Partnership of Rangeland Trust (PORT) leaders convened at the 33rd National Cowboy Poetry Gathering in Elko, Nevada on February 4, 2017 – the world renowned festival that honors the arts, culture, and traditions of the rural West. They were invited to form a panel discussing “Keeping Working Lands in Working Hands” for the good of land and people.
According to a recent study, 2.5 million acres of farm and ranch land in America are lost every year. Between 1982 and 2012, 44 million acres were developed. “While people are aware of this substantial and continual diminishment of America’s agricultural land base, what most Americans are unaware of is the response by ranchers and farmers to preserve these private lands.” Enter PORT.
PORT is an association of locally based, agriculturally oriented land conservation organizations established to leverage resources to enhance the voluntary conservation and stewardship of America’s ranchlands. These seven statewide and regional land trusts – California Rangeland Trust, Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust (CCALT), Montana Land Reliance, Northwest Rangeland Trust, Texas Agricultural Land Trust, and Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust – have had remarkable impact. Together they hold more than 1,283 conservation easements that ensure over 2.2 million acres throughout the western states will stay ranchland forever.
Erik Glenn, Executive Director of CCALT, and Rick Knight, professor of wildlife conservation at Colorado State University and CCALT board member, gave a brief introduction to PORT and went on to serve as the panel moderators.
Nita Vail, Chief Executive Officer of CRT opened her Conservation Easements 101 with a short video – the Cowboy Conservationists. Supplying local food, bolstering rural economies, and preserving our Western heritage are the obvious benefits of ranching. What many people don’t know is that ranching is also critical to endangered species habitat, urban water supply, carbon sequestration, and even farming.
Latest research shows that 75% of endangered species habitat is on private land. Many threatened or endangered plant and animal species even require managed livestock grazing to maintain suitable habitat. According to the Rangeland Watersheds program at U.C. Davis, rangeland watersheds supply 85% of California’s drinking water. Close proximity to rangeland is also vital to the bee populations that pollinate California’s crops.
Producers led the way to combine environmental conservation goals with rancher’s interests and best practices. First on the scene was CCALT. California Rangeland Trust, Montana Land Reliance, and the others followed suite to help ranchers place conservation easements on their land. A conservation easement is a restriction placed on a piece of property to protect its resources in perpetuity – the landowner either sells or donates the development rights.
The subsequent devaluation of the land reduces its taxable value. In addition, funded easements provide cash flow; donated easements can offer significant tax deductions. Other conservation easement types include a bargain sale – where part of the easement value is funded and part is donated – and mitigation easements which are paid for by developers or mitigating groups to offset expected adverse impacts of development.
Conservation easements are held by a government agency or qualified nonprofit which must monitor the easement yearly to ensure the terms of the easement are upheld. Ranchers choose to partner with PORT members because these cattlemen’s land trusts are run by ranchers who understand the business.
Bo Alley, Executive Director of Wyoming Stock Growers Land Trust then explained how energy development and agriculture go hand in hand in his talk: Energy Development, Water Rights and Conservation Easements.
Bo was followed by Erik Glenn who spoke on Ecosystem Services and Conservation 2.0. Colorado has been looking at a new way to value the environmental or ecosystem services provided by PORT such as flood and erosion control, carbon sequestration, natural purification of water, habitat, soil retention, pollination, and recreation. According to one report, PORT easements provide more than $804 million in ecosystem services per year.
Fourth generation Montana rancher and Director of the Montana Land Reliance, Phil Rostad, concluded with Conservation Easements from a Landowner’s Perspective. Phil and his brother inherited a ranch with no estate plan in place and a $625,000 exemption. The conservation easement subsequently placed on the ranch – conservation easements are the only post mortem thing that can affect estate value – reduced the ranch value by 35% allowing them to pay the estate tax.
The landowner’s benefits – financial, generational transfer, and preservation of open spaces – make conservation easements very attractive to ranchers. But the need is great. While California Rangeland Trust has conserved nearly 300,000 acres in California, there are almost 500,000 acres on the waiting list. While PORT members are working hard to meet the need, everyone who stays informed becomes part of the solution.
The message about producer-led solutions to private land conservation and its importance to our well-being, societal benefit, and prosperity was well received by the Cowboy Poetry goers – by attending the panel, they too are Cowboy Conservationists.
First published in the March 2017 issue of California Cattlemen’s Magazine