Corralling Sprawl – Land&People

Jim Macfarlane stabs his index finger toward a honeycomb of condominiums that almost fills a secluded mountain canyon. "This is exactly what we do not want our ranch to become," the Salt Lake City businessman declares emphatically, as we drive past dozens of pastel-colored boxes that climb the steep hillsides. "I am so thankful it won't." Jim's brothers, Grant, at the wheel of our pick-up, and Richard, sitting in the jump-seat behind me, nod in agreement.

Within a few minutes, we have crossed the fence line separating Jeremy Ranch–a once-rustic homestead now filled with high-end condos, an upscale restaurant, and an 18-hole golf course–from the Macfarlanes' Peaceful Valley Ranch. The 7,300-acre property looks much the same as it did in 1847 when Brigham Young led the first party of Mormon settlers through this notch in the Wasatch Mountains east of Salt Lake City. Much of the craggy landscape is drop-dead beautiful: forested slopes, snow-capped peaks, and verdant valleys watered by rock-strewn streams. Leaving suburban development behind, we turn a corner and see a herd of elk browsing a sun-dappled meadow. A mile farther, a bald eagle ignores us as it hunkers in a tall maple and searches for trout in East Canyon Creek.

At Big Dutch Creek, the brothers and I stop at an old bunkhouse where they bivouacked summers as kids, sleeping under shimmering stars after long days spent riding horses, mending fences, and flushing deer from oak thickets.

"You've got to check this out," urges Richard, a psychologist and the family historian, escorting me to a roughhewn log structure that stands near the foundation of an old ranch house, built by Nephi Clayton shortly after he acquired the property in 1890. "This cabin is one of the very few remaining Pony Express stops in Utah," he explains. Fully restored by the Macfarlanes a few years ago, the tiny house is one of several signposted historic sites on the ranch, including a state-protected stretch of the Mormon Pioneer Trail, blazed by the ill-fated Donner-Reed party in 1846. "Can you imagine," Richard asks, "replacing all this with a tract of vacation homes?"

I cannot. Yet hundreds of land-rich, cash-poor ranchers throughout the West have seen the unimaginable come true, finding themselves forced to sell land that has sustained their families for generations. They have watched helplessly as almost overnight their former pastures sprout houses, shopping centers, gas stations, and other fixtures of suburban life.

The story is increasingly familiar: a landowner (or the landowner's heirs), faced with high taxes, hefty operating expenses, and declining livestock revenues, sells out to a developer, who quickly turns agricultural property into residential "ranchettes," which are then sold to eager buyers–many of them affluent urbanites eager to escape the crowded city. Such developments are often inappropriate for their environments and yield the same kind of urban sprawl that newcomers found so distasteful in the places they left. Such sprawl often changes dramatically the traditional economies and pastoral character of rural lands, while damaging the watershed function of the terrain, destroying wildlife habitat, and undermining traditional uses the land may have served for hunters, fishers, and woodcutters.

It's a growing phenomenon in the West. According to the most recent estimate of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 1997 agricultural land was being developed at a rate of 1.2 million acres annually, double the rate of only five years earlier. "Many of the West's big, family-owned ranches are on the brink of disappearing," says Deborah Frey-Love, TPL's New Mexico state director, who oversaw the Peaceful Valley Ranch easement transaction two years ago. "It's make it or break it time for these folks," Love emphasizes.

Conserving Ranchlands and Livelihoods

But there is hope. For an increasing number of these properties, an innovative and powerful tool is being used to thwart sprawl and preserve working ranches that honor conservation goals. By selling (rather than donating) "development rights" in perpetuity to a local public entity, such as a nonprofit land trust or government agency, a landowner can lower tax liabilities, receive enough money to stay in business, and protect land from the kinds of uses most likely to endanger its natural resources and ability to sustain a traditional way of life. Title to the property remains with the owner, whose ranching practices are subject to oversight by the holder of the conservation easement. TPL's role is to structure transactions deemed to best meet the needs of the community, the rancher, and the land itself. TPL often helps develop a conservation-oriented management plan for the property, in coordination with all concerned parties.

"Our land was severely overgrazed by previous lessees," admits Mike Macfarlane, manager of the Peaceful Valley Ranch and son of Grant, the 72-year-old family patriarch. "We've reduced the number of cattle and sheep we run," Mike explains, "besides making other changes that have helped restore the land and its wildlife to better health." The conservation easement on the ranch is held by the state's Department of Natural Resources, which works with Mike in balancing the interests of livestock and the environment. Pasture rotation, for example, has helped the elk population grow large enough to justify selected culling by hunters, who pay for the privilege, thus helping sustain the ranch's cattle herd.

Statistics confirm that purchases of development rights (PDRs) are finding favor among owners of large ranches that, like the Peaceful Valley, are located near cities and thus under the greatest pressure from developers. Drawing attention to this trend, TPL last year joined with the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and the Western Governors' Association in preparing a report titled Purchase of Development Rights: Conserving Lands, Preserving Western Livelihoods. The document notes that "PDR makes economic sense in the West: it is a compensatory approach to conservation that protects land from development pressure at prices that are more affordable for the public than outright purchase, and it helps keep farmers and ranchers on the land, providing essential stewardship and contributing to the tax base."

The tactic is working. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance, about 2.6 million acres of U.S. land have been protected through conservation easements held by local and regional entities–a nearly fivefold increase over a ten-year period. (The organization does not keep separate statistics for purchased and donated easements.)

Roping in Runaway Growth

TPL has played a key role recently in the purchase of development rights in several western states that are under severe urban growth pressure. Notable PDRs have been executed since 1999 at the Varian V6 Ranch in central California, the Haynes Ranch in northeast Utah, as well as at Peaceful Valley Ranch near Salt Lake City. Deals are pending for ranches totaling about 11,000 acres in the Wet Mountain Valley of southern Colorado's Custer County, about 60 miles west of Pueblo.

According to Woody Beardsley, the Denver-based TPL project manager overseeing the Colorado initiative, that effort could preserve some of the most endangered ranch country in one of the most rapidly urbanizing states. Six large, family-owned properties–all but one contiguous–are expected to be protected over the next two years through a series of donations and purchases of development rights. The Colorado Cattleman's Land Trust and the San Isabel Foundation, a local group active in conservation, are the likely holders of the resulting conservation easements.

"Custer County," Beardsley points out, "is in the top ten nationally in its rate of rural development and is ninth among counties in per-capita population growth." This has placed enormous pressure on ranching families to sell out to developers. Some 5,000 unbuilt homesites have already been recorded. Although the county's population is still small (about 3,500), the area has been discovered, like the east side of Utah's Wasatch range, by urbanites able to work from their homes or willing to commute an hour or more to jobs in nearby cities. Custer County is also popular among retirees and those who can afford vacation homes.

"A viable mountain ranching community still exists here, which is becoming rare in Colorado," says Beardsley, whose great-grandfather settled more than a century ago in the pastoral valley wedged between the Sangre de Cristo and Wet ranges. "Many people in the area care deeply about preserving their heritage and are very concerned about the rate of subdivision growth."

Besides preserving a much-loved traditional way of life, preventing the break-up of Custer County's large working ranches will protect an impressive viewshed, vital wildlife travel corridors, and prime habitat for elk, pronghorn, and raptors. Meadow wetlands, riparian areas, and forest fragments–habitats that are home to an unusually wide variety of native plants–also will be saved.

For ranchers who don't have other sources of income, the fear of losing what they most care about is very real. "We know what the future holds if we don't act soon," says Randy Rusk, gesturing toward the new 35-acre ranchettes that line the southern border of his family's 1,553-acre Rusk Hereford Ranch. Not long ago, cattle grazed in pastures that are now front lawns and flower beds. An irrigation ditch flows past barbecues and swing sets, whose owners now complain about "intruding" cowboys and "smelly" manure. As Rusk sees it, the sale of development rights is "the last best chance" for him and other ranchers who wish to preserve a bucolic landscape and a neighborly way of life that are a vital part of the region's heritage.

"There are fewer than 35 working ranches left in Custer County," estimates Rusk, who at 52 is younger than many local cattlemen. Given the odds against economic success in such a fast-growing area, he concedes, ranching has fallen out of favor among most young people.

"Only one of my three kids is crazy enough to try this," laughs Rusk, who ticks off low beef prices and high operating costs as two of the intractable factors working against him. Rusk finds it ironic that governments in many Western communities welcome residential development. He cites a recent Sonoran Institute study estimating that new subdivisions incur local service costs of $1.16 for every tax dollar generated, compared with 54 cents in service costs for every dollar generated from agricultural land and open space. "In other words," Rusk points out with a weary chuckle, "ag land turned into residential actually costs more than it generates."

Taxes–largely in the form of inheritance liabilities based on the developed value of agricultural real estate–are the single biggest motivator for many ranchers seeking conservation easements. TPL's role in the Wet Mountain Valley is to facilitate fundraising and legalities of conservation easements among participating ranchers. "We hope to create a PDR program that is run locally and generates money each year, like an endowment," explains Westcliffe attorney Paul Snyder, a board member of the San Isabel Foundation. "Over time, we intend to get other ranches competing to obtain similar easements."

Not Enough to Go Around

In a PDR involving a large ranch, millions of dollars often must be raised in order to compensate the landowner for the development value he or she is sacrificing. Potential sources of money for Wet Mountain Valley easements include the Great Outdoors Colorado Trust Fund, a pool of state money set aside for the acquisition of open space, as well as grants from private foundations and individual donors. According to TPL's Beardsley, "We have to be selective about which ranches are targeted. Unfortunately, there's simply not enough money to buy everyone's development rights."

There are obvious practical reasons for ranchers to consider PDRs, but most also consider themselves caretakers of land that may have sustained their families for a century or more. These ties transcend economics.

Personifying such a relationship is Jack Varian, who raises cattle in the Diablo Mountains between the fertile Salinas and San Joaquin valleys of central California. He had a host of reasons for selling development rights on his family's 17,000-acre spread. Talking about them brings a catch to his voice.

"My wife, Zera, and I felt that it was payback time," explains Varian, who clearly loves the V6 Ranch, a mosaic of forested hills, winding streams, and rolling rangeland studded with majestic live oaks. "We felt we owed something to a piece of land that has given us a good life and helped us raise four great kids," he says. "We wanted to do this [easement] so that all the critters who live on the ranch wouldn't be cheated out of a home."

The Varians, who have seven grandchildren, also were keen on preserving family unity, so that "our descendants can argue about what kind of fence to build and what kind of bull to buy, but not over whether to divide the ranch." In 2001, development rights for the V6 were sold for $2.9 million to TPL, which conveyed them a few days later to the California Rangeland Trust, a land trust governed by ranchers. Jack Varian used the income from the transaction to reduce the cattle ranch's considerable debt and diversify its income stream. Management practices, he says, have remained largely the same, following a shift to more holistic ranching about ten years ago.

"The way we did things wasn't sustainable," Varian concedes. "So we quit dry-land farming, reduced the amount of equipment we used, started to graze areas more intensively for shorter periods, and began to vary our herd size based on rainfall."

In order to keep the ranch as pristine as possible, a limited amount of public recreation has been introduced. The public can sign up for four cattle drives each year, for example, and both birders and hunters are welcome guests. An annual mountain-bike race is held on the property, and the V6 co-sponsors a bluegrass festival in Parkfield, about five miles away. "We entertain other things people propose to do," says Varian, "as long as they don't impact the land's sustainability."

Varian says neighboring ranchers have taken an interest in what the V6 has done, but "the jury is still out in their minds" about the success of such changes. "They'll probably watch and see if it's feasible, in which case they may do similar things. But if I fail," he acknowledges with a realist's knowing grin, "I'm sure they'll gather at the coffee shop and tell each other it was bound to happen. Ranchers never like being told there's a better way to do things."

Creative Funding

Back in Utah, Grant Macfarlane agrees that many of his neighbors remain skeptical about PDRs and about conservation easements in general, though one has already followed his lead. "They don't realize that these mechanisms don't cost them money or require that they give up ownership rights," he sighs. As city attorney for Coalville, a small town that is beginning to feel development pressures from Salt Lake City, Macfarlane believes compromise is inevitable. "One has to think in terms of partnership," he stresses, "in order for these easements to happen."

Macfarlane knows what he's talking about. He led the effort among nearly 50 shareholders of the Peaceful Valley Ranch–all descendants of the Macfarlanes and the Claytons, the original two families that have owned the place since 1918–to preserve it. While Grant and his fellow Macfarlanes agreed to donate their portion of the development rights, $2.5 million still had to be raised for a PDR on behalf of the Clayton shareholders, who preferred to sell their development rights, and to establish a fund that would underwrite improvements and generate operating income.

TPL worked with Utah Open Lands, a local land trust, to secure substantial contributions from private foundations, including the LeRay McAllister Critical Land Conservation Fund and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. With the assistance of U.S. Senator Bob Bennett, funding was secured through Utah's Forest Legacy Program, a joint federal and state program that helps save forests from development. "It was down to the wire," recalls Jim Macfarlane, credited by family members as their primary fundraiser, "but at the last minute we found what we needed. Everyone in the family is very proud to leave this legacy for future generations."

Similar sentiments are echoed by Grant's wife, Shirley, and her brothers, Howard and Doug Haynes, who were in the fortunate position of being able to donate an easement of their own on an even larger property. It now protects their jointly owned 8,890-acre ranch in the mountains along Chalk Creek, a 75-minute drive east of Salt Lake City. Transacted at the same time the deal went through on the Peaceful Valley Ranch, the Haynes Ranch conservation easement–valued at $8.5 million–honors the memory of the siblings' parents, hardworking sheep ranchers who built up their holdings against overwhelming odds during the Great Depression.

Noting that she and her brothers have 13 children among them, Shirley confides that she had been "nervous that [the ranch] would eventually have to be sold because there would be so many people in the family with different opinions." Not to worry. "We all agreed that this was the best thing to do," says Howard, a retired Salt Lake City surgeon, who delights in displaying photographs of a spectacularly pristine alpine landscape that he insists "is one the prettiest places in the entire world."

Many of the Macfarlanes and Hayneses were in attendance on a golden October day in 2000 when Utah Governor Mike Leavitt and U.S. Senator Bob Bennett joined them in celebrating the successful protection of their family ranches, constituting two of the largest parcels of privately owned protected open space in northern Utah.

"We get one chance at this," Governor Leavitt reminded those gathered beneath the ancient cottonwoods of East Canyon. "If this generation does not step up, future generations will judge us harshly, and they should."

Freelance writer Richard Mahler lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico.