Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust Surpasses 400,000 Acres Conserved

By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:02/12/2013 Updated:03/25/2013

Since its formation in 1995 by the membership of the Colorado Cattlemen’s Association, the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust has been partnering with farmers and ranchers across the state to protect their productive agricultural acres. Of the more than 30 land trusts in Colorado, CCALT remains the only one exclusively dedicated to working with the agricultural community, and 2012 was arguably their most successful year to date.
 
In October, CCALT received the El Pomar Foundation’s Julie and Spencer Penrose Award as the state’s outstanding nonprofit, an award that came with a $50,000 cash prize to further the land trust’s work preserving agricultural land in Colorado. And by December 31, CCALT had conserved a total of over 400,000 acres, 401,469 to be exact, of working lands in partnership with Colorado ranchers and farmers.
 
The goals of CCALT and its partners are two-pronged. First, they want to preserve the agricultural way of life, and the food it produces. Second, as the name conservation easement implies, they want to preserve the land itself through the regulation of development and the promotion of best stewardship practices. “At some point, economics and environmentalism have to meet for conservation to be really successful,” says Bill Fales, President, CCALT Board of Directors and a rancher himself.


"Biological Inventory: The Southeast Colorado Biological Inventory Ranchers in southeast Colorado's shortgrass, canyon and mesa country have known for generations that their ranches are home to spectacular wildlife resources. Southeastern Colorado is home to the largest intact working shortgrass prairie in the United States."
Source: Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultural Land Trust   

One of the most important issues CCALT works on with its partners is family succession, the passing down of farms and ranches from one generation to another. As Steve Wooten, a rancher and board member for CCALT, explains; “The challenge is with land prices almost twice as high as what we can pay for the land we’re on, family succession is the first and foremost key method to keep a ranch as a working landscape producing food.”
 
“And if you can pass that through without having to go through a lot of taxation upon the death of an elder heir, then you succeeded in setting that younger generation up without a tremendous amount of debt from the very beginning.”
 
In Steve’s mind, “succession is the toughest challenge for families, and we do land trusts and CCAs about succession to plan ahead and not get caught, [because] you never know when something is going to happen and you don’t want to have a situation where fifty percent of your farm or ranch gets hauled off to pay for taxes. That’s the greatest service the conservation land trust can provide you.”  
 
Bill agrees, adding that CCALT often helps farm and ranch owners to preserve their land for the future when their heirs are conflicted about continuing the agricultural tradition. “Usually, there are say three children who inherit a farm, but only one or two of them want to stay. Easements help make it financially possible for them to stay, so the land can stay with the family and not be sold to a developer.”


"Gallegos Ranch: High estate taxes threatened the sale of this property following the death of the family matriarch. With some creative planning and the use of a conservation easement, the family was able to keep this 4,500-acre cattle and horse ranch in production and protect the critical deer and elk habitat it provides."
Source: Colorado Cattlemen's Agricultuarl Land Trust


The environmental side of CCALT’s work to help preserve farming and ranching land in Colorado is more contentious. Even though ranchers have been considered stewards of their land for four hundred years, more recently they have been demonized as destroyers of the natural environment they work on. Fortunately, thanks to the efforts of CCALT, their partners and similar organizations, those views are beginning to change. This is in large part due to an effort to pursue best management practices in drafting conservation easements to ensure that working land is managed in a way that maintains biodiversity and general environmental health while providing for the farmers and ranchers who manage it.  They maintain that private working lands can foster the health of natural habitats better than the exurban developments that often replace them, and in some cases more effectively than nature preserves.      
 
This is in large part because private work lands occupy productive landscapes, those at lower elevations with more fertile soil and closer to water than nature preserves and other public lands, which are often found on high, arid landscapes.
 
Additionally, for Bill: “In a way, farmers and ranchers are better stewards of their land than say, park rangers, because most of them have been on the land for generations.” Due to what are often centuries of experience, they know the landscape, weather patterns and flora and fauna better than anyone else. Who better to manage the land than those who know it best?
 
While some of this evidence in support of private working lands as effective tools of conservation may be dismissed as anecdotal, there has been recent academic research to support these findings. Richard Knight, a CCALT board member and professor at Colorado State University’s Warner College of Natural Resources, and his colleagues published Biodiversity across a Rural Land-Use Gradient (Maestas et al. 2003), which compared “avian, mesopredator, and plant communities across the gradient of intensifying human uses from nature reserves to cattle ranches to exurban developments,” in the north fork of the Cache la Poudre River watershed in northern Larimer Country, Colorado. In brief, they found that:

 One generalization is that exurban developments promote non-native and human commensal species, perhaps at the expense of other native species. Another generalization is that nature reserves may not protect biodiversity as well as they are assumed to. Both of these notions have implications for landscape-scale conservation and provide ecological justification for groups who work with private landowners to protect biodiversity.      
 
CCALT is successful in achieving these goals, in part, because it views itself as an extension of the community it serves, not as an outside hand reaching in to help, and it is easy to see why; Bill, Steve and most of the other boards members are themselves ranchers, and several of the land trust’s staff members grew up working on or around farms as well.
 
That, and “hard work, a lot of hard work,” as Bill Fales describes it, are what have allowed CCALT to be so successful in helping Colorado farmers and ranchers to preserve their land over the years. Agriculture is by no means an easy way to make a living, and the members of CCALT take that same strong work ethic to preserve that way of life, and the land that provides for it.