Sunday, December 23, 2007

Routt county conserves 11,525 acres of open space

TODAY Newspaper Story
Easements across Routt County foster wildlife, preserve open space
By Brandon Gee (Contact)
Sunday, December 23, 2007

Steamboat Springs — Since 1997, Routt County has helped conserve 11,525 acres at a cost of about $4.7 million. That comes to a $408-per-acre cost to county taxpayers.
That’s quite a bargain, ac­­cording to county officials, and a testament to the success of their Purchase of Development Rights Program.
Last week, two new properties became the latest participants in the program. Landowner Robert Waltrip put 2,711 acres of his Wolf Mountain Ranch near Hayden into a conservation easement held by The Nature Conservancy.
“This project will provide a wide variety of wildlife activity and key winter habitat,” Routt County Commissioner Diane Mitsch Bush said.
Also, James and Barbara Ross have similarly protected 170 acres north of Pearl Lake State Park.
“It is an area that did have the potential for expensive real-estate development,” Mitsch Bush said. “The view sheds here are tremendous.”
When a landowner donates a conservation easement, they are permanently protecting the land from development. This reduces the value of the restricted land, but landowners’ compensation isn’t just the knowledge that the land will never be turned into a subdivision or shopping mall. There are significant tax breaks associated with the move, sometimes worth millions depending on the details of the easement.
Also, some entities, such as Routt County and the Colorado Division of Wildlife, will compensate landowners for the land-value loss to encourage more people to enter into conservation easements.
“The purpose is to compensate the landowner with cash to preclude development,” said Ron Roundtree, chairman of the PDR Advisory Board.
The county helped fund Waltrip’s easement, to the tune of $369,000. The Colorado Division of Wildlife kicked in $1.58 million.
Partnerships such as the one between the county and the Division of Wildlife are common, and on average each county dollar spent is matched by $4 elsewhere.
“This property is not only a working cattle ranch, the landowner has taken great steps to improve wildlife habitat at every turn,” said Jim Haskins, Area Wildlife Manager for the Division of Wildlife.
“Beyond sharp-tailed grouse and greater sage grouse, this is important transition range for deer and elk, so getting these protections in place is a big win for wildlife.”
Waltrip himself contributed about 50 percent of the easement’s value, which means he is not being reimbursed for 50 percent of the property value lost by placing it in a conservation easement.
The county contributed $70,000 for the Ross easement, with the couple contributing 92 percent of the easement’s value.
“The intent with most of it is to preserve the current state,” said County Commissioner Doug Monger, who noted that the lands are still private despite the county funding. “That’s our form of open space.”
To participate in Routt County’s program, landowners must have their conservation easements held by an approved sponsor such as The Nature Conservancy or the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust.
“We work with these sponsors to make sure facts are accurate,” Roundtree said.
According to C.J. Mucklow, president of the Routt County Cattlemen, the organizations that hold the land trusts play an important role beyond the application process as well.
“Their job is to enforce the terms of the easement over time,” Mucklow said. “They annually monitor to make sure they live up to the terms of the easement.”
Monger praised the PDR Program as an excellent incentive for land-rich but cash-poor farmers and ranchers to stay in agriculture.
Christy Belton, who operates the previously protected Warren Ranch with her husband Matt, agreed.
“One of the benefits of these conserved lands is it allows people like us to still do ag,” Belton said. “In our situation, especially, it’s a wonderful symbiotic relationship.”
The relationship is believed to be wonderful for the local economy as well.
Agriculture is estimated to make up more than $28 million of the county economy.
The PDR Program is funded by a 1.5 mill property tax increase approved in 2006, nine years after the program was first approved for a 10-year period.
The 2006 renewal is good for 20 years.