A soft-paths approach to land conservation


Note: This article is a sidebar to one of this issue's feature stories, A toolbox to shape the future.

Even the most gung-ho planners admit that government can only do so much to protect native plants, animals that need hundreds of miles of habitat, and human communities. Some critics are more blunt.

"I left planning disgusted with the things it can't do," says Jack Wright, author of Rocky Mountain Divide: Selling and Saving the West.

"I got into planning because I thought it could make a difference in stopping the destruction of wildlands. But regulations decide how development should take place, not whether it should happen at all."

Wright says market-based tools - outright purchase of sensitive lands and development rights by conservation interests - are the West's best bet for protecting itself.

Private, nonprofit land trusts have already protected 3 million acres nationwide. In the West, local trusts are springing up wherever growth and money can combine altruistically.

According to Wright, 43 local land trusts are active in the Rocky Mountain states, with new trusts forming all the time. The Pacific Northwest is home to 39 land trusts. These local tallies don't include the work of national organizations such as The Nature Conservancy, the Trust for Public Land, and the American Farmland Trust. The Nature Conservancy alone has purchased or leased some 4 million acres in the United States.

Citizens form land trusts most often because a specific piece of property is threatened, though the trusts often extend their scope beyond the initial buy. Typically, a trust makes the approach, pitching landowners on the need to keep their holdings intact and talking in terms of the financial benefits of forgoing development.

A landowner can cash in without guilt, by selling outright to the trust, or by selling development rights - a conservation easement - for a lesser amount, which allows the landowner to remain in possession at a reduced tax rate.

As land gets more expensive and it becomes tougher for trusts to make outright purchases, conservation easements may take up the slack. The specifics vary easement by easement; sometimes landowners retain the right to develop a handful of lots for family or retirement income.

Northwest of Steamboat Springs, Colo., conservation easements may save the Elk River Valley, a broad, panoramic valley of 20,000 acres that so far has been spared the subdivider's ax. Working on behalf of the the American Farmland Trust, regional planner Marty Zeller has secured conservation easements from two of the seven landowners in the valley. Others may soon fall into place.

Getting ranchers to consider conservation easements is no easy task. Both Zeller and Wright say the skills needed by the staffs of land trusts are vastly different from those that make a successful environmental activist.

"Rural ranchers go ballistic if you mention environmentalism," says Wright. "But if you scratch off the first layer of culture, you will discover that most of them care a lot about the land." It takes a soft touch to nurture this common love and gain the landowner's confidence, Wright says.

Some landowners see enough benefit, in dollars and conservation, that they initiate the process. Some heroes and heroines donate land or easements.

Environmental groups are also refining their private land conservation efforts. Pamela Lichtman of the Jackson Hole Alliance for Responsible Planning says her organization has achieved more success protecting wildlife habitat on private lands by sitting down with individual landowners and working out development agreements than by advocating tough new regulations.

Recently, the Alliance negotiated with a local rancher to protect more than 500 acres of important big-game habitat in the floodplain of the Snake River. In exchange, the rancher now has the county's approval to build more densely on his adjacent lands.

"This is a new area for us," says Lichtman. "We take people's own benevolence and sense of sacrifice and work with them to protect the valley's natural resources. It's the carrot instead of the stick."

A conservation buy tends to be an unqualified success, so a few governments, such as the city of Boulder, Colo., are taking private-sector conservation tools public, using tax money for easements and acquisition of open space.

The conservation tools have their limitations, though. Land trusts and a few progressive governments will never raise enough money to purchase the rights to many critical properties, especially in the most pricey locations. And many landowners will never consider conservation easements, either because they philosophically oppose the idea or because they want to maximize their profits.

Zeller says that ideally, land trusts should coordinate their work with county and town planning efforts. But too often private and public land-use efforts operate in different worlds, risking the possibility of working at cross-purposes. He identifies another risk: Land trusts may ignore the social context, failing to address issues such as affordable housing. The Elk River plan Zeller and the ranchers devised includes a small village that will provide housing for the ranch hands and their families.

"We have to be concerned about the perception that we are elitist," says Zeller. Land trusts also need to look at what type of community their preservation efforts create, he says. If the creation is one-dimensional, based solely, for instance, on tourism, "then we haven't created much of a community."

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