Acre by acre

Can land trusts save the West's disappearing open space?

  • Subdivisions bump into farmland in Boulder County, Colo.

    Paul Bousquet photo
  • Farmland near Gunnison, Colorado

    Nathan Bilow photo
  • Farmland-cum-subdivision in Fallbrook, San Diego Co., Calif.

    Paul Bousquet photo
  • New homes with boat docks in Discovery Bay, Calif.

    Robert Dawson photo
  • Five Valleys Land Trust conservation easement

    Wendy Ninteman photo
  • Island of farmland surrounded by subdivisions in San Jose, CA

    Robert Dawson photo
  • Jean Hocker

    Copyright James Tkatch photographer
 

SNOWMASS, Colo. - It's standing room only at the Land Trust Alliance's annual national conference.

Over 1,200 people, mostly young, squeaky-clean land-trust staffers and volunteers, are spearing locally grown steaks at the opening dinner and applauding alliance president Jean Hocker.

She tells them the number of land trusts in the country has more than doubled in the last 10 years. The amount of land protected, she says, has nearly tripled.

"So if you think you're really busy," says Hocker, "that's because - you are."

When Hocker first started her fight for open-space protection, she never imagined the cause would gain such a crowd of supporters. More than 20 years ago, she began agitating for better planning in the resort town of Jackson Hole, Wyo., but soon found local regulations didn't protect the big chunks of private land she wanted to preserve.

When she stumbled across the land-trust idea, she liked its direct approach. Instead of fighting for more regulations, she discovered, trusts purchase property or use conservation easements - voluntary, permanent restrictions on development - to keep private land open.

She got a lot of quizzical looks at first. "People didn't know what it was. They were supportive of the idea, but skeptical of how much could be done." In 1980, Hocker and a few other residents founded the Jackson Hole Land Trust, one of the first trusts in the Intermountain West. The group protected over 5,000 acres of private land during her seven years as executive director, and has since protected another 4,000 acres.

Hocker now lives in Washington, D.C., but the work she started in the West has gained momentum. A quick look around the Snowmass banquet hall shows there are Western trusts working to protect wildlife habitat, ranchland, historic sites, scenic views, urban parks and all of the above. There are a few groups with multi-million-dollar budgets, and lots of others that meet in board members' kitchens. There are groups in resort towns and farming communities, suburbs and cities.

Together, these local and regional trusts in the West have protected over a million acres of privately owned open space. And they're just getting started: about a third of the nearly 250 local and regional land trusts in the West are less than five years old.

The land-trust expansion in the region isn't without growing pains. In this grassroots movement, there's little time to consider the big questions, and big questions are popping up all over. The small-scale agriculture that helps to keep rural open space open is fading fast, and those million acres protected by Western land trusts are dwarfed by development, which eats up about 2 million acres of the nation's private land each year. Land trusts are wondering how to make their legacy last.

"I'm one person in a small, windowless office trying to keep an eye on 10 million acres," says Chris DeForest of the Inland Northwest Land Trust in Spokane, Wash. "My nightmare is that I'll wake up in 20 years and we'll have protected freckles."

A solution to sprawl?

This isn't exactly an environmental movement - it's a movement inspired by sprawl. The nation's first land trust was founded in Massachusetts in 1890, and the Northeast is home to many of the oldest and largest trusts. As development moved west, so did land trusts, and fast-growing vacation spots like Jackson Hole, concerned about sprawl's impact on the economy and the environment, were the first to pick up on the idea. Other Western towns have followed.

"People look at me funny when I say it, but land trusts are really parasitic with growth," says Brad Chalfant of the Deschutes Basin Land Trust in Bend, Ore. "If there weren't growth pressures, there wouldn't be any pressure to create land trusts. It's a reflection of the West's transition."

Over the last two years, sprawl has become a high-profile political issue, and county governments are spending record amounts on open-space purchases. More than 40 growth-management bills are expected to be introduced to the Colorado state Legislature this year. The city of Phoenix, which has long had a no-holds-barred approach to development, is wrangling over two proposed ballot initiatives aimed at urban sprawl, and Republican Gov. Jane Hull of Arizona stated her support for open-space protection this January - even as she protested the designation of the Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument within her state's borders.

Plenty of politicians have turned to land trusts for advice on local sprawl control. "They offered experience and understanding, and they did a lot of the legwork for us," Javier Gonzales, a commissioner in Santa Fe County, N.M., says of the Trust for Public Land. The national group surveyed local residents about open space and pointed out lands that could be protected by the county. "They were the catalyst for our program," says Gonzales. Some city, county and state governments also give grants to local land trusts and tax breaks to landowners who put easements on their land.

Many public officials are eager to collaborate with land trusts because they're politically safe. Since trusts work with willing landowners to preserve privately owned open space, they don't trigger the anti-federal outcry usually aimed at environmental groups. Almost all trusts stay away from high-profile environmental battles and head-on confrontations with developers. In fact, developers are sometimes big supporters of land trusts, since land preservation can push up property values.

"As land trusts we're not advocating no growth, no development," says Dave Leslie of the Deschutes Basin Land Trust. "We just want to allow new development to occur in the right areas." His group recently accepted a 3,300-acre conservation easement on land owned by timber company Crown Pacific Partners, a deal that helped resolve a controversial Forest Service land exchange. "We were the only group that everyone could agree on," he says.

Some local politicians aren't quite ready to agree, especially about land trusts that own property or transfer land to public agencies. "If a land trust is purchasing a piece of property to take off the tax rolls, that's going to put an increased burden on the remaining taxpayers," says Jeff Arnold, the Western states lobbyist for the National Association of Counties. But even though county officials remain suspicious of land trusts, he says, "there's not really much opposition."

Cows, not condos

Because land trusts are so good at avoiding controversy, they can also step in where the government fears to tread. John Singlaub, the manager of the Carson City, Nev., office of the Bureau of Land Management, has recently been involved in a complex land exchange aimed at preserving agricultural lands by means of conservation easements. "They're great as facilitators," he says of land trusts, adding that local, rancher-run trusts can be particularly effective. "Ranchers and farmers are suspicious of the federal government. They're a lot more comfortable working with a nonprofit organization."

Ranchers have found a lot to like about land trusts. Trusts are sometimes seen as elitist, because more than a few were founded to preserve pristine scenic views in affluent towns. But most trusts now argue that landowners need a way to make a living from open space. Otherwise, they say, protected lands - and the communities they surround - will become playgrounds for the extremely rich.

"We do a disservice to the landscape if all we do is worry about protecting the land," says Lynne Sherrod, a Colorado rancher and executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust. "If we can't make it economically viable for landowners to stay there, you're just going to have a huge park out there, and who's going to maintain it?"

It's a big shift in attitude for the movement, says Jean Hocker. Fifteen or 20 years ago, she says, "people wanted to say, "Nothing will happen here." Now, they're really concerned about working landscapes."

In order to protect private ranch land, trusts have to support the ranching business, so almost all conservation easements allow agriculture to continue. The development restrictions don't hinder ranching. In fact, they can make it easier to keep the land intact, since easements reduce property taxes and lessen the estate tax burden inherited by the landowner's children. Sometimes, the tax breaks make it possible for a ranch to stay in the family. Most Western land trusts now work with farmers and ranchers, and the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust has spawned similar groups in other states (see story on facing page and) (HCN, 6/21/99: Cattlemen make use of a conservation tool).

Conservation easements prohibit subdivisions, but the specifics of the agreements are usually up to the landowners. "We do stay away from land-management issues," says Jay Fetcher, a founder of the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust and a rancher near the resort town of Steamboat Springs, Colo. (HCN, 11/27/95: John Fetcher). "Our view is that if we preserve the family ranch and keep the land open, some of the other values, like preserving biodiversity and wildlife habitat, will be there also."

This cows-not-condos argument makes some environmentalists nervous. Easements "are a terrific idea," says Rose Strickland, a Sierra Club activist in Reno, Nev. "But if conservation easements don't provide for proper management, we're going to be concerned, whether it's private land or public land."

Yet other activists have been drawn to the rewards of land-trust work. "This is exciting conservation work because it has such tangible results," says Joni Clark, a former co-director of the High Country Citizens' Alliance in Crested Butte, Colo. She's now the executive director of the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, a group that has protected 17 continuous miles - 4,000 acres - of river corridor in western Colorado's Tomichi Valley. The group now has a waiting list of 42 ranchers who want to preserve a total of about 30,000 additional acres.

"I'm not battling anyone," she says. "Everyone agrees that this is good work."

Getting ready for the long haul

Enthusiasm has taken the land-trust movement a long way. When Jean Hocker came to the Land Trust Alliance from the Jackson Hole Land Trust in 1987, she recalls, "most people had no idea what you were talking about when you said land trusts. There was no recognition, even among conservation people. That's changed, at least among those who care about conservation."

But this burst of support has to last - and last a long, long time. Land-trust staffers can't force landowners to take on conservation easements. They can promise tax breaks; if they're lucky, they can offer landowners some money in exchange for easements, called purchase of development rights. Mostly, though, they rely on charm, diplomacy and a lot of persistence.

"It's a long haul. It might be 20 years before a family sits down at Thanksgiving dinner and says 'OK, what are we going to do with the land?' " says Chris DeForest of the Inland Northwest Land Trust. "Hopefully, my business card and our brochure will still be hanging on the refrigerator."

A conservation easement isn't a simple undertaking. Many small trusts get legal advice from umbrella groups such as the Land Trust Alliance, but they still have to have a working knowledge of real estate law. An understanding of water law and mining law doesn't hurt, either, but few groups can work in all these worlds.

Even though water is essential to agriculture, most conservation easements don't protect water rights. "Water law can be so complicated, and the process is so distinct from acquiring land," says Andrew Purkey of the Oregon Water Trust, a Portland-based group that buys and leases water rights for conservation use. Among land trusts, he says, "we see a real lack of awareness of water law and water rights."

Land trusts also have to have the resources to fight back when a deal gets tricky. This fall, the Trust for Public Land found itself in a court battle with Darby Lumber, a Montana timber company. The company had agreed to sell 11,000 acres of timber land to the trust for about $6 million, but pulled out when it got a better offer from a private company. The trust went to court, and in early January, a judge refused to dismiss the trust's lawsuit.

It now looks as if the agreement may survive - but the trust has had to shoulder the costs of outside legal counsel. Although most regional and local trusts wouldn't handle deals on this scale, a transaction of any size may end up in the courtroom.

It's not just negotiations that are long and complicated. Almost all conservation easements are meant to be permanent, to be in place "in perpetuity."

Forever is a tall order.

The first few years are usually the easiest. Easements are tied to the land, so when property is sold or passed down, the easement goes with it. The second generation of landowners tends to be less enthusiastic about the restrictions on their land, so trusts are bracing themselves for more legal battles over violations.

"More than 90 percent of properties (under easement) in the West are still in the hands of the first landowner. Twenty years from now is when the real hard work is going to begin," says Chris Hermann, Western region director of the Land Trust Alliance. And if land trusts remain small and understaffed, he asks, "how are they going to come up with the money to litigate against some hostile second-generation owner?"

Mergers are in the air. "I see us struggling and I think, we can't do it all," says Jim McCord, a board member of the fledgling Socorro Agricultural Land Trust in New Mexico. "For each of us to be doing this on our own is kind of redundant."

The growth of land trusts is already leveling out in the West. Some are opening chapters rather than starting new, local trusts, and there are more statewide networks of land trusts. A few trusts are also acting as "brokers': They negotiate deals with landowners in their community, but a larger land trust takes on the legal responsibility for the easements and properties.

"Some land trusts won't survive for the next 10 years, some have already survived for more than 100 years," says Hocker. In the next decade, she says, "there will be some sorting out, some mergers, some transferring of assets."

Most agree that cooperation and "sorting out" can only help, though most land-trust staffers also emphasize that the grassroots character of the movement needs to be preserved. In a business that relies on gentle persuasion, they say, locals always have an advantage.

"Large land trusts bring in tools and resources to do larger projects, and larger projects are easy and flashy, but small land trusts do the day-to-day work of raising awareness in their communities," says David Genter, the Northwest region director for the Trust for Public Land.

"What we do is that we're here. We're willing - more than willing - to take time to develop a relationship with everyone we're dealing with," says Jerry Debacker of the Prickly Pear Land Trust in Helena, Mont. They're also willing, he says, to develop ties to the land they're protecting.

"Nobody else is interested in our backyard," says Debacker. "I'm a great fan of The Nature Conservancy, but the reality is that there has to be a biological component to the places they protect. They wouldn't show any interest in the property we're working on here."

The big picture

While the land-trust movement is thriving, its job is getting harder.

Wealth is moving in, property values are going up, and many lands protected by trusts have become isolated in a sea of development. Agriculture, one of the few ways to earn money from big, undivided pieces of private land, can't compete with Internet millionaires in search of rural retreats.

"People are buying large, large pieces of property to build trophy homes," says Elisabeth Ptak of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust in Marin County, Calif. "Although we have what used to be considered fairly restrictive zoning," she says, it no longer keeps land in agriculture. "People can afford to buy 60 acres for one weekend home."

In some places, property values are so high that tax breaks aren't much help to landowners. Rancher Jay Fetcher says that even though easements decrease the value of property in his area by 50 to 70 percent, the land's value is so high that property taxes are often insurmountable.

"There's a very strong market for large, intact pieces of property - especially those surrounded by other intact pieces of property," he says. He adds that one solution would be to exempt land under easements from estate taxes. In the current political climate, that's unlikely to happen.

Despite their growing numbers, and growing support, land trusts also haven't reached some of the people who could help them the most. "I think what's missing is a visible opportunity," says Bruce Drogsvold, a realtor in Boulder, Colo. "I have sellers coming and saying, "I want to do the right thing," and it would really be fun to preserve those lands, but I don't know how. There's not a good, clear way for a seller to step up to the plate."

The obstacles are enough to depress even the relentlessly optimistic land-trust community.

"What we're doing is incremental, not fundamental change. The question is, how do we get to fundamental change?" asks Townsend Anderson, the Rocky Mountain regional director of the Orton Family Foundation. "The missing piece is just what are we doing to support managers, stewards of the land. We're not addressing the core issue of preserving landscapes, and that's preserving agriculture."

As one Crawford, Colo., rancher said at a public meeting with local land-trust staffers, "What help is a tax break? I'm already broke."

Trusts realize that easements alone won't do the job; most of them know that a more comprehensive approach is needed. But only a few land trusts have had the time and energy to address the long-term future of agriculture. Yampa Valley Beef (see story page 15), organized with the help of The Nature Conservancy, hopes to find a niche market for beef raised on lands under easement.

Utah Open Lands has several projects in the works, including an effort to market specialty blankets made from wool raised on protected land. "We have to develop expertise we don't have, and we have to shift a long-held paradigm," says the group's executive director, Wendy Fisher. "I don't know how that's going to work."

For the most part, local groups aren't able to take on these projects. "For a guy working 10 hours a week at a land trust, it's hard to think about," says Chris Hermann.

In standing up for agriculture, land trusts also find themselves fighting some of their allies. While support for open-space preservation is growing, "open space" is often interpreted to mean parks and preserves, not working farms. In December, the last dairy farm in urban Salt Lake County, Utah, moved south to Juab County, largely due to pressure from neighbors who hated the smell of manure.

"We can appreciate the aesthetics of agriculture, but our tolerance decreases dramatically when we have to deal with more than aesthetics," says the Orton foundation's Anderson.

In another strategy shift, land trusts are getting pickier about the properties they choose to protect. Instead of working with every willing landowner, many target contiguous parcels of wildlife habitat and open space.

"If the lands are small and isolated, there's not much point in putting a lot of resources into protecting them," says conservation biologist Michael Soulé, a founder of the Wildlands Project, a group that aims to protect corridors of wildlife habitat throughout North America. "But if it happens to be land that's a potential linkage or corridor between two larger pieces of land, it can be a keystone. It just depends on where it is."

Land trusts are heeding this advice. "We're trying to get smarter about choosing projects, since the need is always greater than the demand," says Wendy Ninteman of the Five Valleys Land Trust in Missoula, Mont. "We know that islands of preserved land aren't going to help, so we want to be proactive, not reactive. It's easy to be reactive, since there's always enough business coming in the door to keep us busy. The hard part is to say no."

Trusts are also enlisting the help of public agencies and other groups to boost their purchase power for these large-scale efforts. Landscape-level projects have more impact than piecemeal work, but they're a daunting collaborative effort. They require the buy-in of dozens of landowners, and one or two holdouts can sink them. To make these deals happen, land trusts are going to need more diplomacy and persistence than ever before.

The cheering crowd at the Snowmass land-trust conference is encouraging, especially to those who have watched the work of a few local trusts mushroom into a bona fide movement. Still, the accomplishments of land trusts can look like winning skirmishes in a losing war.

"You don't use land acquisition to stop sprawl unless you have massive amounts of money," says Peter Kirsch, a Denver land-use attorney who represents land trusts and local governments around the country.

Wendy Fisher of Utah Open Lands agrees. "You just have to look at the number of real estate offices vs. the number of conservation organizations, and you can see that the battle we're waging is not exactly on the same plane.

"Even if we had access to all the conservation dollars and all the staff we could use - and we're a long way from that now - I know we could never protect all the lands out there that are worthy of protection," she continues. "But if we weren't around, the protections we've accomplished would not have occurred. So from that perspective, I feel damn lucky."

And those protected lands can inspire action, says Jean Hocker. "When you've done it, you can see it, you can drive by it, you can enjoy it. The whole community can enjoy it," she says. "In places where sprawl is taking over, people can look at the land that's protected and say, 'It doesn't have to be this way. Something can be done.' "

Michelle Nijhuis is an HCN associate editor. Former HCN intern Ali Macalady contributed to this report.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- A land-trust toolbox

- Burgers bolster Colorado open space

... plus several short sidebars with stakeholders expressing their own views, available in the "Sidebar" section of this online issue.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • The Land Trust Alliance can direct you to the local, regional and national land trusts working in your area. See its Web site at www.lta.org or call the regional offices: Chris Herrman, Western Regional Director and Michaelle Smith, Southwest Program Director, Grand Junction, CO 970/245-5811; Elizabeth Bell and Dale Bonar, Northwest Program, Seattle, WA 206/522-3134
  • The Colorado Coalition of Land Trusts is a good source of information about Colorado trusts. Call director Jane Ellen Hamilton in Golden, Colo., at 303/271-1577 or send e-mail to [email protected]
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