From Steamboat Today (Michael Schrantz):
John McClow is general counsel for the Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and a member of Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, which focuses its efforts solely on agriculture.
“We broker conservation easements to maintain working agriculture,” McClow said.
In the Upper Gunnison area, the organization has helped place easements on about 18,000 acres, which McClow said is a substantial percentage of the total area. Most of the easements have a financial incentive for the landowner, he said.
“Often, they will use the money to invest in more land,” McClow said, adding that it helps keep the ranch operation financially stable.
“Our easement activity has slowed a little bit,” he said. “We’ve pretty much picked all the low hanging fruit.”
The organization is getting into more complicated easements on lands that are more valuable and take more money, many being larger and closer to Crested Butte.
Gunnison County directs some funds from its 1 percent sales tax toward purchasing development rights, about $300,000 per year, according to Mike Pelletier.
“Typically, we’re able to fund what’s requested,” said Pelletier, who is the county contact for the program. “We have limited funds, and people just don’t ask if they don’t think we can fund it.”
The tax dollars were reauthorized in 2012, he said, and are used to match dollars from elsewhere…
“For every dollar we give to local land trusts, they attract $12 from outside” the county, he said. “By doing that you leverage a lot of outside money.”’
From Steamboat Today (Michael Schrantz):
George is working on his third easement with the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust. He’s donating the value of the development rights in return for a state tax credit he will sell for 82 cents on the dollar, but his previous two easements went through Routt County’s purchase of development rights program, which pairs tax dollars with other funds to buy the right to develop the land and places the property under an easement dedicated to conservation.
“The benefit was we were able to keep the family ranch in the family,” George said about the easements, especially one in 2012 that was valued at $2.56 million.
The PDR program contributed $825,000 toward that transaction, about 31 percent of the total cost.
That money helped buy out other family members while George’s other easements allowed him to buy more land and pay down debt on parcels he’d already purchased.
“If I die or if we sell the ranch, it cannot be subdivided,” he said. “All these parcels will stay their size.”
George thinks more ranchers should look into easements on their property.
“They lack the knowledge,” he said. “They’re scared of them.”[...]
As early as the 1980s and during the push for major development in Pleasant Valley south of Steamboat, residents banded together in support of open-space conservation.
In the mid-1990s, these efforts gained momentum with Routt County ranchers placing conservation easements on their property and new county policies being enacted to preserve open space.
The effect of this work can be seen in the absence of development.
The drive down Rabbit Ears Pass into Steamboat Springs shows an open south valley floor where hay meadows still dominate the view. Colorado Highway 131 cuts through working ranches in South Routt County, and traffic on county roads still sometimes pauses to accommodate cattle being moved to greener pastures.
Preventing the fragmentation of agricultural land through subdivision and development keeps more land in production and helps maintain the working order of the landscape.
Splitting large tracts of agricultural land into ranchettes and subdivisions means introducing new neighbors to rural Colorado.
“They just don’t have a clue to what’s going on in the ranching world,” Routt County commissioner Doug Monger said about some people who live near land he’s leased for his cattle. “No one fixes their fence.”
Colorado is a fence-out state where landowners are required to maintain a lawful fence if they want to keep cattle out of their land. The cattle owner is not responsible for trespassing by his livestock if a fence isn’t maintained…
Gunnison County, another Western Slope county with a long ranching heritage, has seen the effects of agricultural fragmentation that arise from subdividing working ranchland.
“What happens is when they put in the road and building sites then turn over management of the property to someone who has no experience in the area, it disrupts the irrigation system within that drainage,” said John McClow, general counsel for Upper Gunnison River Water Conservancy District and member of Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy.
The Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy brokers easements for ranches in Gunnison County.
“It’s a disruption in the process that makes shortages much more frequent,” McClow said. “It’s not collaborative anymore.”
With flood-irrigated pasture, such as in Routt County, ranchers depend on water returning from their neighbors’ fields back into the river or ditches. Turning an upstream ranch into a subdivision or 35-acre parcels takes away return flows for the ranches below it.
Subdivisions downstream and closer to towns also pose challenges as the managers might be unfamiliar with how the river was managed in the past and place a call on the river if they aren’t getting their full allocation. Under Colorado’s prior appropriation system, when a senior rights holder places a call on a river, upstream junior appropriations must stop diverting water until the senior right has its full allocation.
From The Pueblo Chieftain (Michael P. Dowling/Chris West):
There is a nice bonus for Colorado in the Farm Bill that President Obama signed last month (Feb. 7). Senate Conservation Subcommittee Chairman Michael Bennet, D-Colo., fought hard for programs that will enable Colorado conservation organizations and local governments to partner with landowners to keep our state’s unique ranches and farm lands in agriculture. The new Agricultural Lands Easement program will provide grants to purchase conservation easements that permanently restrict development on important ranches and farm lands. These voluntary agreements will ensure that land stays in agriculture and continues to be an important — and growing — part of our state’s economy.
The predecessors to this program have already conserved more than 1 million acres of economically and ecologically important agricultural lands. The new program will easily double that total.
Senator Bennet joined Senate Agricultural Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow of Michigan in leading the effort to pass this bi-partisan bill, working with other Colorado leaders, including Rep. Scott Tipton, R-Colo., a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Senator Bennett also changed the law to allow the agriculture secretary to waive a local cash-match requirement. This waiver will allow the program, at no additional cost, to protect the most important ranches and farmlands, even if they are in rural counties that don’t have the funding to match the federal grants.
But the question is: Why should this land conservation matter to the vast majority of Americans who are neither farmers nor ranchers?
While producing crops, livestock and other agricultural commodities for all Americans, properly managed working ranch lands and farms protect important habitat for our wildlife and fish; maintain cherished scenic vistas; and safeguard our water supplies and the water quality of our rivers. In addition, conserving these farms and ranches keeps farmers and ranchers on the land, and is protects an important part of our state’s economy.
Colorado has 29 land trusts that are members of the Land Trust Alliance, and they have protected more than 1.1 million acres using conservation easements alone. For example, more than 150 years of Colorado history — and a part of its future — were preserved when the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and the Trust for Public Land completed an effort to protect 650 acres of the Hutchinson Ranch in Chaffee County. Protection of the Hutchinson Ranch was made possible by funding from the Farm Bill programs that Senator Bennet just improved, along with lottery-funded Great Outdoors Colorado and Chaffee County.
Though these lands — including such unique resources as the Hutchinson Ranch — are productive and important for agriculture, without action they are very much at risk. Non-agriculture development overtakes two acres of productive agricultural land every minute. But conservation easement programs ensure that our state’s most beautiful and productive ranches and farm land will continue into the future.
Near Rocky Ford in Southeastern Colorado, 12,200 acres of the Mendenhall Ranches were protected using Farm Bill conservation funding last summer. The Mendenhalls used the easement to secure the future for their ranch, which is almost entirely native shortgrass prairie, home to cattle and increasingly rare grassland wildlife.
That is why the Farm Bill’s Agricultural Lands Easement program makes both economic and ecologic sense for Colorado and for America. And that is why we should all thank Senator Bennet for his leadership in making the conservation programs in the Farm Bill work for ranchers and farmers.