The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust helps farmers and ranchers set up conservation easements to protect their land from development.
Anyone who has spent time driving along I-25 between Fort Collins and Denver during the last two decades has seen the once-open spaces steadily filled with commercial and residential development. Land formerly devoted to agricultural is being used to build housing developments and shopping centers, office parks and apartment complexes.
“It’s a conundrum. You want development, but it is pushing agriculture out,” says Erik Glenn, executive director of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust.
The American Farmland Trust reported earlier this year that in the U.S, almost 31 million acres of agricultural land was converted between 1992 and 2012. “The loss is equivalent to developing most of Iowa or the entire state of New York,” states the report. The group has’t released state figures, but the National Resources Inventory from the U.S. Department of Agriculture says that between 1982 and 2012, 601,700 acres of agricultural land was developed in Colorado.
Why should Colorado city dwellers care? For several reasons, chief among them being that the state’s farmers and ranchers are maintaining the food supply to our tables as well as those in 100 countries across the globe, according to the state Office of Economic Development. Agriculture contributes $41 billion to the state’s economy each year in the form of goods, services, manufacturing and jobs.
When farms and ranches are lost in both rural areas and near urban development, related businesses are at risk, from feed stores to equipment suppliers.
Farmers and ranchers who want to stay on their land and continue to produce food, preserve their livelihoods and hold onto their land for future generations are finding assistance from such organizations such as the CCALT. The organization was founded by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association in 1995 to work on behalf of agricultural families and understand their needs and challenges. Since its inception, the trust has partnered with 313 families to permanently conserve 560,567 acres of land throughout the state.
Glenn explains that the land isn’t saved just for the benefit of landowners, but for the public good as well. Agricultural and ranch land is significant for maintaining environmental resources, including water, grassland and wildlife habitat, and for historic preservation and open space protection. In 2017, for example, the CCALT’s conservation work included 65 miles along major waterways, including Gold Medal-classified water along the Arkansas and Colorado rivers.
The process of getting a conservation easement is long and detailed, and the trust might be working on more than 30 projects at any one time. A total of seven CCALT easements were completed in 2017 and each case is a little different. Sometimes, the owners are looking for a succession plan in order to pass their land holdings on to their children and grandchildren.
The easement lowers the value of the land, which can make it easier to transfer to the next generation. By donating or selling perpetual conservation easements, the landowner may be able to get financial and tax benefits through cash, federal income tax deductions, estate tax exemptions and transferable state income tax credits. With that money or tax credits, the owner can buy out partners, reduce debt, save for retirement, pay for long-term health care or college education, or buy land and equipment to improve their operation. The landowner maintains ownership of the property, with the trust providing oversight.
Steven and Joy Wooten, who own the Beatty Canyon Ranch in southeastern Colorado, got a conservation easement on their property about a decade ago. Their families have lived in the area for close to a century, and the Wootens have ranched on their property for 42 years, surviving droughts, wildfires, and such weather extremes as a 2007 snowstorm that dumped four feet and stranded part of their Red Angus herd.
Effects from the drought that devastated the area from 1997-2004 prompted the Wootens to seek a conservation easement. They had to sell part of their herd and lease pasture in Kansas for grazing. Following that financial hit, the Wootens needed to restructure the business and look for other ways of earning income.
The Wootens have been conscientious about managing their land, combatting the spread of invasive tree species like pinyon and juniper on land better suited to native grassland. For those efforts and others, the family was presented the prestigious Leopold Conservation Award in 2018 by the Sand Country Foundation, the CCA, the CCALT and the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association.
While the efforts are laudable, the Wootens aren’t doing it to win awards but to be good stewards of the land and make sure their children and grandchildren, now the 5th and 6th generations on the ranch, will be able to continue making their living there as well.
“Succession is one of the driving forces in our family,” Steve Wooten said, noting that what his children and future generations choose to do “is up to them, but at least we made sure they had the opportunity to say yes or no, stay or go.”
And while many of the people in Colorado’s most populated areas won’t live on such lands, they’ll reap benefits as well. One of the most visible conservation easements is the aptly named Greenland Ranch, visible along I-25 between Castle Rock and Monument. The 21,000-acre property, which spans eight miles of the highway, is the oldest working cattle ranch on the Front Range. “That’s why conservation easements are relevant to every person who lives here,” says Maggie Hanna, conservation manager at the CCALT. “It’s relevant to our history, health and education, and the fact that we want a beautiful, safe place to live in the future.”
Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust
8833 Ralston Rd.
Arvada, CO 80002
The organization’s mission is to conserve Colorado’s western heritage and working landscapes for the benefit of future generations. To learn more about its programs, visit ccalt.org.
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