The sale of the Pete Widener ranch prompted 10 other nearby ranching families to donate conservation easements on an additional 10,223 acres. That means more than 14,000 acres will remain unavailable for subdividing. Widener is an oilman who has lived in Sheridan for the past 25 years. He recently moved to Saratoga, Wyo.
"This unprecedented effort sets a statewide example of what a local group of concerned ranchers can contribute to the long-term viability of ranching, conservation of wildlife and sustaining the Wyoming way of life," said Ben Pierce, director of the Wyoming chapter of The Nature Conservancy in Lander.
Conservation easements prevent housing subdivisions, ensure continued agricultural uses and conserve natural habitat connected to plant and animal life.
The Nature Conservancy already holds conservation easements on nearly 8,000 acres donated by three ranchers in the Sheridan area, and more than 30,000 acres throughout Wyoming.
One year ago, the conservancy acquired the Red Canyon Ranch near Lander, a 35,000-acre spread composed of 5,000 deeded acres and 30,000 leased federally owned acres. Former Wyoming Stock Growers Association Director Bob Budd manages that ranch (HCN, 2/7/94).
The environmental organization, however, said it plans to resell the Widener ranch to "conservation-oriented buyers."
According to Roger Wilson, a long-time Sheridan resident and a local Department of Game and Fish employee, the easements and the securing of the Widener ranch are pluses for wildlife and for the community.
"When you think of what this country will look like in 100 years, it is scary," Wilson said. "The land is just being nibbled away like a duck nibbling at a piece of bread ... If we don't have habitat, we don't have wildlife."
A Sheridan County official said she views the entire package as a positive development.
"I'm delighted the Widener ranch went to the Nature Conservancy," said Eunice McEwan, a Sheridan County commissioner. "I do not want to see anything along the face of the (Big Horn) mountains developed."
She said that "some were worried" the land would be split into 35-acre residential lots, or perhaps be sold to a movie star.
Another local official was less enthusiastic, but said "time will tell" whether the trend towards conservation easements is good for the county.
"I don't think it's bad necessarily," said Andrea DeBolt, director of the Sheridan County Economic Development Association. "Who knows how protective they will be? But we're used to regulations on public land. And it is nice to know we can look up into the foothills and see a gorgeous view."
DeBolt and McEwan said they approve of the general slow, cautious approach to development that currently prevails in Sheridan. Both cited as a positive example a 600-lot subdivision approved last week that allows the construction of only 30 houses per year over the next 20 years.
The easements appear to fall in line with the county master plan, which says the county should "discourage prime agricultural lands from development and encourage future urban growth towards less productive areas."
The ranches participating in the donations of easements are the Raid Creek, Rapid Canyon, T Bar T, Beaver Creek and one ranch whose owners preferred to remain anonymous.
* Katharine Collins
Katharine Collins reports for the Casper Star-Tribune.