Cattlemen make use of a conservation tool

  • HOLDING ON: Rancher Brett Redden

    Adam Burke photo

GUNNISON, Colo. - Frost gilds the branches of the elder and cottonwood trees bordering the Redden family's pastureland as Brett Redden climbs into a tractor at dawn and delivers hay to 300 cattle. Then he goes to his "regular" job with the fire and rescue crew at Gunnison Airport. Some months he'll pick up extra work driving cattle trucks and building roads.

Redden's wife, sister, brother-in-law and mother also juggle jobs to keep the family ranch going. "At times, each one of us was working one, two, or even three jobs besides ranch work," he says, "and we were still sinking deeper and deeper into debt."

His is a familiar predicament for ranchers. Perched on the southern toes of Colorado's central mountains, Gunnison is close to national forest trails and the bustling resort town of Crested Butte, 28 miles to the north. Brett Redden has seen great swaths of grazing land around him go under the developer's knife as ranchers have sold out.

A few years ago, Redden himself considered selling the ranch to subdividers. Then, thanks to an innovative cattlemen's organization, he sold the rights to develop the ranch and saved his business. In 1997, Redden Ranches Inc. sold a conservation easement on 995 acres of the Ohio Creek Valley ranch for almost $660,000, erasing the potential for development and giving the family a sizeable tax break because the family also donated some land to the land trust. Eventually, Redden hopes to be able to quit his airport job and focus on ranching.

Redden's story marks a recent shift throughout Colorado, as agricultural landowners turn toward conservation easements as a way to stem real estate pressure and stay in business. Urban environmentalists may have developed the tool of conservation easements to preserve open space, but that tool is now firmly in the mainstream of Colorado's ranching community.

Embracing a "tree-hugger" technique

Convincing cattlemen to use conservation easements has not been easy - even though easements allow ranchers to keep ranching and few land trusts require landowners to meet water-quality or rangeland standards.

What convinced some was the growing pressure from several fronts. Over the last decade, many have gone out of business from mortgage debt, encroaching subdivision development, property and inheritance taxes, low beef prices and high production costs. According to the Colorado Agricultural Statistic Service, the state has lost 1.5 million acres of productive agricultural land since 1987, and 200,000 of those acres disappeared in 1996 alone.

To counter the decline, the Colorado Cattlemen's Association, a beef industry advocacy group founded 132 years ago, formed a land trust in 1995. The Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, it focuses on educating ranchers about the value of conservation easements and also helps coordinate local efforts.

The problem, explains Lynne Sherrod, the group's executive director, is that ranchers are "dirt-rich and dollar-poor." Ranchland is worth a tremendous amount to developers, particularly around resort communities such as Steamboat Springs, where the land trust is based. But few ranchers have the money to pay rising property taxes, and hefty inheritance taxes - which can add up to more than 50 percent of the land's value - make it difficult to pass the land on to their children.

"These people have worked this land their entire lives," says Sherrod, "but (their children) end up having to sell most of the operation just to pay the taxes, because the land is valued for development, not agriculture."

By granting the Cattlemen's Land Trust a conservation easement, ranchers guarantee that the land - and the taxes - will be valued as agricultural, not as future subdivisions. Easements also ensure that water rights stay with the land instead of being sold off to cities or developers, and that heirs can farm the land if they choose to.

The land trust sets no rules for water or rangeland health. The focus, says Sherrod, is on preserving a "working landscape." But on more than one occasion she has referred landowners to the Nature Conservancy or other trusts that can better handle endangered species or conservation issues.

"Ranchers have probably shied away from conservation groups with the tree-hugging image in the past," says Kathy Roser, former board member of the Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts. "The Cattlemen's Land Trust had instant credibility with ranchers and transferred some of that credibility to other land trust organizations."

Not enough money to go around

Ranchers donate most conservation easements in Colorado in return for tax credits and reduced property and inheritance taxes. But only ranchers who are relatively solvent can afford to give away development rights. Families on the verge of financial collapse, like the Reddens, need cash.

For the Reddens, help came from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), a state agency that funnels lottery dollars into open-space projects. So far, the agency has spent almost $5 million to help acquire conservation easements on more than 35,000 acres of agricultural land. GOCO grants stretch further than their dollar value, since local land trusts must come up with matching funds and ranchers must donate a portion of development rights. The Reddens, for example, received about $330,000 from GOCO, a matching $330,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and donated $220,000 in development rights.

Still, there's not enough money to buy the development rights for every ranch. GOCO's Karin McGowan says that demand for agency money outweighs supply by three to one. Even the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, one of the more successful GOCO-funded projects, feels the squeeze: "We have 23 families waiting in the wings, with $18 million worth of easements for sale. We'll be lucky if we get $6 million from GOCO this time around," says Legacy executive director Susan Lohr.

The Gunnison group enjoys support from the local environmental community. The High Country Citizens' Alliance runs a "Cows not Condos" campaign to emphasize its support for ranching in Gunnison County. Meanwhile, the alliance continues to push for range conditions that both ecologists and cattle growers can crow about.

"It's in our interest to keep ranchers in business because, at least locally, they are the best means of preserving open space," alliance president Dennis Hall asserts. "This coming together of ranchers and ecologists in Gunnison over the last few years is a sign of the times - a reaction to bigger enemies which threaten us both."

The author writes from Paonia, Colorado.

You can contact ...

* Lynne Sherrod with the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust, 303/431-6422;

* Great Outdoors Colorado, 303/863-7522;

* High Country Citizens' Alliance, 970/349-7104;

* Jane Ellen Hamilton, executive director of Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts, 303/271-1577.

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