A dispatch from the New West battleground

  Early in April 2000, I attended the auction of a ranch near my own, in a rural western South Dakota county that has resisted zoning. This is my report from the front lines where the real battle of the West is being fought -- with money.

The ranch was advertised as a single unit of 1,977 acres, or as "nine Tracts, 75 to 680 acres." Neighboring ranchers hoped the ranch would sell as ranch land, but doubted it. The auctioneers printed a color brochure; locals chuckled that a tract advertised as "wooded" contained only one tree.

At the beginning of the sale, an auctioneer mumbled something about a "proposed highway." Ten minutes later, he urged a bidder, "Where else are you going to find a site like this on a four-lane divided highway?" But auctioneers can't be held responsible for their remarks; their job is to make money for the seller. The buyer's job is to beware.

One prospective buyer, who had driven into a tract to inspect it, set a fire that consumed his pickup, a half-acre of my neighbor's grass and my shed. He was astonished at how much his house-in-the-country fantasy had already cost before auction day, including the bills from the volunteer fire department and a neighboring rancher who fought the fire. Posted signs had warned of extreme fire danger, and neighbors held him responsible for his actions -- part of living in the country.

As the auction began, an electronic screen listed the nine tracts of land. Individual tracts were offered one by one, and the prospective buyer's per-acre offer listed on the screen. At that point, the sale had already made history in our county. One bidder offered more than $1,000 an acre for two parcels totaling 150 acres, with no well or other improvements.

How much, we wondered, would this sale cost us when our property taxes were next assessed?

In the second round, bidders could buy the whole ranch. The auctioneer began soliciting bids at $600 an acre, then dropped to $500. The two auctioneers conferred, then announced that they would not sell the ranch as a unit for less than the average of the "hold" bids, $485 an acre. Auction ringmen ingmen moved through the room pointing at various buyers, trying to make somebody nervous enough to raise a hand. The auctioneer lectured, "There's some of you that can afford to buy this whole ranch, and you're gonna be sorry tomorrow that you didn't do it."

After a recess, the auctioneers again offered the tracts of land one by one. Some bidders raised their hands for the first time, now they knew every one else's limit. Observers whispered, "He's a doctor," or, "He's in real estate." After the auctioneer's cry of "Going once, going twice," each tract was labeled "sold" on the screen in the front of the room.

When the last sale was over, neighbors crowded around a rancher who had kept bidding, determined to own a piece of land in the heart of his ranch so it wouldn't become a home site. His face was the color of the grass I've found growing under old boards.

Most of the other buyers plan to subdivide. For 150 acres, one bidder agreed to pay $157,500, or $1,050 per acre, saying he plans to raise horses. I own 157 acres across the highway, now assessed at $218.68 per acre.

After the sale, the widow wandered around the room, almost in tears, saying "I didn't think they'd sell it in pieces; I thought somebody would buy the whole thing." No one listened. If she really believed a rancher would buy the land, she was the only one in the room who thought so. But her children didn't want to ranch.

Seven high bidders paid a total of $1.4 million, about an average of $731 an acre. The ranchers in the room shook their heads, knowing that cows would never pay for the land. Fewer ranchers means more subdivisions. More subdivisions mean more trash and more people in my pastures, hunting, driving ATVs; more dropped cigarettes, more fires fought by our volunteer fire department. Fewer deer will graze down my meadow; they can't get through the homeowners' dogs, who range my pastures all day. It means higher taxes, lower water levels; less chance any of my neighbors can afford to buy my whole ranch if I, too, must sell.

More subdivisions, less open space. Less chance to see the sun rise over open prairie instead of roofs. What do more subdivisions mean to you?

Linda M. Hasselstrom is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado(hcn.org). She splits her time between a ranch in South Dakota and in Cheyenne, Wyoming.