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A living legacy

Sept./Oct. 2006 California Country magazine

Montna Farms is managed to protect habitat and encourage the growth of wildlife populations.




"We're going to have to work at improving habitat and continuing to farm," said rice farmer Al Montna. "I have six grandchildren and it's important that we succeed in doing that for them and for future generations."

Driving the back roads of Montna Farms in Sutter County is a wildlife adventure. It's not unusual to see a rafter of wild turkeys strut down a dirt road or to catch a glimpse of a bobcat slipping into the bushes for cover. Salmon glisten in the sun as they leap up the farm's fish ladder.

The abundance of wildlife is no accident. Montna Farms is managed to protect habitat and encourage the growth of wildlife populations.

But, the best of California's wildlife is yet to come. When the time is right, more than 5.5 million waterfowl leave their summer home in the northern reaches of the continent and travel the Pacific Flyway.

They pass through 11 Western states to overwinter in warmer locations as far away as southern Mexico. More than 10 percent of these birds will travel through California's Central Valley and many thousands will stop at Montna Farms.

They'll join the shorebirds, cranes, pelicans, egrets, herons, ibises, songbirds and raptors that also call the Sacramento Valley's rice fields and surrounding wildlife refuges home—bringing annual peak populations in the area to as many as 12 million birds.

But today, the ducks have not yet arrived and there's still plenty of work to do. Montna Farms' rice operation is in harvest mode and Al Montna busily checks the location of crews, reviews field reports

Once the harvest is in and his farming activities settle into a low simmer, Montna will shift his attention to the waterfowl paddling through his winter-flooded fields. He'll watch the ducks practice takeoffs and landings before pushing on to warmer locations--well fed and rested.

Several years ago, Montna became one of the first rice growers in California to develop a wildlife conservation easement on 1,200 acres of rice ground on his home ranch in Dingville. Part of a larger estate planning strategy, Montna said the move helps ensure his land is never taken out of farming and will always be managed to benefit wildlife.

Montna's daughters, Nicole Montna Van Vleck and Michelle Vogt, share their father's respect and appreciation for the natural wonders found on their land, as well as the hard work involved in farming it. They say they're comfortable with the easement's habitat arrangements as they take over full responsibility for operating the farming business.

And, because the easement is held by the purchaser, Ducks Unlimited, into perpetuity, the women are beginning to prepare their young children for the responsibility of maintaining both healthy wildlife populations and the farm's bottom line when it's handed down to the next generation.

The sisters have been farming rice for more than 15 years and Van Vleck says they've always been involved in learning how to operate the ranch, from the time they were young girls gathering walnuts in the family orchard.

"We used the (wildlife conservation) easement as a vehicle to transfer part of the ranch into protection, in addition to some other extensive estate planning, so that the transfer between generations will be smooth and easy, without wrenching effects on the estate side, as well as the succession side," Van Vleck said.

"We have the staff in place to keep things moving along when the time comes, and the easement will ensure that migrating waterfowl and native wildlife populations will always find good habitat here."

Montna said, "When my daughters became involved with the farming business, and they're as good as I ever was at this business, I decided that what we needed to do was design an estate plan to ensure the family farm would never have to be sold to pay estate taxes and the habitat that our wildlife depends on would never be developed.

"We're going to have to work to maintain the requirements of the easement and still keep the farming profitable," he said. "Ducks Unlimited will be out doing audits to make sure we meet requirements, and they'll be providing technical assistance.

"We'll have to follow certain guidelines, none of them onerous, but they do require attention. They'll want to see what we've planted and they won't want to see a bunch of paved roads or concrete ditches. The ranch is in great shape, so that's fine with us. We've spent the last 40 years getting it to where it is today. It's a wildlife mecca.

"Protecting this habitat is a way to give something back to the community, which has supported me and my family for more than 100 years," Montna said. "We get a lot of interest in the property from the public when there's waterfowl here. They want to come in and see.

"Whole families will park their cars out by the highway and walk into the fields. We let them in, but remind them it's private property and that we're protecting valuable habitat."

Along with being an astute businessman, Montna is also known for his diplomatic skills--from dealing with local community leaders to top-level Washington insiders. He's currently president of the State Board of Food and Agriculture, and is a former chairman of the Farmers' Rice Cooperative and U.S. Rice Producers Group, as well as an advisor to the College of Agriculture at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo.

And he has been able to find common ground with leaders in the environmental community, including the late activist Marc Reisner, author of "Cadillac Desert." After meeting with Montna, Reisner changed some of his thinking about the California rice industry, and Montna helped Reisner gain an appreciation of the environmental activities of the state's farmers.

"Working with Al has been such a positive experience for us," said Olen Zirkle, manager of conservation programs for Ducks Unlimited, a partner in the development of the easement on Montna Farms. "His dedication to agriculture and wildlife has resulted in our first wildlife-friendly agriculture easement in California."

Zirkle said that while Montna Farms was the first to step forward in arranging a wildlife conservation easement with his organization, Ducks Unlimited is working with other farm candidates and would like to expand the program to more than 5,000 acres by buying the development rights on other agricultural properties popular with waterfowl.

Tim Johnson, president of the California Rice Commission, said more than 235 species of wildlife are known to use California's rice fields.

"That's a benefit our farmers provide, in addition to growing all that great rice for sushi, paella and risotto. When you drive by a rice field, there's so much more going on that benefits the environment than producing a crop."

Johnson said recent studies show the value of riceland, if it were to be replaced today by an equivalent amount of wetland habitat, would cost more than $600 million and take between $20 million and $30 million a year to maintain.

He said waterfowl and shorebirds benefit from the more than 300 pounds per acre of grain that end up being left in the field after harvest, as well as the insects available in the soil. In a state that has lost more than 95 percent of its historic wetlands, these contributions by agriculture are critical for waterfowl and wildlife populations, he said.

"Now that we understand the environmental value of our crops, we're working to make the habitat available for the long term," Johnson said. "That's why we're seeing these wildlife conservation easements being used in the rice sector.

"With the use of our ricelands for migratory waterfowl, people as far away as Canada and Mexico enjoy the benefits of this great habitat in California's Central Valley," Johnson said. "Working with wildlife and conservation groups, we've gained a better understanding of the value of the leftover grain in our fields and the value of our land for brood habitat and migratory habitat in the fall.

"We know there aren't enough wildlife refuge acres in the state to support the number of birds traveling the Pacific Flyway," he said. "And there's very little habitat for shorebirds."

Because of this shortage of habitat, Sacramento Valley rice fields have been declared a "shorebird habitat of international significance" by the Massachusetts-based Manomet Center.

In the Sacramento Valley, between November and March, more than 300,000 acres of rice ground are flooded to provide habitat for migratory birds. Farms are managed year-round to sustain healthy wildlife populations--and forward-thinking farm families, like the Montnas, are making wildlife habitat protection an integral part of their plans for the future.

Feeding people, nurturing wildlife

Not only is rice a healthful addition to menus year-round, in California it also provides food and habitat for millions of migratory birds and native wildlife species. Preserving the state's ricelands for both farming and wildlife is important to California farmers.

"Putting a conservation easement on the family farm can not only help keep it in production, it also can help retain features of the land that are beneficial to a variety of species," said Ryan Bonea, Sutter County Resource Conservation District manager.

"Landowners are the front-line conservationists. They're the ones out there every day keeping the landscape beautiful and productive. By placing these easements on their land, they can continue to farm and continue to help maintain healthy wildlife populations.

"And, farmers are doing a great job at both," he said.

Although private lands where easements have been purchased usually aren't open to the public, Bonea said that's a benefit because it protects wildlife from too much traffic. Publicly held land sometimes doesn't adequately shield habitat and wildlife from human intrusion.

Experts on conservation easements say farmers use them as estate planning tools for a number of reasons--from tax savings to the satisfaction of keeping the land intact for future generations.

Each conservation easement reflects the values of the individual landowner and the organization or agency that purchases and monitors it. In the case of Montna Farms in Sutter County, Ducks Unlimited worked with the California Department of Conservation's Farmland Conservation Program to establish protection for waterfowl habitat.

The easement calls for annual monitoring by Ducks Unlimited and a careful documentation process to ensure that all future landowners abide by the easement's requirements.

The Sutter County Board of Supervisors has recently recommended that a second wildlife habitat conservation easement be placed on another Montna farm. Larry Bagley, assistant director of community services for Sutter County, said the county has long been supportive of this approach to maintaining healthy wildlife populations within its borders.

"The advantage of these easements is that they help preserve land so waterfowl and animals have a protected place to grow and develop," Bagley said. "These easements allow a sharing of the land between the farmers who work it and the creatures who need it to flourish."

Michael Lawler, president of the Yolo County Audubon Society, said easements such as the ones the Montna family has placed on their lands are a valuable way to control development and at the same time sustain bird populations.

"A lot of our birding trips are done with the permission of landowners in the Sacramento Valley," Lawler said. "They're generous in allowing us to go birding and do census work and some are terrific stewards of their lands."

Waterfowl wonderlands

Waterfowl habitat on California's working riceland is private property and usually not open to the public, but that isn't the only way to view the state's abundant wildlife. For example, the 10,783-acre Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge offers spectacular waterfowl viewing between October and March. And there's always a variety of wildlife to see year-round.

California is home to 50 federal wildlife refuges and many more state and regional wildlife areas open for public viewing.

For a complete listing of federal wildlife refuges in California, go to www.fws.gov/refuges. A listing of state parks and recreation areas is available at www.parks.ca.gov.

Kate Campbell is a reporter for the California Farm Bureau Federation. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or kcampbell@cfbf.com.


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