pull factors to rural locations. Pushing residents toward these same rural communities are the promise of dynamic economies and employment opportunities compared to unpleasant economic or social conditions elsewhere. The communities that possess this combination of qualitative amenities and dynamic economies are those that are experiencing the highest rates of growth; invariably these communities and counties are found in the western third of the state.

The traditional resource extraction economy of Montana is being augmented and in many cases overwhelmed by a new economy based on services, especially tourism; a retirement economy, and urban refugees fleeing the crime and social problems of urban centers. Tourism visitation acts as a catalyst for relocation to rural communities and new business opportunities emerge as the local population increases; all in an era of declining agricultural profitability. In short, the combination of a quality living environment and diverse employment prospects are major attractants to many locations in Montana and other western states. Together with the opportunity to live close to nature in the rural countryside the combination is a compelling enticement. The sidebar entitled "Who Lives in the Countryside" addresses why people are attracted to specific locations on rural landscapes.

Theory and Background: Impacts Resulting From Changes in Agricultural Farmland and Associated Open Space

A great deal has been written and asserted about the loss of productive agricultural land, particularly in fast-growing Rocky Mountain counties. Based on coarse Geographic Information System (GIS) analysis the American Farmland Trust (AFT) has determined that prime ranchland is at risk in all seven Rocky Mountain states and that Montana land is most at risk (Rocky Mountain Projects ). They have conducted a similar study for the nation's farmland (American Farmland Trust ). Agriculture is the dominant use of rural private lands in much of the state, with crops ranging from high value seed potatoes in Southwest Montana to sugar beets Yellowstone County and wheat across the high plains. Much of the cultivated acreage is also devoted to livestock forage.

Growth pressures are thought to be affecting the one group of resident on the decline in many western states—the agricultural producer. Faced with falling agricultural prices and their children's' inability or reluctance to remain in agriculture, owners of farms and ranches can profitably sell the land to developers or farm and ranch brokers. In rapidly growing counties the potential wealth from selling to developers serves as a lucrative retirement. In addition, as many operators are faced with rising operational costs, changing livestock markets, climatic variability, and increasing political uncertainty over access to public grazing lands. These are these added burdens to running a viable agricultural business.

Many of the new buyers of rural land will not continue the agrarian tradition or will shift from intensive agricultural production to a less utilitarian form of land management such as "hobby ranching" or owning the land for its recreational potential. In some cases developers purchase agricultural land, subdivide it into small acreages and thereby permanently remove land from agricultural production altogether.

As they help to define the character of the region, agricultural lands and associated open spaces are highly valued by those residents who are not involved in agriculture nor live in the countryside. At present, there is a direct conflict between efforts to maintain this character and the phenomenon of rural residential development. At once, the public is of two minds: wanting to preserve rural character, yet wanting to own rural land in small and often agriculturally unproductive parcels.

A study by the Economic Research Service (ERS), a research arm of USDA, documents the wide array of rural amenities provided by working agricultural land (Economic Research Service ). The amenities most often sought for protection by state legislation are "a farming way of life," "open space," and "scenic beauty." The perceived loss of productive agricultural land was the genesis for the ERS study.

AFT and the ERS argue that one of the greatest threats to existing agricultural lands is fragmentation of the large open spaces they need for commodity production through subdivision development. The ERS, in their report " Land Use, Value, And Management: Urbanization and Agricultural Land" cite two related issues of urbanization and agriculture that are particularly relevant to rural settings:

  • High rate of growth in land valueswhen demands for developable land are sufficiently high, the value of land in developed use will exceed its value in agricultural use. This enables developers to outbid farmers for use of the land. Strong development pressures can lead to high rates of growth in land values, which in turn speed the conversion of farmland to developed uses as fewer farmers enter the industry. As more land exits farming, the local agricultural economy may suffer. However, existing farmers may welcome the increase in farmland values, especially if they view their investment in land as a retirement fund and do not have children who plan to continue farming the land.
  • Increased "amenity value" of farmland—as more farmland is converted, the remaining farmland may become more "valuable" to the local population because farmland provides open space, scenic views, and contributes to rural amenities. These rural amenities associated with farmland are generally not captured in the market value of land. Because farmland owners are not compensated for the rural amenity value of their land, but do make money from selling for development, they do not have an incentive to delay the conversion of farmland to developed uses.

The table below summarizes the literature concerning the host of social and economic impacts that may be the result of rural land transformation.

Table One:  Social & Community Effects of Rural Land Use Change
Changes In Landowner Structure Turner, M.G., D.N. Wear, and R.O. Flamm. 1996
Changes To Community History & Culture Williams and Jobes 1990; Jobes 1988; Rudzitis 1996; Beggs, Hurlbert and Haines 1996
Impact On Agriculture. Lands Greene, R.P. and J.M. Harlin. 1995; Heimlich and Vesterby 1992
Impact On Open Space/View Gersh 1996; Nieman 1996
Uneven Cost Of Residential Service Haggerty 1996; American Farmland Trust 1992; Kelsey 1998
Changing Political/ Economic Structure Alm and Witt 1997; Beyers, Lindahl and Hamill 1995
Quality Of Life Effects Johnson and Rasker 1995; Jobes 2000; Decker and Crompton 1993

Many studies document the general geographical and ecological changes resulting from rural residential development in the American west. The conversion of native and agricultural lands to residential subdivisions or small ranches produces anxiety because such development will probably never revert back to undeveloped land. The conversions are of concern to ecologists for a variety of reasons but most literature is focused on three areas:

  1. Threats to habitat—loss of permanent habitat such as a wetland or riparian area, and fragmentation of large landscape features such as winter range for ungulates or shrublands for birds and small predators. Roads may exacerbate fragmentation if they impede the movement of migrations. These impacts, if acute, can result in loss of biodiversity for a region.
  2. Threats to geographic features—agricultural water supplies for irrigation may be compromised if aquifers are over utilized by rural homeowners, rural septic systems can pollute the quality of underground water, and homesites can be placed in geographically inappropriate locations (i.e. fault zones, poorly compacted soils, wildfire zones).
  3. Native species and ecosystem processes—one of the most common observations of critics of rural sprawl is that the land too often becomes a weed garden. Disturbances to agricultural lands can result in the uncontrolled spread of noxious weeds; sometimes to the detriment of native species. An emerging concern in wooded areas is disturbance of natural fire regimes necessary to forest health. While this research is in its infancy, the fear is that in order to protect homes in private forest lands, fuel loads will be allowed to build up and catastrophic wild fire will be the result. Additionally, scare public resources are spent to control fires for very few private landowners.

Of primary concern to wildlife managers are the effects of rural population growth and resultant land use change in the fertile river valleys of the state and along the forest edge. Originally settled as food producing areas, these "hotspots" of biodiversity also appears to be the most desirable locations for homes of urban refugees, retirees, and entrepreneurs who prefer rural living to urban. The shift of residents from large metropolitan areas to mid-size communities, satellite communities, and adjacent rural lands is cause for the emergence of a host of issues related to land use change and growth management.

The primary concerns are twofold. One, if agricultural open spaces are settled with homes there will be loss of habitat for native species as previously large expanses are fragmented. Most agree that such development is detrimental if the land was previously managed as "animal friendly"; that is, tolerant of migrating herds of wild ungulates and perhaps a low density of predators. The second concern is if landowner change results in management practices that threaten historical recreational use. Access for hunting and fishing, hiking or horseback riding may be lost as the land is leased to outfitters or the new owner values privacy over traditional recreation use. The table below summarizes many of the ecological concerns resulting from rural residential development of agricultural landscapes.

Table Two:  Ecological Effects of Rural Land Use Change
Water Pollution & Sewage Gersh 1996; LaGro, J.A. and S.D. DeGloria. 1992
Fragmented Habitat Theobald 1998
Threats To Biodiversity Pimental, et. al 1992 Farrier, D. 1995 White, et. al7
Forester, D.J. and G.E. Machlis 1996
Land Use Conversion Riesame, Gosnell and Theobald 1996; Bean, M.J. and D.S. Wilcove. 1997; Johnson and Maxwell 2001
Source/Sink Effects Hansen and Rotella 2002, Hansen, et al. 2002

That these changes are taking place in Montana and other western states is not at issue. Almost anyone who has lived in the state for any length of time can point to a favorite piece of land that was once a working agricultural operation but is now roaded and crowded with homes. Others tell of ranches they once hunted but where now, access is leased to an outfitter that caters to wealthy out of state hunters. One specific purpose of this chapter is to try to shed light on the assertion that Montana and similar states is losing agriculture at an alarming rate, that farms and ranches are giving way to rural subdivisions, and that the current crisis in the State's agricultural economy is a major driver in the land use conversion from farms to trophy homes. If, in fact, these changes are occurring, public lands managers may be in a position to better understand the changing private land use setting in they operate and design statewide or regional policy to address these changes. If the rate and scale of change is not occurring, managers may look to more localized policy to address important but largely fine scale effects.

Changes to Agricultural Patterns 1987-1997

At the regional scale, the amount of land in farms, as defined by USDA has remained relatively stable over time and is only slightly in decline [1]. For the state as a whole, the number of acres in farmland fell by 2.65% between 1987 and 1997. Regionally, these decreases are disproportionately located in the western region but the amounts of the decrease are still relatively small (see figure one). At the same time, the number of farms in the state has fallen only by 289—slightly greater than 1%.

Figure 1—Land in farms by region Figure 1—Land in farms by region. Click for enlarged view

Figure 2—Ten counties land in farms Figure 2—Ten counties land in farms. Click for enlarged view

Figure 3—Size by region Figure 3—Size by region. Click for enlarged view

In the five fastest growing counties the amount of land in farms has declined in most (Gallatin being the exception) of the fastest growing counties. Likely, the upward pressure on land prices for rural development is driving agricultural production further from urban centers as nearby farms and ranches are developed. In the five slowest growth counties the amount of land in agricultural production is on the increase. This seems somewhat counterintuitive given the recent years of drought, declining prices for agricultural commodities, and global competition. However, agricultural subsidy programs and economies of scale derived from larger operations provide incentives for more land in production even as the number of individual farms in these counties decline. The figure below depicts the changes to the amount of land in farms for the ten counties.

Overall, the numbers of farms and ranches in Montana has declined by only 1% in the past ten years. In terms of size, the very smallest farms (1-9 acres) have dramatically decreased in number across the state and within the three regions while the number of small to mid-sized farms (10-179 acres) has increased by a total of about 48%. Other sizes have remained unchanged or decreased slightly (see figure Three). What we cannot know from these results is whether the large farms are being subdivided into the smaller farms and ranches although it seems likely that 1000+ acre operations may be profitably offered on the market as smaller "ranchette" properties in those locations close proximity to the micropolitan centers. In sharp contrast to ranchette development however, a recent (2003) study by Norman C. Wheeler and Associates, a farm and ranch broker in Bozeman, cites study data of farm and ranch sales from Red Lodge to Kalispellthat shows sales of rural properties of 1,000 acres or more was up 62 percent over 2001. The 160,000 acres sold was an increase of 103 percent over the prior year. And the total dollars invested were up 96 percent, to $149 million in 2002.

It may be that no coherent pattern exists and that both dynamics are taking place. We do know however that even as the land in farms has decreased, the number of farms has increased in Region One but declined in the other two regions. Oddly, in fast growing Region One, where we might expect large farms to be subdivided into "ranchette" properties of 10-100 acres at very high rates, Region Two and Three exhibit larger increases in the smaller properties. What may be taking place in many locations in the state is that two tiers of buyers exist. The first seeks to own smaller tracts of rural land as a primary or secondary home. These buyers may be somewhat more price sensitive given changes in the national economy. To these buyers the relatively less expensive land in Region Two and Three provide good value for the purchase price. At the other end are very wealthy individuals or corporations that seek the large (1000+ acre) ranch as a private recreational property. Indeed, the Wheeler study confirms that most ranches are purchased for recreation and 90 percent of large-tract buyers were nonresidents.

In the analysis of changing farm structure for the ten counties, I combined the five categories into three for ease of interpretation. In the fastest growing counties the general pattern of farm size follows the patterns observed in the three regions—there is a universal increase in the number of smaller farms and a widespread decline in the midsized and large operations. Gallatin County is again an anomaly given an increase in the number of very large (> 1000 acre) operations. In the slow growth counties there is a general, sometimes precipitous, decline in all farms and ranches across the size categories. This mirrors the general decline of agriculture in this region. There is an incongruity in the data where one sees more land in production (land in farms) but continued decline in the number of farms in these counties. Some observers of these trends point to consolidation of farmland into fewer and fewer landowners—some continuing in agricultural production, some as buyers of inexpensive recreational land. However, according to the Economic Research Service (USDA) the number of family farms, as defined by the ERS, accounts for about 98 percent of all farms and ranches in the state and this number has changed very little over time. At this time what we can say is that agriculture in a complex transition stage as shifting ownership patterns, production decisions, and farms and ranches as recreational properties play themselves out on the landscape. Some trends may be good for some wildlife and protection of open spaces, other trends may prove detrimental to these attributes.

Farm and ranch demographics and employment may be an important variable to understanding the changing agricultural landscape. Some assert that the aging landowner population is, in part, responsible for the turnover of land from production to rural residential development. However, that transition is not taking place at the rate that is commonly assumed. One reason may be that the average age of agricultural landowners is simply not very old —in 1997 the average age was 54, up slightly from 51 in the 1987 census and compared to the national mean of 55 years.

One explanation for the relatively low turnover of land is that in some counties —especially in region 2 where there has been a 24% increase in the number of owners that work off farm more than 200 days per year, many owners are pursuing some sort of off farm income (see figure four). An agricultural producer may well engage in off farm income in order to subsidize the operation of the ranch or because farming or ranching is not their main occupation.

Figure 4—Off farm income. Figure 4—Off farm income. Click for enlarged view

Figure 5—Occupation of Landowners. Figure 5- Occupation of Landowners. Click for enlarged view

Figure 6—Irrigated Lands. Figure 6- Irrigated Lands. Click for enlarged view

An examination of operators by occupation indicates that indeed, farming as the primary occupation of the landowner is giving way to nonfarming. A closer look at the numbers reveals that increasingly, the owners of agricultural lands are not actively engaged in farming and ranchers rather, they are employed in some other way and simply own agricultural land—most of which remains in some form of agriculture. In Region One there has been no change in the number of landowners who identify themselves as farmers but the number of nonfarming agricultural landowners has increased by 14%. In Region Two and Three landowners identified as farmers has fallen by 9% and 12% respectively but nonfarmers who own agricultural land have increased by 28% and 17% in the two regions (see figure five).

One useful way to examine the data for the nature of land use change is to investigate cropping patterns. If, for example, total cropland is decreasing even as land in farms is not, we could hypothesize that land management has shifted away from commodity production to recreation or idle land use.

Total cropland in the state of Montana has fallen by slightly over 1 percent between 1987 and 1997. In the three regions cropland has decreased by 1% in Region One and 4% in Region Three but total cropland has increased 3% in Region Two. The increase is attributable to increased wheat production in the northern part of the region. Related to those changes is the change in amount of irrigated land. Overall, the amount of irrigated land in Montana is essentially unchanged (-.12%). However, in Region One there has been a four percent decline. This is probably due to increased settlement of the main river valleys in the region. Reflecting the increased wheat, alfalfa, and hay production in both regions, Region Two has seen a two percent increase in irrigated land and Region Three a 13% increase. The implications for increased irrigation in the drought stricken eastern counties are uncertain but threats to minimum in-stream flow must be considered.

As seen in figure six, the results for the ten counties are very mixed. Two of the high growth counties show increased amounts of irrigated land while three show decline; there seems to be no correlation with the changes to size of farms in these counties. For example, in Ravalli County we observe decreases in medium to small farms but increased irrigated lands; in Lake County all sizes of farms are on the decline but irrigation is increasing. In the slow growth counties four show increases in irrigation and one is in decline. What may be happening is that farms that are still in production are willing to make the considerable investment to irrigate in the hope of increasing production and thereby gross revenues. In high growth areas hay for the recreational horse market may be profitable, in other areas it may be profitable to farm less land but do so using an irrigation system. Still another strategy may be to try to fully utilize existing water rights while those rights are adjudicated statewide.

Finally, we need to examine enrollment in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) administered by USDA as part of the Food Security Act of 1985. It allowed farmers to enroll some erodable or otherwise ecologically sensitive croplands into a conservation land bank in return for annual payments in 10 year increments. By the early 1990s, more than three quarters of the authorized 45 million acres had been enrolled in the program nationwide. In Montana, CRP is popular among farmers and ranchers; so popular that by 1994 Montana ranked fourth in the nation in CRP enrollment and by 1999 1,643,400 acres were enrolled in CRP in the state. In some locations CRP is a major component of agricultural production.

With respect to wildlife and agriculture, CRP appears to be a win-win scenario. Alan Wentz of Ducks Unlimited, points out that the subsidized increase in private land vegetation results in immediate environmental rewards for the public. He says the CRP cleaned up waterways, prevented water quality deterioration, improved drinking water, prevented sedimentation into wetlands and reservoirs, and improved air quality by having fewer wind erosion problems. Wentz also points out that by providing improved habitat, CRP significantly increased waterfowl, songbird, and resident wildlife populations. Research by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents improved habitat for ducks and Ring-necked Pheasants as well as many nongame species. As the sidebar of the case study in Three Forks explains, CRP has also been shown to constrain rural sprawl in a rural agricultural community.

One conclusion that can be drawn from the Census of Agriculture data is that the assertions that Montana is losing agriculture at an alarming rate are simply not true. In fact, the agricultural sector is surprisingly stable given the volatility of the international markets in which the industry operates. This is not to say that farmland is not being developed for rural homesites. This clearly happens and in the process important wildlife habitat may be lost and access for recreation may be at risk. It is to say however that, from the point of view of land use change, the transitions of the land do not appear to be taking place at the large regional scale as requisite for this analysis.


The commonly held assertion that Montana is undergoing dramatic land use change as a result of loss of farms and farmland is not supported by the available data contained in the Census of Agriculture between 1987 and 1997. In fact, the amount of land in farms and in agricultural production is unexpectedly constant. Even as the size of farms is changing throughout the state, cropping and production patterns remain largely unchanged at the regional level of analysis. However, most observers would agree there are clearly "hotspots" of growth and landscape change, within especially Region One, as evidenced by the high rates of growth in some counties. The issue seems then to be the scale at which these changes are occurring and the impact both on resources and management. Given the lack of comprehensive data for the state however, identification of these hotspots is problematic. While rural residential development attracts a great deal of attention in the ecological and social science literature as well as the popular press, the reality of most settlement patterns is that they are in relatively close proximity to existing micropolitan centers (i.e. Missoula, Bozeman, Great Falls, Kalispell, Red Lodge). Of course, the demand Montanans express for high quality outdoor recreation and natural resource quality is highest near these population areas so the policy issues are pressing.

Montana has no ongoing comprehensive study of changing land use on private lands—the very lands that are being developed and settled. As a result, the management capacity of natural resource administration agencies is severely constrained; this is true from the local government level through the Federal level of government. The result is that strategic planning for conservation easements, wildlife corridor planning, habitat protection programs and other efforts aimed at enhancement of recreation access or conservation of wildlife habitat is necessarily a reactive rather than proactive approach.

Complex models of land use change can be constructed to provide valuable insights into the transition of land from one land use/land cover to another; including rural residential development. The sidebar by Monica Brelsford explains how this is analysis was carried out in the upper Yellowstone River drainage. The purpose of such a study is to gain a better understanding of the nature of land use transitions and, if conducted at fine scales, their geographic location and effects on wildlife, humans, and recreation.

Several important questions could be addressed with fine scale data of land use change:

Where are the greatest changes to land use taking place in the highest growth areas? To what extent is local farmland or important habitat being lost to rural residential development? What are the major drivers of change? Can change be modeled and forecasted into the near future?

Where do the most critical threats due to changing land ownership exist? Do those changes threaten the establishment of conservation easements, recreation access, the block management program, and other natural resource management concerns? Where do economically efficient opportunities exist for the establishment of conservation easements, enhanced recreation access, and expanded habitat protection? Where can the multiple Federal conservation programs be leveraged to enhance opportunity for state resources?

Other important issues concerning land use and land use change could be addressed via primary data collection methods such as landowner and resident surveys:

Where are the most critical habitat and recreation access points for maximum public good? Where do inequities exist for the public in terms of access to natural resource recreation? What basic natural resource amenities are most valued by the public?

What incentive mechanisms are most desirable to owners of rural lands? What might the projected costs and benefits be to those incentives? How is the potential market for incentives segmented by landowner demographics and psychographics?

Water Resources and Land Use Change

The many rivers and streams that crisscross Montana represent important natural resource values for native species and humans alike. Indeed, our great trout steams must be one of the most fundamental images evoked by the national citizenry when they think of Montana. From the FWP Web page:

Montana is renowned not just for its fishing but for the entire experience it yields: clear, rushing rivers and streams; quiet lakes and secret "cricks"; unrivaled landscapes, mallards aloft and abundant fish below.

Rivers and other surface water resources constitute a comprehensive "package" of natural resource assets that are worth tens of millions of dollars to the state in both cold and warm fisheries, river floating, and the unique quality of life enjoyed by Montanans.

Waters below the surface may be just as important to ecosystem integrity and enjoyment of our quality of life. Over pumping aquifers with subsurface wells can draw enough water from small steams to affect in-stream flow. Too much output from poorly maintained septic systems can degrade residential well water and negatively affect quality of life and perhaps personal health.

There are several natural resource management concerns to our free flowing waters and this short section will outline three of the most critical with respect to the overlap between land use change and the public land agencies. They are: stream access, coal bed methane development, and groundwater impacts.

Stream Access

Montana is one of the few states that have made a significant commitment to public access to public rivers and streams. In 1985, the Montana legislature passed House Bill 265, the Stream Access Law. The law states that the public, without regard of the ownership of the land underlying the waters, may use rivers and streams for recreational use up to the ordinary high-water mark. Although the law gives recreationists the right to use rivers and streams for water-related recreation, it does not allow them to enter posted lands bordering those streams or to cross private lands to gain access to streams.

It was first established from a Montana Supreme Court ruling in 1984 and adopted by the Montana State Legislature in 1985 and there have been several challenges to the law since it was signed by Governor Ted Schwinden; all based on the concept of regulatory takings as a result of trespass. In 1986, the statute was challenged in the Montana State Supreme Court in the case Galt vs. the State of Montana. Landowners from Tucson, AZ., asked the state in 1998 to restrict recreational access on the portion of the Upper Ruby River that runs through their property, but their petition was denied. The latest and most serious challenge to the law was pursued by the Colorado-based Mountain States Legal Foundation (MSLF) in May 2000 on the behalf of three landowners on the Stillwater River, Upper Ruby River, and O'Dell Creek near Ennis.

The claim in the last attempt was that the law deprived the landowners of their privacy, user control and income from the use of their property. All of the stream and fishing access groups in the state intervened on the side of Dept. of Fish, Wildlife & Parks to defend the law. In January, 2001 the courts ruled against the MSLF and dismissed the case. In December 2002 the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Montana Stream Access Law challenged as a "taking" of private property by the plaintiffs and MSLF. In Spring 2003 another challenge sought to bar access via public roadway and bridge easements. The Montana attorney general ruled against the claim and the State of Montana prevailed on appeal to the 9th Circuit Court.

One fact is clear with respect to the challenges to the existing law— the suits were brought by either recent arrivals to the state or out of state landowners. It would seem that privacy concerns will emerge as central to balancing the policy tradeoffs between old-timers and newcomers, differing values for the land, and recreation access. These decisions are directly linked to the in-migration of the new landowner. Clearly, it is inappropriate to extrapolate from a few anecdotal cases, but we have such a poor understanding of social and demographic trends of the new landowner in Montana that political decisions and public attitudes will be influenced by these high profile challenges to a very popular public law. There are outstanding issues related to stream access, guiding and outfitting, and other forms of recreation on rivers and streams across the state and certainly the future of these important recreation and habitat resources will continue to require the attention of public lands managers.

Coal Bed Methane Development

The development of the vast (potential) coal bed methane resources in the state is one of the next big "unknowns" looming in the future of resource managers. A major difficulty of the CBM issue is that a single statewide policy is simply not possible or feasible; one reason is that the variance of water quality pumped from the wells is quite high. From the web page of Dr. Jim Bauder, Montana State University Department of Land Resources and Environmental Science (A Novices Introduction to Coal Bed Methane ):

The extraction of CBM involves pumping large volumes of water from the ground in order to release the water pressure that is trapping the gas in the coal. The quantity, quality, and dispersal of the water that needs to be pumped is a source of much debate. Each well is expected to produce approximately 5 to 20 gallons of water per minute. If a well produced 12 gallons per minute, that would total 17,280 gallons of water per day for one well. The product water, although acceptable to drink or water livestock with, has a modestly high salinity hazard and often a very high sodium hazard based on standards used for irrigation suitability. When considered as an irrigation supply or when spread on the land, water of CBM quality could alter the soil physical and chemical properties; it could also limit the long-term productivity of sensitive rangeland species. On the positive side, if the right management practices and bioremediation processes can be defined, CBM product water can serve as a valuable supplement to existing irrigation water supplies, we are almost always in limited supply and undesirable quality by the middle of the summer in southeast Montana. Depending on soil type, the discharge water by itself is often not suitable for irrigation except with very rigorous management or on the coarsest soils.

Not mentioned in the discussion are the impacts to existing residential properties in the methane fields. Property owners' land values are threatened as the saline water is dispersed and highly saline water makes its way into nearby steams or lakes. The very quality that makes the land valuable for development or resale is then compromised.

Groundwater Depletion and Pollution

As agricultural land is developed for rural residential development the groundwater may suffer from two effects. First and most obviously, if septic systems do not work effectively human waste can seep back into the groundwater system and lower its quality.

Agricultural irrigation serves to act a recharging agent in groundwater systems. As the water is tapped from an irrigation ditch or mechanical watering system much of the water will filter back underground and be recycled. Some hypothesize that as irrigated land is developed for rural residential development the recharging cycle may be interrupted. Very simply, the pace and volume of water consumed for year-round household use outpace that utilized in a seasonal agricultural operation and aquifer recharge cannot keep up. While these effects have not yet been documented in Montana, study is currently underway in the Helena valley to ascertain the role household consumption may have in groundwater depletion on formerly irrigated land.

Such degradation and depletion may pose significant health impacts on rural populations but also may lower the water quality of nearby surface water if they are supplied in part by the groundwater source. Such impacts have been documented in California, Colorado, and other rapidly growing rural areas. Small springs or steams dependent on supply from the groundwater system may not support fish population or nearby wetlands in times of drought.[2]

Positive Trends of Land Use Change

The analysis of Census of Agriculture data suggests that widespread loss of farmland to rural residential development is not much in evidence at the regional level but clearly, farms are changing hands, some ground is lost to development, and some land is moving out of traditional agricultural production toward recreation and "hobby farming". And while the negative impacts of such change receive the bulk of attention from activist groups, researchers, and others, there is evidence that some positive effects may result.

No data, as such, exists for the amount of reclaimed streams, wetlands, game fish habitat, and grazing land contracted by the many buyers of recreational properties in Montana. However, the growth of stream habitat firms and private fisheries and wetlands consultants provides a good indicator of the interest recreational property owners have in clean and healthy natural resources. One example is the Baker Springs residential development in Gallatin County. The developers restored and enhanced a neglected spring creek back to maximize all the fisheries resources on the property and create new ones for the property owners. The development plan increases fishing opportunities throughout the property, restores the small spring creeks that flow into Baker Creek and the West Gallatin River. These restored steams will provide additional spawning habitat and downstream fishing opportunities for the public, and expands the creek's spawning habitat and holding waters. They have also reengineered formerly grazed land into a limited number of homesites with conservation setbacks.

Another positive secondary effect of landownership change is the growth of conservation easements across the state. A conservation easement is a legal contract between a land trust, a governmental entity, or other qualified organization and a willing landowner. In exchange for a tax deductible contribution for the value of the protected land, the easement permanently limits uses of the land in order to protect its conservation values. The restrictions run permanently with the land. A conservation easement protects the land from unlimited subdivision and development while also protecting the rights of private ownership. Examples of uses generally permitted by a conservation easement: include: continued agricultural use; sale or gift of the property; or selective timber harvest. Examples of uses generally restricted by a conservation easement are: subdivision for residential development; surface mining; or the elimination of wildlife or fisheries habitat protected by the easement. The landowner continues to own the land and continues to pay taxes on the land. In Montana, several entities can negotiate conservation easements including the state of Montana and regional and national land trusts.

A common criticism of conservation easements is that in many cases the agricultural landowner in rural locations is not able to implement an easement because he simply does not make enough income to take full advantage of the tax deduction. Only two western states have implemented a tax credit in exchange for signing the easement. Conservation easements do work well however where the incomes of the owners of agricultural land are large in real terms—as in the case of the recreation ranch buyer. A directory of land trusts operating in the state can be found at: Directory of Land Trusts Operating in Montana .

Many other examples can be found that have resulted in enhanced, albeit private, habitat for big game, fish, upland birds, and waterfowl. The large ranches purchased for recreation property are less likely to be overgrazed or managed in such a way as to be detrimental to native species. This is an area where clearly more research is needed in order to assess the effect of private actions for the good of public natural resources.


The study of land use change in a large and diverse state such as Montana requires the construction of specialized data bases at fine scales along with methodologies that will allow us to fully understand the scale, scope and impacts resulting from ongoing and probable changes to private lands. The potential for shifting agricultural production patterns, the purchase of large tracts of farm and ranchland for private recreation purposes, and the recent trend of rural subdivisions in nearby proximity to small urban centers necessitate continued monitoring if the cumulative effects are to be successfully integrated into the management of natural resources and recreation.

As the economy diversifies from one based on natural resource extraction to one where wealth is generated through a broad range of economic activity, the scenic and recreational amenities inherent in Montana's landscape will increasingly be valuable economic assets to the state.

The natural resource agencies will inevitably face challenges stemming from the problems and possibilities related to population growth, tourism and the continued decline of the extractive industries in Montana. Rapid in-migration will inevitably lead to change in the social and economic condition of rural communities. Some of these issues will be beyond the control of local governments or government agencies but will reside with residents and local property owners. However, without high quality data and continued monitoring, resolution will be difficult and discussion may be misinformed. Land use policy within most western states, is a tenuous and politically charged process and private property rights prevail. However, the erosion of scenic vistas, problems of public access to public land and waterways, overcrowding due to tourists and residents, increasing traffic congestion, and other changes to the regional quality of life will provide incentives for residents and decision makers to engage in local conversations about the effects of population growth and land use change. Public agencies can and do take the lead in these conversations by supplying that quality data.

[1] According to USDA, a farm is any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year.

[2] Thanks to Gretchen Rupp, Director Montana Water Center and Larry Dolan (DNRC) for pointing out this hidden and little understood effect on water resulting from rural land use change.

This report was completed in 2004.