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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Western Sprawl Alternative

Air Date: Week of

Today, as more and more people pour into parts of the Western U.S., things are changing. Unless you are very rich, in many places land is now too expensive to buy for ranching. Colorado, for example, loses 90,000 acres of agricultural land each year to development. But, the folks of at least one rural county are fighting back. They're preserving ranch land by offering landowners an alternative to selling out their community to sprawl. Becky Rumsey has our story.


CURWOOD: When you think of the American West, open space easily comes to mind: broad plains, big mountains, and wide open skies. And for the last 150 years the West has been a magnet for many who seek to get away from the cramped quarters of the big cities. There was always, it seemed, plenty of room for another ranch, another homestead. Today, as more and more people pour into parts of the old Wild West, things are changing. Unless you are very rich, in many places land is now too expensive to buy for ranching. Colorado, for example, loses 90,000 acres of agricultural land each year to development. But the folks of at least one rural county are fighting back. They're preserving ranch land by offering landowners an alternative to selling out their community to sprawl. Becky Rumsey has our story.

(Children laughing in snow)

RUMSEY: At the base of the ski area in Steamboat, Colorado, there is a bronze statue of a cowboy on skis. Steamboat markets this cowboy image, but it's not just myth. Sailing over an imaginary mogul, with his mustache, hat, and big belt buckle, he's an apt symbol of what sets this place apart from many other mountain resorts. Steamboat still has a real town and a diverse economy because so far, its ranchers are still ranching.

(Highway sounds)

RUMSEY: About 5 years ago conservationists, ranchers, planners, and others listened to the rising roar of traffic on Steamboat's main street. And they realized that with cattle prices low and land values escalating, they were about to lose their ranching community and a lot of their open space with it. So the county took action.

MUCKLOW: We did a study that looked at the value, what's the value to tourists and residents of open space?

RUMSEY: C.J. Mucklow is the Routt County Agricultural Extension Agent.

MUCKLOW: And it was the first time there was ever any data put together that showed that there was a value in just a view of pastoral landscapes. As visitors said, that's somewhere between $11 and $17 million just to look at. So I think that helped. I think that gave some validity to the data that agriculture is more important than just the productivity, the weight gains, how many cows we can run.

RUMSEY: Unlike other places in the West, where changes pit ranchers against environmentalists, Routt County residents forged a common vision. In 1995, Routt County adopted an open lands plan. Some people don't even like to call it a plan, because that smacks of heavy-handed regulation, something that doesn't wash well in the conservative West. What it really is, they say, is a menu of voluntary options for landowners and developers: tools to keep more land open and available for agriculture. One of those tools is a conservation easement, a permanent restriction on a property that precludes its development.

(Running water)

RUMSEY: That's what saved the Fetcher Ranch along the Elk River 16 miles north of Steamboat. Mr. Fetcher gave up some market value. In exchange, his family will receive tax benefits. Jay Fetcher appreciates his father's decision.

FETCHER: He is very active and very healthy, but he's 85. And if he were to die tomorrow without this conservation easement, the value of the land is such that I have to sell half the ranch in order to pay the estate tax and I'm out of business. With half a ranch left, I can't stay here. It's not an economic unit any more.

RUMSEY: The Fetchers donated their development rights. But if a rancher can't afford to do that, he or she can ask the county to buy those rights. Routt County now has a small pool of money for that purpose. But those funds will only go so far. Still, many ranchers worry about permanently encumbering all of their land and closing off their family's options to raise money or build another house on the ranch. Routt County addressed these concerns by making it easy for ranchers using easements to set aside a few buildable lots at the same time.

FETCHER: If I needed to, I could get approval and sale of a 5-acre home site within, I think, 60 days.

RUMSEY: Typically, a landowner who wants to turn ranch land into money has 2 choices in Colorado. He can sell to a big developer, who will subdivide it and put hundreds of houses on it, or he can carve it into 35-acre ranchettes, which under state law are exempt from county review. In either case, ranching loses, and so does the rest of the community.

ZELLER: The problem with the 35-acre pattern is that it's kind of the ultimate large sprawl pattern of development, and it ends up consuming a lot of countryside as opposed to protecting it.

RUMSEY: Marty Zeller runs Conservation Partners, a Denver consulting firm that helped Routt County create some alternatives.

ZELLER: It's generally too large to maintain effectively and too small to really graze. And so you get this pattern of scatteration of houses over large landscapes, and I think ultimately it's going to be very expensive to provide public services to. Just think of the cost of providing school buses to that pattern of development, as opposed to a more compact village pattern with a larger area protected.

RUMSEY: So Routt County also created a new kind of subdivision, one that could combine limited development with continued ranching on one property.

(Construction sounds: hammers, saws)

VALENTINE: That's a cluster. And then, this road, you can see, construction you see, that foundation, that road is a little loop up there. And there are nine lots off that loop.

RUMSEY: Don Valentine is the developer of Preist Creek Ranch, a so-called “Land Preservation Subdivision”. It's close to town and the ski area, and it was once slated for more than 200 houses. Now it will have only 13 on clustered lots. In exchange for the space left open, Routt County rewarded Mr. Valentine with 3 more lots than he would have had if he'd cut the ranch into 35-acre ranchettes. That's 3 more he can sell and nearly 90% of Preist Creek remains open and could be ranched.

VALENTINE: Someone does have a ranch and they want to sell some pieces off, they can do it without having to do the 35-acre tract thing. They can do some smaller, you know, some lots that are a couple acres and still preserve the bulk of the ranch, which is what we were able to do here. See, all the wetlands, all the haymeadow is all still there. It's not touched, and will stay that way.

RUMSEY: Planners say this kind of subdivision can be cost-effective and accommodate the privacy and views homeowners want. The county's approved 5 of these subdivisions since 1995, and altogether they've kept 825 acres open. But so far, it's mostly developers, not ranchers, who are choosing this option.

(Dogs, whining and barking)

RUMSEY: At the Steamboat Animal Hospital, retiring veterinarian and rancher “Doc” Baldwin expects it will take a while for the Land Preservation Subdivision, or LPS, idea to catch on in the ranching community. Many ranchers, he says, are skeptical about mixing a working ranch with any sort of a residential neighborhood. And, he says, they tend to think they wouldn't be able to afford or manage a development project, even a small one.

BALDWIN: But I think there will be some ranchers that will do LPS plans with the county as time goes by, and they learn more about it. And maybe they'll partner with some builder or some person that wants to do some speculation development, an investor of some sort.

RUMSEY: Routt County's plan came too late for Doc Baldwin. He sold his ranch in 1994. Like many Colorado ranchers, he and his son moved their cattle operation to Nebraska, where land is cheaper and it's easier to expand. But Baldwin is still optimistic about both preservation and ranching in Routt County. He serves on the board of a local land trust and supports the Routt County approach.

BALDWIN: I think that there's a lot of flexibility in what's going on in Routt County for maintaining some viable ranching. It may not be mother cowherds as much as it will be hay production and catering to the tourist business with horses and summer pasture for yearling cattle. That doesn't mean it isn't viable, it just means it'll be different.

RUMSEY: It's too early to tell of Routt County's open lands plan will work in the long term. But so far, agricultural activity in the county, the number of cows, acres in hay, and gross farm sales, has remained remarkably constant. Planners in the region say Routt County is setting an example for the rural west, where land preservation and property rights often clash. In five short years, the county's landowners have protected 10,000 acres from development. But as planner Marty Zeller warns, preservation isn't a game you play just once. Often, the more land you protect, the more attractive an area becomes, and the more land values rise. It's a balancing act the rural west is just beginning to undertake. For Living on Earth, I'm Becky Rumsey in Steamboat, Colorado.



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