Two weeks in the West

 

From sprawling estates in Colorado's tony Roaring Fork Valley to parched ranches on Montana's high plains, conservation easements protect millions of private acres of open space in the West. Next to all that, a 2002 decision by Johnson County, Wyo., to terminate an easement it held on the 1,043-acre Meadowood Ranch just east of Buffalo seems like small potatoes. But if the Wyoming attorney general's office fails to restore that easement through a lawsuit it filed this July, the case could harm efforts to conserve private land in Wyoming and across the country.

The issue is not whether an easement can be voided, but how easily, says University of Utah law professor Nancy McLaughlin. Ranch owners Paul and Judith Lowham donated the easement to the county back in 1993 to protect their property's agricultural, scenic and ecological values from subdivision "in perpetuity.‚" But just nine years later, new ranch owners Fred and Linda Dowd, worried that coalbed methane drilling on the ranch would destroy its value for agriculture, asked the county to extinguish the easement. The Johnson County Commission agreed, releasing development rights worth more than a million dollars to the Dowds without formal court proceedings or receiving compensation for the easement. Soon after, the couple marketed a second homesite on the ranch.

Hefty federal and state tax breaks help make such easements possible, and landowners preserve their property at a financial loss because they agree to limit development. If "permanent‚" protections can be stripped through a simple agreement, McLaughlin says, "the public investment just goes 'poof!' It's gone.‚" A ruling for the county and landowners could encourage attempts to break other easements, and may not sit well with Congress, which has the power to repeal tax credits, or the IRS, she says, not to mention folks who want to see their land protected for the long haul.

In other news, a snowy winter and wet spring in the West boosted water levels in drought-stricken Lake Powell by 45 feet at its July 16 peak. Even so, the West is in the midst of another bear of a summer. Fueled by heat (record-breaking in parts of Colorado, California, Idaho and Texas) and dry, windy conditions, wildfires torched hundreds of thousands of Western acres -- the vast majority in California -- triggering air quality warnings across the region in July and August. It's not just the fires causing pollution worries: The Environmental Protection Agency touched off its own on July 31, when it approved the air quality permit for the 1,500-megawatt coal-fired Desert Rock power plant in northwestern New Mexico. A dozen environmental and citizen groups, along with the state of New Mexico, have promised to appeal the decision. Desert Rock faces only two more hurdles -- an environmental impact statement and a federal mercury ruling -- and may soon begin pursuing power contracts with utilities.

In order to improve air quality in booming Pinal and Maricopa Counties, Arizona's state land department is considering stamping out a different sort of conflagration on some state trust lands: dust-churning offroad vehicles. Smokey Bear even briefly entered the fray in July, warning in a public service ad that ORVs can spark wildfires. (The ad was short-lived; the Forest Service yanked it after complaints from offroad groups.)  Meanwhile, a different kind of smoky bear -- a decidedly less gentle grizzly one -- scratched up a firefighter in early August while fleeing the LeHardy wildfire in Yellowstone National Park.

 

 

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRAND CANYON DIRECTOR
    The Grand Canyon director, with the Grand Canyon manager, conservation director, and other staff, envisions, prioritizes, and implements strategies for the Grand Canyon Trust's work...
  • ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Great Old Broads for Wilderness seeks a part-time Administrative Assistant to support the organization's general operations. This includes phone and email communications, office correspondence and...
  • HISTORIC LODGE AND RESTAURANT - FULLY EQUIPPED
    Built in 1901, The Crazy Mountain Inn has 11 guest rooms in a town-center building on 7 city lots (.58 acres). The inn and restaurant...
  • ONE WILL: THREE WIVES
    by Edith Tarbescu. "One Will: Three Wives" is packed with a large array of interesting suspects, all of whom could be a murderer ... a...
  • PROGRAM DIRECTOR, SALAZAR CENTER FOR NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION
    The Program Director will oversee the programmatic initiatives of The Salazar Center, working closely with the Center's Director and staff to engage the world's leading...
  • WILDEARTH GUARDIANS - WILD PLACES PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Salary Range: $70,000-$80,000. Location: Denver, CO, Portland, OR, Seattle, WA, Missoula, MT or potentially elsewhere for the right person. Application Review: on a rolling basis....
  • RIVER EDUCATOR/GUIDE + TRIP LEADER
    Position Description: Full-time seasonal positions (mid-March through October) Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10 year old nonprofit organization fostering community stewardship of...
  • BOOKKEEPER/ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
    Position Description: Part-time, year-round bookkeeping and administration position (12 - 16 hours/week) $16 - $18/hour DOE Organizational Background: Colorado Canyons Association (CCA) is a 10...
  • LAND STEWARD
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks a full-time Land Steward to manage and oversee its conservation easement monitoring and stewardship program for 42,437 acres in...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Ventana Wilderness Alliance is seeking an experienced forward-facing public land conservation leader to serve as its Executive Director. The mission of the Ventana Wilderness Alliance...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    The Development Director is responsible for organizing and launching a coherent set of development activities to build support for the Natural History Institute's programs and...
  • WILDLIFE PROJECT COORDINATOR
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 53 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Cinnabar Foundation helps protect and conserve water, wildlife and wild lands in Montana and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem by supporting organizations and people who...
  • TRUSTEE AND PHILANTHROPY RELATIONS MANGER,
    Come experience Work You Can Believe In! The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is seeking a Trustee and Philanthropy Relations Manager. This position is critical to...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    -The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region- The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful, complex, diverse,...
  • CONSERVATION SPECIALIST
    Position will remain open until January 31, 2021 Join Our Team! The New Mexico Land Conservancy (NMLC) is a non-profit land trust organization dedicated to...
  • OLIVERBRANCH CONSULTING
    Non-Profit Management Professional specializing in Transitional Leadership, Strategic Collaborations, Communications and Grant Management/Writing.
  • GREAT VIEWS, SMALL FOOTPRINT
    Close to town but with a secluded feel, this eco-friendly home includes solar panels, a graywater reuse system, tankless hot water, solar tubes, and rainwater...