Compensating Landowners for a Healthy River

The Big Hole River Incentive Program

Big Hole River private lands provide the landscape and ecologic functions that make the Big Hole River a special place.  The Big Hole River Incentive Program is a voluntary program designed to expand, accelerate, and secure riparian and floodplain forest resiliency by providing technical and financial incentives to landowners in exchange for improvements to water quality, ecosystem function, habitat connectivity, and economic vitality on working lands in southwest Montana.  This pilot program:

  • Establishes a payment-for-ecosystem services model (cost-share) and tests payment mechanisms
  • Engages Big Hole landowners in riparian conservation projects that reduce erosion
  • Demonstrates value by reimbursing landowners for livestock fencing and other erosion-control activities done in the past
  • Establishes riparian vegetation
  • Demonstrates proof-of-concept and local demand for the program
  • Builds the foundation for a sustainable program for the Big Hole River

In its first year, 2016, we engaged with 12 landowners and over 5.5 miles of stream banks.  Three projects were contracted and delivered and another 9 are under development for implementation in 2017.

The Big Hole is the first watershed in Montana to try this concept; we intend to continue expanding program options, resources, and funding.



Who is Eligible for the Program?

Payments are available to landowners with private land from Melrose to the downstream end of the Big Hole River.  Enrollment in the Program is rolling and contracts are developed on a first-come, first-served basis. Contracts can be signed any time over the course of 2016 and 2017 during the project’s pilot phase.

What is an “Incentive” program?

Payments for Ecosystem Services, or incentives, are offered to landowners in exchange for managing their land to provide specific ecological services. These programs leverage the marketplace to incentivize environmental protection that otherwise would not occur and, sometimes, to maintain the level of stewardship that is producing public benefits, such as clean, cold water.  Ecosystem services have no standardized definition but might broadly be called “the benefits of nature to households, communities, and economies”.

Incentive to do what?

There are two ways qualifying landowners can use this program:

1. Accept payments to maintain already healthy areas:

For example, your river corridor is already in wonderful condition or hosts a healthy floodplain. You may be able to accept payments for maintaining your current conditions.

2. Accept payments to repair or improve an unhealthy area

For example, your property has some riparian erosion due to cattle use. You may be eligible for cash payments to fence cattle from the eroded area and replant and in future years, accept payments to maintain your newly improved conditions.


To learn more or to enroll in this program, contact:

Pedro Marques
Restoration Programs Manager
Big Hole Watershed Committee
(406) 552-2369 or