Who will take over the ranch?

As a real estate frenzy grips the West, conservationists scramble to save a disappearing landscape

  • Stan Irby on his family's Gunnison, Colorado, ranch

    Peter McBride
  • Peter McBride
  • Sandy Allen Leinsdorf drives cattle through Crested Butte

    Tiffany Wardman, Crested Butte News
  • Stan Irby, a fourth-generation rancher, is using easements to try to keep the ranch in the family for another generation

    Peter McBride
  • Strategic ranch land at risk in the Rocky Mountain West

    Adapted from a map by the American Farmland Trust, www.farmland.org
  • New development near Crested Butte

    Peter McBride
  • Rancher Bill Trampe and ecologist Susan Lohr founded the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, whihch has nearly 15,000 acres of easements in Gunnison County

    Peter McBride
  • The Irby family

    Peter McBride
  • Jon Christensen

  • This story is funded by the generous donors to the Who Will Take Over the Ranch project, a series of stories on the plight of the West's private lands


DOS RIOS HOLDOUT. There isn't much of the old Dos Rios Ranch wooded pasture left, but here are acres of trees and ponds for you to ENJOY among the birds and deer that still call it home! It's just outside town and may be the best building site available in the Gunnison Country.
-Gunnison Country Times

The most heart-wrenching losses happen one piece of land at a time, one family at a time. The old man dies. The estate is a mess. The kids have other jobs. They can't afford the taxes. Or other alternatives - just about any kind of investment, even a savings account - are more enticing. So the land is sold, subdivided. The meadow is carved up. Homes go up along the edge of the woods. People move on. Others move in. And something goes out of the place, never to return.

It's happening all over the West all the time. And every time, it's a heart-wrenching loss for some, a boon for others. We all feel some sense of loss. But who's to judge? Things change. Besides, it doesn't really matter what we think. It's a family decision. It's private property.

But wait a minute. Step back for a moment. Way back. Away from this piece of land. Float up above this meadow and this valley. Take in the entire watershed. Keep going until you can see the whole state. And then the whole West.

Roughly half of the West is public land. And that means the other half is private. At this scale, outside of the big cities, it is nearly impossible to distinguish which is which, though you can make some informed guesses: The private lands are the valley bottoms, along rivers and streams, where water is plentiful, not too high up in the mountains, and not too low down in the deserts. In short, a lot of the best, most productive land in the West. And if suddenly the private lands were, say, highlighted in red, a lot of your hunches would be dramatically confirmed. The private lands would look something like the veins and arteries in the living body of the West, largely following the branching structure of watersheds.

If the public land is the body of the West, its circulation system is the private land. And that private land is being transformed before our eyes. Consider these facts:

  • Since 1980, the population of the 13 Western states has risen by more than 20 million, or 47 percent. That's about twice the growth rate of the United States as a whole.
  • The fastest-growing parts of the West are rural, not urban or suburban areas, according to an analysis of census data by David Theobald, a geographer at Colorado State University.
  • The conversion of land from agriculture to residential, commercial and industrial use is taking place at an even faster rate than population growth. In the West, the amount of land carved up and swallowed by development rose from 20 million acres in 1970 to 42 million acres in 2000, according to Theobald.
  • And the most attractive land left for development is the same land that is most productive for ranching and for wildlife: the mid-elevation, best-watered land in the West.

That, in a nutshell, is why so much concern has shifted in recent years from the grand battles over public lands to the fate of the West's private lands. From an ecological point of view, one could argue that the debate over livestock grazing and its impacts on public lands has gotten more than its fair share of public attention and consumed excessively large portions of the energy of environmentalists and ranchers alike. As the frenzied fragmentation of private lands gains speed, the familiar question of whether we will have "cows or condos" in the West doesn't quite capture the essence of the dilemma. Neither cows nor conservation will even be an option in the future if conservationists and ranchers don't pull together.

Who will take over the ranch? In this generation, the West will be shaped by the answer to that question, and by the public's willingness to act, in a sense, as investors in private lands. That means paying private landowners to protect public values - like open space, wildlife habitat, and access to public lands - and to not develop their land. Ironically, it is the immense economic pressure to subdivide and develop the land that could give conservationists the resources they need to keep it from being carved up.

Ohio Creek Ranch, Gunnison, Colorado. Trout streams ribbon through this 333-acre ranch, which adjoins the Gunnison National Forest. Outstanding scenery in a secluded and unspoiled mountain valley. Several choice home sites are available with views of the snow-capped West Elk Wilderness. Extensive water rights, paved road access and utilities are available. An abundance of recreational opportunities in and around the Gunnison area including big game hunting, fishing and skiing. $2,000,000.

-Rocky Mountain Farm & Ranch: The Source for Discerning Buyers & Sellers

You can see all of this as clear as day around Gunnison, Colo. Gunnison is a cowtown-cum-college town. In the square-faced, stolid brick buildings of the main street, a traditional coffee shop serving biscuits and gravy sits cheek-by-jowl with a crunchy granola organic cafe. On the 28-mile drive up the East River to the mining-camp-cum-ski resort of Crested Butte, subdivisions and "For Sale" signs are scattered among the pastures. But there is still lots of breathing room.

I meet Sandy Allen Leinsdorf, the president of the Crested Butte Land Trust, in the trust's drafty office just off the main street. Crested Butte is the epitome of funky chic, and Leinsdorf, dressed in a black leather jacket and boots, fits right in. She grew up on a ranch in Ohio Creek Valley, halfway between Gunnison and Crested Butte, which has been in the family since 1880. Leinsdorf has lived through Crested Butte's changes. And she likes some of them: "I like economic growth. It created a community I could live in and raise a family," Leinsdorf tells me. "It's less provincial."

But Leinsdorf's parents have had a harder time adjusting to change. "They hated to see people come in," she says. "The value of the land went crazy."

Crested Butte cherishes its reputation as a kind of backwoods version of a Rocky Mountain ski resort. But that didn't keep it from being discovered and developed. Starting in earnest in the late 1980s, second homes and condos sprang up around town, then out on nearby ranches (HCN, 3/18/02). When the Crested Butte Land Trust was formed in 1991 to preserve some of the open space that gave the area its charm, Leinsdorf's family - the Allen family - was one of the first ranching families to do a deal with the new group. They sold a 50-acre pasture right in the scenic heart of the town, where the Slate River and Coal Creek funnel into the valley below.

Despite this, it still wasn't easy for the three generations of the Allen family currently involved in the ranch to come to grips with the bigger picture, says Leinsdorf. "My father said, 'Oh, don't worry about when I die. You can have it all,' " she says. "Ranchers don't deal with estate planning, and they run into trouble."

The problem is that most ranchers are relatively land-rich and cash-poor. Most of their net worth is tied up in the ranch, and the ranch's value often exceeds the $1.5 million that under federal law can be passed on free of inheritance tax. If there is not enough cash or liquid assets like stocks and bonds to cover the tax, something has to give, and it's often a piece of the ranch. There are ways to structure the transfer to avoid this, but many families have trouble discussing the issues.

"My family didn't talk," Leinsdorf says. But her husband, a lawyer, convinced them they had to. "He came into the family and said, 'You will lose it, if you don't start planning.' "

The Allens later donated a 180-acre conservation easement on their scenic ranch along the East River to the Crested Butte Land Trust. Easements are essentially a separate partial interest or right in private property. Often it's a very small interest, a right-of-way for a road or a ditch or a powerline. Conservation easements, though, are often much larger. Someone - usually the public, through the government or a nonprofit organization - pays for the rights to develop someone else's private land, and then holds those rights without developing them. In practice, conservation easements simply pay for development not to happen.

A development right can be worth more than 50 percent of the value of the land. For a cash-strapped rancher who wants to stay on the ranch without selling off parts of it, easements are a boon. They put a chunk of cash in the rancher's pocket, reduce the inheritance tax burden by lowering the value of the ranch, and ensure that development will never happen.

The Allens' easement helped reduce the inheritance taxes the family will have to pay when Sandy's parents' generation passes away. Her father and uncle died in 1996. "We are losing that generation," Leinsdorf says, "and we are not losing the ranch."

Leinsdorf isn't involved in the day-to-day operation of the ranch. Her cousin, Curtis, does that. But the question of the future of the ranch has only been postponed for a generation. The easement covers just a small part of the ranch. Leinsdorf's cousin's kids may be interested in the ranch, but her own kids aren't. And there are other cousins who have an interest in the ranch that is more financial in nature than pastoral.

Even though the land trust is well-entrenched in Crested Butte now, there is an air of inevitability as Leinsdorf ticks off the places that she used to play with friends, ranches now turned to subdivisions on the way down the valley to Gunnison. But outside Gunnison to the east along Highway 50 up Tomichi Creek, the landscape feels completely different when I drive out to meet rancher Stan Irby. It's more open sagebrush country, mostly intact ranches still. There are a few new homes along the edges of the meadows.

"Crested Butte is a different country, different people," says Irby, a genial, straight-backed man with a cowboy tan. "We're in a different world."

But change is coming here, too.

"A lot of people can sell homes in California for one, one-and-a-half million dollars and buy a ranch," says Irby. The place next door, 960 acres, just sold for $1.2 million, he says. "No way you can make that pay with cattle. A lot of this is being bought by people who have money and are not worried about generating income off the ranch."

Irby is a fourth-generation rancher. "I worked on the ranch as a kid," he says. "Pretty much ranched all my life." He was one of the first kids to ride a school bus to town. He would have liked to go to college, he says, "but never had time to do it."

His parents are still alive, and with his brother, they run the ranch as a partnership. "We're at the turning point of changing generations," Irby says. "But with the economy, there's no way we can take all the kids in and make it work."

The Irbys run about 550 mother cows, each producing a calf each year, the ranch's only product. That generates around $190,000 a year in income for three families on an asset worth about $4 million-$6 million, or around 2 percent a year. That's not a bad average return for ranches (see story page 13). But it's well below average returns for most other forms of investment, such as the stock market, despite the recent recession.

To make ends meet, Irby's wife works for the water department in town. His brother drives a truck in the winter; their kids all have jobs in town.

But Irby still wants the family to have the ranch and the valley it's part of. So the Irbys have turned to a land trust, too. They're selling two easements, one on 197 acres, the other on 456 acres, to Colorado Open Lands, a nonprofit organization that holds easements, through a deal with the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, another nonprofit organization that brokers ranch land conservation easements. The proceeds, around $800,000, are going into the bank, where they'll earn about 2 percent interest. (Because the Legacy also requires that ranchers only get paid for 75 percent of the value of their easements, and must donate the remainder, this will generate a tax credit that the Irbys can sell on a secondary market for around $200,000.)

Maybe if an opportunity comes up, the Irbys will invest the money in more land, because Irby is a true believer. "Livestock is key to this valley and keeping it the way it is and keeping development away," he says. "It's open and scenic, and I hope it'll stay that way."

With conservation easements in place on a 17-mile stretch of Tomichi Creek from here to Gunnison, Irby says, "What you see now is what you'll see down the road."

Red Mountain Ranch. The Finest 35 Acre Development in the County. Lot 45, 35 Acres for only $295,000. Lowest priced lot on the entire Red Mtn. Ranch. Covered in a mature Aspen forest mixed with Spruce. Easy access, with great views. Lot 49, priced at $296,000. Great southern exposure, open meadows surrounded by Aspen groves. Easy access, views in every direction. Lot 48, Under Contract.
-Crested Butte News

Though Gunnison County contains the two worlds of Crested Butte and Tomichi Creek, it is not a microcosm of the West. The West is too diverse to fit into this neat dialectic. But Gunnison's high mountain valleys are typical of the lands most at risk in the near future.

Let's float way up above Gunnison again and consider the big picture. The Interior West is 1 million square miles. Most of the 470,000 square miles of public land is grazed. The herds come from private ranch lands, which make up another 170,000 square miles (around 100 million acres) of the West - nearly the size of Colorado and Utah combined. The private land is usually adjacent to the public land that the ranchers use for grazing under federal permits.

This private land is in the hands of around 21,000 ranchers, if one goes by the number of people or corporations holding federal grazing permits from the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management. Private land, though usually more productive than the surrounding public land, often cannot support cattle year-round. The pattern varies, but the canonical Western cow-calf operation puts the cattle out to graze on public land in the spring and summer (while harvesting hay on the private land) and then sells the calves in the fall, breeds the cows again and feeds them hay on private land over the winter. The next spring, the cows and a new batch of calves are back on the public land.

Of course, some of these ranchers are big corporations and some are family corporations, some of them are hobby ranches and some of them are family ranches, some of them are failing ranches and some of them are even owned by conservation buyers, whose main interest isn't even ranching, although they may run a few cows for their own reasons. This diversity of ownership complicates conservation efforts; there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

One thing many ranches do have in common is the age of their owners. Almost half of all cattle businesses have been in the same family for more than 50 years, according to Rockwood Research, an agricultural research firm. Estimates of the average age of ranchers range from 55 to 65. Suffice it to say that there is a great generational transition taking place on ranches in the West.

In the next decade, researchers estimate that more than half of the ranches in the West will change hands, either being transferred to a younger generation, who will have to pay estate taxes on vast holdings, or more likely sold to buyers, who will want a better return on their investments than ranching can provide.

Many of these ranches are part of the 25 million acres of "strategic ranch lands at risk" identified in 2002 by the American Farmland Trust in the Rocky Mountain states of Colorado, Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The organization used a Geographic Information System to identify high-quality agricultural land with desirable wildlife characteristics, including rural development densities, proximity to public lands, year-round water availability, mixed grass and tree cover and high variety of vegetation. Then it identified which of those lands are threatened, by locating rural areas projected to grow to suburban density in the next 20 years and major road corridors in counties with growth rates higher than 10 percent per decade.

The trust found that ranchland at risk is concentrated in high mountain valleys and the mixed grassland areas surrounding the major mountain ranges in the region. In other words, pretty much any good-looking land with a view of the mountains: If it's scenic, it's in danger.

Many people and organizations are trying to find ways to protect as much of that land as possible before it's too late. And they are reaching into an increasingly diverse toolbox to find ways to do so.

Rising real estate values might seem like a threat to the land, as ranchers and other property owners are tempted or forced to sell their land to developers. But, with more sophisticated land conservation tools now available, these rising values can actually help landowners preserve their property. With care, landowners can realize financial benefits while preserving the open landscape so vital to our valley.
-Gunnison County Conservation Handbook

The Crested Butte Land Trust created the Gunnison County Conservation Handbook, published in collaboration with the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy. It is a beautiful little spiral-bound document with sepia-toned photographs of ranchers and ranches mixed with bright-color nature photographs, illustrating a text that combines personal stories with explicit, how-to instructions for "conserving your land one step at a time."

Step 1, according to the handbook: Talk to a land trust, your attorney, and a tax adviser. The legal and financial complications can be mind-boggling. But money can buy you advice.

As I travel around Gunnison County looking at the "For Sale" signs dotting the scenery, I wonder about the conservation handbook's claim that rising land values can actually help landowners preserve their property, make money, and save open space, all at the same time. It sounds like wishful thinking, or maybe some kind of code that rich people talk.

But as Sandy Leinsdorf shows me around her family's land, she puts it into context. "It's too bad land trusts and conservation easements didn't develop 20 years ago," she says, before property values really started skyrocketing. Conservation bucks would have bought more acres back then. But back then, there wasn't as much money or pressure in the system. And the handbook's right: Money and pressure are what drive land trusts, often more than conservation itself.

When land values are low, there isn't much incentive to conserve land. Low demand means a low threat of development, but values rise as demand rises. And that brings in the juice that drives the system: money. There's nothing like a subdivision plan to sharpen people's perception of the value of strategic ranchland. But landowners also have incentives, besides altruism and love of the land, to get some of the higher value out of their land and to lower their taxes at the same time. And this is what creates opportunities in the messy intersection of public and private conservation interests.

As the incentives to sell out have increased in the West, ranchers and conservationists have come up with almost as many ways of conserving ranch land as there are ranches to conserve. Some ranchers just stick it out and refuse to sell. Others try to increase revenue in ways that complement conservation goals, such as hunting or fishing, or by turning to niche markets for their livestock, like the organic beef market (HCN, 3/23/92).

In some nooks of the West, communities have put regulations on development. In Carbon County, Wyo., local officials recently created a zoning district where the minimum lot size is 640 acres. "Some might argue that that's still rural sprawl," says Luther Propst of the Sonoran Institute, a nonprofit that works on planning issues with communities in the West. But Propst believes it's a lot better environmentally than the 40-acre or less densities most Western counties allow.

On the other extreme, ranchers can sell their land lock, stock and barrel to a land trust or public agency dedicated to conservation. Some environmentalists and even some ranchers believe this is the best solution. If the public wants the land, it should pay for it.

But buying land outright is extremely expensive. Land trusts - from the largest in the world, The Nature Conservancy, to some of the smallest of the more than 1,700 in the national Land Trust Alliance - have come to realize that the purchase of land alone will never come close to saving the West's diverse ecosystems. It's in between the two extremes - going it alone and selling out completely - where the real action is today: in conservation easements.

Getting ranchers to buy into the concept of conservation easements can be problematic. Many land trusts, including the Crested Butte Land Trust, rank private lands according to their importance for open space, access to public lands, ecological importance or the urgency of the threat of development. Given limited resources, this only makes sense. But ranchers can be scared off knowing that their land has been targeted by others for protection.

That's one reason why the Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy, which has secured most of the conservation easements in the Gunnison area, has no priority system. It is focused solely on the preservation of ranch lands from subdivision and development. When a family asks to participate, it's put on the list. When money is available, the next deal gets done. It's first come, first served.

This reflects the passionate conviction of the two founders of the Legacy - Susan Lohr, an environmentalist, and Bill Trampe, a rancher - that keeping families on the land is the best way to protect the values of the place. For Lohr, who grew up in San Francisco, this came from a respect born of spending time in the mountains. "I love hanging out with people who are different from me," Lohr says. And hanging out with ranchers like Trampe made her realize, "the only thing that works is very private, one-person-at-a-time approaches."

Stan Irby has high praise for Lohr's approach. "She's so smart," he says, "but she takes the simple person's view, so straightforward, it makes it easy to work from."

Lohr would like to see preserving land made even easier. "I hope every family can get on the Internet and negotiate a deal and take care of it privately without all the hoopla of the Land Trust Alliance and attorneys that is so threatening," she says. "There's no reason it can't be done in the same vocabulary as their business."

Step 1, according to Lohr: Talk with your neighbors. Eventually, you'll need to talk with a land trust, attorney and tax adviser. But the Legacy's aim is to become a kind of trusted neighborhood organization with participating ranchers acting as a quiet sales force. And it has succeeded.

Not only are ranchers buying into conservation, but so is Gunnison County. Recreation still drives the local economy, but local leaders see their expansive ranching landscape as a unique selling point, which makes Gunnison different from the more heavily developed Aspen and Vail areas.

Crested Butte started the ball rolling in 1992, using half of a 3 percent real estate transfer tax to raise $1.5 million so far for land preservation. In early 1997, more than 100 businesses in the county began collecting a voluntary donation of 1 percent sales tax. Later that year, a ballot measure was passed to divert 1 percent a year to land preservation. It now generates about $220,000 a year for matching funds. The Great Outdoor Colorado lottery fund has channeled $5.48 million to Gunnison. And the Gunnison County Land Preservation Board, which assesses impact fees on developers, recently used those fees as collateral for a $1.2 million bond to help the legacy acquire land before it succumbs to sprawl.

This fall, the Legacy put together a $5.5 million deal for the 2,770-acre Ochs Ranch in the Ohio Creek Valley, a tributary of the East River, which the Legacy warns "has been discovered by international executives and entertainers," the new bogeymen of the West. "If the Ochs Project is not completed, there will most likely be a domino effect in the Ohio Creek Valley as development pressures squeeze out agricultural landowners."

It's an interesting deal: The Ochs Ranch was a big corporate ranch that was not doing well financially and was on the market. The Legacy bought the ranch using money from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and put a conservation easement on the property. Lohr then found seven neighboring families that wanted pieces of the ranch. Three of them bought parts of the ranch with cash and four others got parts of the Ochs Ranch in exchange for putting conservation easements of equal value on their properties. And Bill Trampe donated a 1,100-acre easement on his neighboring ranch to complete the puzzle.

The total land preserved in the deal was 4,733 acres. That's leverage. And that's what it's all about: Getting leverage to reverse the usual trend of ranches being subdivided.

But in the big picture, Gunnison County is still losing ground. There are some 75,000 acres of prime ranchland in the county. Close to half of that has been developed, subdivided or is up for sale. And the money to protect the remaining lands falls far short of what is needed.

Back in 1997, Lohr and Trampe told Time magazine they hoped to have more than 20,000 acres preserved by 2002. They're closing in, but they're not there yet: The Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy has secured easements on 22 ranches, totaling 13,142 acres. Add the 3,000 acres the Crested Butte Land Trust has preserved and you get just over 16,000 acres.

Still, the Legacy has 27 families on a waiting list to sell easements on 15,706 acres. So far, the Legacy has spent $14 million, and it expects to need another $25 million to get the job done. If the Legacy can find the money, and the families have the patience to hold out, they could end up preserving close to half the private land in Gunnison County.

THE STUFF DREAMS ARE MADE OF. Miles of fishing rights, beaver ponds, trees, views and wildlife. Perfect for keeping, good for development or some of each.
-Gunnison Country Times

"The existence of a land trust is evidence of the frontier of limits," Western historian Roderick Nash wrote in a brochure for the Crested Butte Land Trust. "It is clearly a post-frontier institution."

The growth of Nash's post-frontier institution has to be one of the most spectacular changes in the Western landscape. A report in the February 2004 issue of Conservation Biology presents some of the only aggregate analysis available of data from 1,700 land trusts in the national Land Trust Alliance. Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, found that from 1990 to 2000, the number of land trusts in the West increased from 155 to 265 (these figures include California, which accounts for about half of the total). By 2000, land trusts claimed to have conserved roughly 2.5 million acres of private land in the West, through both easements and outright purchase, a fourfold increase from 1990. The growth in the Southwest has been particularly spectacular, from 26 to 57 land trusts and from 39,240 conserved acres in 1990 to 685,118 acres in 2000, an increase of 1,646 percent.

Much of that growth has come from conservation easements. Easements now protect just over 1 million acres in the West as a whole, and only 156,055 acres of that total is in the Pacific region.

Still, looking at the big picture, the tributaries of the land trust movement are being overwhelmed by the great tidal force of development in the West. Remember that roughly 42 million acres of private land in the region had already been developed as of 2000, and that number had more than doubled since 1970, in just 30 years, the span of a generation.

That means it is up to the next generation to dramatically step up private-lands conservation efforts, or face losing roughly half of the remaining private land in the region to development. If we generously assume that land trusts have conserved more than 2.5 million acres in the West, that is still only 2.5 percent of the roughly 100 million acres of private ranch land in the region, and only 10 percent of the 25 million acres of "strategic ranch lands at risk" identified by the American Farmland Trust.

Can the land trust movement expand tenfold in the next 30 years? Will the public pony up the money? Do we need a huge infusion of federal, state and local funding? Will rising land values stimulate conservation?

If Gunnison County and the dramatic rise in the creation of land trusts and conservation easements over the past decade are any indication, the answer is Yes, Yes, Yes, Yes. But the rest of the West is going to have to play catch-up with places like Gunnison that have spectacular scenery, big bucks, development pressure, and determined, savvy players all pulling together.

"I wake up every morning worrying about how we can take our work to scale," says Jamie Williams, the director of The Nature Conservancy's Montana office.

Unlike Colorado, Montana has lots of large, intact ecosystems, says Williams, "so we have nothing but opportunity ahead." But finding the money to buy lands and easements is a huge stumbling block in a state that lacks big urban areas and currently is running a $250 million deficit, he says.

State conservation programs only put a few million dollars into the game, Williams says, which is why he and many private-land conservationists put a lot of hope in the federal government. But even there the investment has not been up to the task. The biggest hitter, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which in some years funnels hundreds of millions of dollars from oil and gas royalties collected by the government to land conservation projects, has steadily decreased under the Bush administration. Federal appropriations for 2004 are $175 million, down from a high of $450 million in 2001.

Another potentially large source of funds is the National Grasslands Reserve Program, created by the new farm bill, which authorizes up to $250 million a year to place easements on prairie ecosystems. Only $1 million of that money trickled to Montana in 2003, Williams says, and it was heavily competed for: More than 400 applicants requested a total of $200 million for easements.

Though the political will to provide money for private lands is not keeping pace with the demand, practitioners like Jamie Williams, Susan Lohr and Luther Propst of the Sonoran Institute find hope in the many on-the-ground coalitions that are finding new ways to protect the land. In Montana's Blackfoot Valley, a long-standing local collaborative group composed of ranchers and locals, state and federal officials, called the Blackfoot Challenge, has just inked a deal with The Nature Conservancy and Plum Creek Timber to purchase 89,000 acres of timberland that seemed destined to become subdivisions.

And in southern Arizona's Pima County, citizens will vote in May on a $174 million open space bond that will go toward the acquisition of threatened lands and conservation easements. The measure has the support of realtors as well as conservationists, says Luther Propst, showing that even those in the growth industry recognize that some land needs to be conserved to protect an area's quality of life.

In hundreds of communities across the country, citizens are taxing themselves to pay for private-land conservation. In 2002, voters nationwide approved 92 of 107 conservation finance measures, generating more than $6.9 billion, according to the Trust for Public Lands. In 2003, Colorado voters alone approved eight of nine ballot measures that will result in nearly $300 million for open space and parks.

And these measures aren't just being enacted in cities with liberal politics. Places like Boise, Idaho, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Montana's Gallatin County have all recently taxed themselves to buy and protect private lands from development. "These broader conservation issues are blind to politics," says the Trust for Public Land's Adam Eichberg, because newcomers and old-timers of all stripes have a common stake in not despoiling the places they love.

"We're going to lose a lot more pretty places in the coming years," says Luther Propst. But many important lands will be saved, he believes, leaving a rich mosaic of undeveloped land and land in varying degrees of development.

Many ranchers are coming to view the future of the West in similar ways. Though they've spent their lives in ranching, and their hearts and souls are in it, it's not their bottom line. The land is the bottom line. The ranch of the future may not even be a ranch.

It's hard to imagine a man believing in ranching more than Stan Irby. But as he looks out over his ranch and the Tomichi Creek valley and imagines the future, it's not ranching that he sees. "We'll be able to look back and see that what conservation easements and ranchers were protecting will be the baseline for our future," he tells me. "It'll be one thing that won't change. It's probably the only thing that will not change."

Jon Christensen writes from Palo Alto, California. He patrols conservation and science, practice and policy for the Web log www.ConservationNews.org. HCN executive director Paul Larmer contributed to this report.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Not just a ranch: Bucks and acres

- Biology: The missing science

Land Trust Alliance 1331 H Street NW, Suite 400 Washington, DC 20005-4734 202-638-4725 [email protected] www.lta.org/contact.htm

Colorado Open Lands 274 Union Blvd., Suite 320 Lakewood, CO 80228 303-988-2373 www.coloradoopenlands.org

Gunnison Ranchland Conservation Legacy 307 N. Main, Suite 2A Gunnison, CO 81230 970-641-4386 [email protected] www.gunnisonlegacy.org/

Trust for Public Land Adam Eichberg 303-837-1414 www.tpl.org

The Sonoran Institute Luther Propst 520-290-0828 www.sonoran.org

American Farmland Trust 1200 18th St. NW, Suite 800 Washington, DC 20036 [email protected] 202-331-7300 www.farmland.org

This story is funded by the generous donors to the "Who Will Take Over the Ranch" project, a series of stories on the plight of the West's private lands.

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    Job Announcement: Environmental Justice Associate Announcement date: June 18, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: July 13,...
    Job Announcement: Communications Associate Announcement date: June 18, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: July 13, 2021...
    Colorado Wild Public Lands (COWPL), based in Basalt, is an exciting nonprofit working to keep public lands open and accessible. Our growing organization is seeking...
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time business support assistant to provide...
    The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), Utah's largest conservation organization, has an immediate opening for a full-time Social Media and Digital Advertising Specialist. This position...
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
    Greater Yellowstone Coalition seeks a development professional to coordinate the organization's individual giving program. The position description is available at http://greateryellowstone.org/careers Please email a letter...
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. At least 8-10 years of experience...
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring for two positions. We seek a Communications Manager to execute inspiring and impactful communications...
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
    Under the direct supervision of the Director of Shoshone-Paiute Tribe's Fish, Wildlife & Parks, in coordination with the Tribal Programs Administrator and the Tribal Chairman,...
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation has grown into America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more than...
    STEWARDSHIP MANAGER Job Vacancy and Description Posted June 2, 2021: Open until filled The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit, regional land trust...
    KSJD is seeking a host/reporter. Please see for www.ksjd.org for more information. EEO compliant.
    Quiet, comfy house for rent in Bluff, Utah. Walk to San Juan River. Bike or hike to many nearby ruins and rock art sites. Beautiful...
    Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rain forest on the coast, Hike the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg meadows,...
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
    St. Lawrence University seeks to fill the position of Assistant Director in the Outdoor Program. To view the complete position description, including minimum qualifications required,...
    Yellowstone Llamas Successful Yellowstone NP concession Flexible packages