Two weeks in the West

 

From sprawling estates in Colorado's tony Roaring Fork Valley to parched ranches on Montana's high plains, conservation easements protect millions of private acres of open space in the West. Next to all that, a 2002 decision by Johnson County, Wyo., to terminate an easement it held on the 1,043-acre Meadowood Ranch just east of Buffalo seems like small potatoes. But if the Wyoming attorney general's office fails to restore that easement through a lawsuit it filed this July, the case could harm efforts to conserve private land in Wyoming and across the country.

The issue is not whether an easement can be voided, but how easily, says University of Utah law professor Nancy McLaughlin. Ranch owners Paul and Judith Lowham donated the easement to the county back in 1993 to protect their property's agricultural, scenic and ecological values from subdivision "in perpetuity.‚" But just nine years later, new ranch owners Fred and Linda Dowd, worried that coalbed methane drilling on the ranch would destroy its value for agriculture, asked the county to extinguish the easement. The Johnson County Commission agreed, releasing development rights worth more than a million dollars to the Dowds without formal court proceedings or receiving compensation for the easement. Soon after, the couple marketed a second homesite on the ranch.

Hefty federal and state tax breaks help make such easements possible, and landowners preserve their property at a financial loss because they agree to limit development. If "permanent‚" protections can be stripped through a simple agreement, McLaughlin says, "the public investment just goes 'poof!' It's gone.‚" A ruling for the county and landowners could encourage attempts to break other easements, and may not sit well with Congress, which has the power to repeal tax credits, or the IRS, she says, not to mention folks who want to see their land protected for the long haul.

In other news, a snowy winter and wet spring in the West boosted water levels in drought-stricken Lake Powell by 45 feet at its July 16 peak. Even so, the West is in the midst of another bear of a summer. Fueled by heat (record-breaking in parts of Colorado, California, Idaho and Texas) and dry, windy conditions, wildfires torched hundreds of thousands of Western acres -- the vast majority in California -- triggering air quality warnings across the region in July and August. It's not just the fires causing pollution worries: The Environmental Protection Agency touched off its own on July 31, when it approved the air quality permit for the 1,500-megawatt coal-fired Desert Rock power plant in northwestern New Mexico. A dozen environmental and citizen groups, along with the state of New Mexico, have promised to appeal the decision. Desert Rock faces only two more hurdles -- an environmental impact statement and a federal mercury ruling -- and may soon begin pursuing power contracts with utilities.

In order to improve air quality in booming Pinal and Maricopa Counties, Arizona's state land department is considering stamping out a different sort of conflagration on some state trust lands: dust-churning offroad vehicles. Smokey Bear even briefly entered the fray in July, warning in a public service ad that ORVs can spark wildfires. (The ad was short-lived; the Forest Service yanked it after complaints from offroad groups.)  Meanwhile, a different kind of smoky bear -- a decidedly less gentle grizzly one -- scratched up a firefighter in early August while fleeing the LeHardy wildfire in Yellowstone National Park.