Trust in the Land

  • The Crazy M Ranch is protected by a conservation easement

    Montana Land Reliance

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Saving the ranch.

In the scramble to preserve Western open space, land trusts have taken the lead. "I see a lot of people looking at land trusts as a real bridge between environmentalists and landowners," says Jean Hocker, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Land Trust Alliance. "At a time when, I think, the rest of the environmental movement is in the doldrums, people are seeing the tremendous growth of land trusts as the one bright light on the horizon."

The Alliance counted 1,095 United States land trusts in 1994, up 23 percent from 1990. Of those, 107 are in the 10 Western states (excluding California). Those 107 trusts have protected 918,842 acres, according to the group - 23 percent of all land protected by trusts in the U.S.

Among the top 10 states with the most land protected by all means, including outright purchase, Utah is number two with 489,381 acres, and Nevada number eight, with 98,896 acres. New Mexico, in acquiring conservation easements on the 300,000-acre Gray Ranch, recently outdistanced Montana with its nearly 145,000 acres. Montana is second to none, however, in the number of easements. Much of that is the responsibility of the Helena-based Montana Land Reliance.

"We see ourselves totally in a race between development and preservation in some of these valleys," says Land Reliance development director John Wilson. "We're trying to not turn the satellite dish into the state flower.

"Some of these ranchers see their last crop as subdivisions and houses. They say, 'Uh-uh, I'm not going to touch that with a 10-foot pole; I want to keep my options open.' We have to respect that."

Wilson says some ranchers turn sour on conservation easements when they see rich jet-setters buying large ranches and putting easements on them. The 107,000-acre Nature Conservancy easement on a Montana ranch owned by Ted Turner is "a lightning rod to the cultural changes happening in Montana," he says.

But land trusts keep plugging away, providing information to people who don't want to see the West subdivided, says Wilson. That message is getting through: Montana recently increased the minimum non-subdivision lot size (that is, ranchette) from 20 acres to 160. Wilson says, "That in itself was a reflection of the agricultural community saying, 'Whoa, wait a minute, what's going on here?' "

Land trusts offer ranchers and farmers a variety of tools, all with similar, often overlapping goals: Keeping land in agriculture, preserving open space and wildlife habitat, and providing income tax or estate tax relief.

Land trusts provide variations on one basic theme: relieving a piece of property of much of its appraised value. Because this directly affects the landowner's pocketbook, that loss must be weighed by each owner against other gains.

For instance, a rancher's heirs may be facing a big inheritance tax which could force them to sell or subdivide the ranch (see main story). Or a rancher may want to reduce his income tax. The value of the donation - determined by pre- and post-donation appraisals - is tax-deductible against the landowner's annual income (up to 30 percent of his or her income per year) for each of six years.

However, the value of the donation is often far greater than what many ranchers can take as a deduction. A rancher who gives away a $500,000 conservation easement, but earns $20,000 a year, will only be able to deduct $36,000 in total from his or her federal taxes.

So some land trusts connect ranchers willing to sell their property with so-called "conservation buyers" - usually people of wealth who will buy the ranch and donate its conservation easement to a land trust. The new owners can usually use all of the tax deductibility of the easement donation. And they may arrange with the rancher to stay on and work the land. Thus the rancher gets cash for his property worth far more than a tax deduction, and may keep working it.

A variation on that theme is used by Lane Coulston, owner of Helena-based American Conservation Real Estate, which puts conservation-minded buyers together with like-minded sellers. A buyer might end up with a small parcel on a ranch, in exchange for buying the ranch's development rights.

"We believe that those kinds of opportunities will continue to grow," says Coulston, who has concentrated on this kind of real estate transaction in Montana, Idaho and Wyoming since the late 1980s. "That 20-acre parcel will grow in value, and be more valuable than any other 20-acre parcel around."

Only 33 land trusts in the 10 Western states are involved in ranchland protection, according to the Land Trust Alliance. Part of the reason is lack of familiarity.

"I have known landowners who wanted to protect their land, and whose lawyers discouraged them from doing that because it was outside their knowledge," says the Alliance's Hocker. "Often, ranchers in particular will have as their lawyer a family retainer they've used for years and years, who is very skilled in other areas but just doesn't know how to protect land."

Another reason is cultural; ranchers are often unwilling to work with trusts they see as protectionist organizations devoted to taking away property rights. "You can imagine the level of skepticism the ranching community has had when they look at land trusts and conservation easements in general," says Reeves Brown, executive vice president of the Colorado Cattlemen's Association. That is partly why Brown and Routt County rancher Jay Fetcher are forming the Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust.

"How do you effectuate land preservation and still recognize property rights?" asks Brown rhetorically. "One of the best solutions that's come forward is voluntary land conservation efforts, as embodied in conservation easements."

For more information:

American Conservation Real Estate, Suite 10, The Livestock Building, 2 N. Last Chance Gulch, Helena, MT 59601 (406/443-7085);

American Farmland Trust, 1920 N Street N.W., Washington, DC 20036 (202/659-5170);

Conservation Partners, 1138 Humboldt St., Denver, CO 80218 (303/831-9378);

Montana Land Reliance, P.O. Box 355, Helena, MT 59624 (406/443-7027);

The Land Trust Alliance, 1319 F Street N.W., Washington, DC 20004 (202/638-4725).

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