In the scramble to preserve Western open space, land trusts have taken the lead. -I see a lot of people looking at land trusts as a real bridge between environmentalists and landowners," says Jean Hocker, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance. "At a time when, I think, the rest of the environmental movement is in the doldrums, people are seeing the tremendous growth of land trusts as the one bright light on the horizon."
The Alliance counted 1,095 United
States land trusts in 1994, up 23 percent from 1990. Of those, 107
are in the 10 Western states (excluding California). Those 107
trusts have protected 918,842 acres, according to the group - 23
percent of all land protected by trusts in the
Among the top 10 states with the most land
protected by all means, including outright purchase, Utah is number
two with 489,381 acres, and Nevada number eight, with 98,896 acres.
New Mexico, in acquiring conservation easements on the 300,000-acre
Gray Ranch, recently outdistanced Montana with its nearly 145,000
acres. Montana is second to none, however, in the number of
easements. Much of that is the responsibility of the Helena-based
Montana Land Reliance.
"We see ourselves totally
in a race between development and preservation in some of these
valleys," says Land Reliance development director John Wilson.
"We're trying to not turn the satellite dish into the state
"Some of these ranchers see their last
crop as subdivisions and houses. They say, "Uh-uh, I'm not going to
touch that with a 10-foot pole; I want to keep my options open." We
have to respect that."
Wilson says some ranchers
turn sour on conservation easements when they see rich jet-setters
buying large ranches and putting easements on them. The
107,000-acre Nature Conservancy easement on a Montana ranch owned
by Ted Turner is "a lightning rod to the cultural changes happening
in Montana," he says.
But land trusts keep
plugging away, providing information to people who don't want to
see the West subdivided, says Wilson. That message is getting
through: Montana recently increased the minimum non-subdivision lot
size (that is, ranchette) from 20 acres to 160. Wilson says, "That
in itself was a reflection of the agricultural community saying,
"Whoa, wait a minute, what's going on here?"
Land trusts offer ranchers and farmers a
variety of tools, all with similar, often overlapping goals:
Keeping land in agriculture, preserving open space and wildlife
habitat, and providing income tax or estate tax relief.
Land trusts provide variations on one basic
theme: relieving a piece of property of much of its appraised
value. Because this directly affects the landowner's pocketbook,
that loss must be weighed by each owner against other
For instance, a rancher's heirs may be
facing a big inheritance tax which could force them to sell or
subdivide the ranch (see main story). Or a rancher may want to
reduce his income tax. The value of the donation - determined by
pre- and post-donation appraisals - is tax-deductible against the
landowner's annual income (up to 30 percent of his or her income
per year) for each of six years.
value of the donation is often far greater than what many ranchers
can take as a deduction. A rancher who gives away a $500,000
conservation easement, but earns $20,000 a year, will only be able
to deduct $36,000 in total from his or her federal
So some land trusts connect ranchers
willing to sell their property with so-called "conservation buyers'
- usually people of wealth who will buy the ranch and donate its
conservation easement to a land trust. The new owners can usually
use all of the tax deductibility of the easement donation. And they
may arrange with the rancher to stay on and work the land. Thus the
rancher gets cash for his property worth far more than a tax
deduction, and may keep working it.
on that theme is used by Lane Coulston, owner of Helena-based
American Conservation Real Estate, which puts conservation-minded
buyers together with like-minded sellers. A buyer might end up with
a small parcel on a ranch, in exchange for buying the ranch's
"We believe that those kinds
of opportunities will continue to grow," says Coulston, who has
concentrated on this kind of real estate transaction in Montana,
Idaho and Wyoming since the late 1980s. "That 20-acre parcel will
grow in value, and be more valuable than any other 20-acre parcel
Only 33 land trusts in the 10 Western
states are involved in ranchland protection, according to the Land
Trust Alliance. Part of the reason is lack of familiarity.
"I have known landowners who wanted to protect
their land, and whose lawyers discouraged them from doing that
because it was outside their knowledge," says the Alliance's
Hocker. "Often, ranchers in particular will have as their lawyer a
family retainer they've used for years and years, who is very
skilled in other areas but just doesn't know how to protect land."
Another reason is cultural; ranchers are often
unwilling to work with trusts they see as protectionist
organizations devoted to taking away property rights. "You can
imagine the level of skepticism the ranching community has had when
they look at land trusts and conservation easements in general,"
says Reeves Brown, executive vice president of the Colorado
Cattlemen's Association. That is partly why Brown and Routt County
rancher Jay Fetcher are forming the Colorado Cattlemen's
Agricultural Land Trust.
"How do you effectuate
land preservation and still recognize property rights?" asks Brown
rhetorically. "One of the best solutions that's come forward is
voluntary land conservation efforts, as embodied in conservation
American Conservation Real Estate,
Suite 10, The Livestock Building, 2 N. Last Chance Gulch, Helena,
MT 59601 (406/443-7085);
American Farmland Trust,
1920 N Street N.W., Washington, DC 20036
Conservation Partners, 1138
Humboldt St., Denver, CO 80218
Montana Land Reliance, P.O. Box
355, Helena, MT 59624 (406/443-7027);
Trust Alliance, 1319 F Street N.W., Washington, DC 20004
(202/638-4725). - H.C.