It’s disconcerting to look at the ads in the local newspaper these days. I’m bound to recognize someone I know who has just cast in his or her lot with Re/Max, Coldwell Banker or another of the multitude of agencies now playing the West’s biggest gambling game: Real Estate Roulette.
He or she will be cheerfully touting the "classic Western charm" of a bungalow that I know for a fact has a rotting foundation and floors so crooked you get dizzy walking across them. Or they’ll extol the possibilities for growing a vineyard on a beat-up piece of pasture that barely sustains a few cows. The asking price, even in my small, non-ski-resort town in Western Colorado, will make your head spin, especially if there is land attached.
That real estate has become the biggest game in town is not surprising. Western lands have always been magnets for speculators, even before the days of the 1862 Homestead Act. What makes today’s land rush different is the almost inconceivable amount of land in play, and the number of people with means to play the game.
A lot has been written about the aging owners of some of the West’s most beautiful ranchlands, who are selling out to wealthy baby boomers and riding off into the sunset. In the next decade, the American Farmalnd Trust estimates that more than half of the ranches in the West — some 50 million acres — will change hands, transferred to a younger generation or, more likely, sold to buyers, who will want a better return on their investments than cows can provide.
Now, this trend has spread beyond ranches to private timberlands in the Pacific Northwest. Many of the buyers are a new breed of company known as timber management investment organizations — or TIMOs — which view timberland as a high-yield, short-term investment. Typically, they cut trees fast and furiously for a few years before putting the land back up for sale at developer prices. In 1990, there were two or three TIMOs in the United States. Today, 24 TIMOs manage tens of millions of acres valued at $15.7 billion, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
It’s disheartening to see productive and biologically rich forests treated as just another item in an ever-shifting investment portfolio. At a local cafe in town the other day, I overheard an overly cologned couple bragging about "the great real estate bargains" they were finding. It sounded as if they were going to buy up the town, which isn’t all that far-fetched. Every week I hear about someone else who has bought multiple properties in our "undiscovered" valley, setting themselves up as landlords until they decide to cash out. And every week I see someone else stretching to sell a dusty 15-acre ranchette for a price two or three times what they could get a few years ago.
It’s depressing, and yet there’s hope to be found. It lies in the growing realization of conservation-minded folks that, they, too, can get in on the game: Now is the chance to buy up some of these ranches and forests and put them off-limits to developers. Over the past two decades, hundreds of small land trusts have sprung up in the country to help landowners keep their agricultural and wildlands intact rather than selling them off. By and large, the people interested in conservation easements are stickers, people who have dug their roots into a community for the long haul.
Some conservation groups are getting creative about real estate. In western Montana, ranchers have teamed up with The Nature Conservancy and other groups to do large-scale planning and fund raising to protect hundreds of thousands of acres along the Blackfoot River, made famous by Nornam Macleans’s novel, "A River Runs Through it." And in Washington state, a group called Ecotrust recently formed its own "green" TIMO, attracting enough capital to purchase 1,100 acres in the Olympic Mountains. The land, which is being harvested at a slow, ecologically sustainable rate, last year provided investors with a 5 percent return, says director Spencer Beebe. That’s below the 8 to 10 percent that most TIMOs promise, but still respectable.
If more ideas like this gain a foothold, the West just might hold on to some of its privately held forests, ranches and other wild lands. These are the lands that provide clean water, healthy habitat and jobs that allow people to work the land, instead of hawking it in the local paper.
Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org), which has covered the American West’s environment and community for 35 years. He is the paper’s publisher and lives in Paonia, Colorado.
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