By: Amos S. Eno
Posted on:06/20/2008 Updated:06/30/2008

A review of the current ranch-land conservation-scape

For the past ten years, I have been trying to convince environmental funders, federal and state officials and conservation leaders of the importance of focusing their energies and wallets on private lands as the largest and most strategic market niche for conservation investments in the Twenty-First century. The Resources First Foundation (RFF) has built a succession of internet websites targeting the market of private landowners including: the Private Landowner Network (PLN, the Conservation Tax Center (CTC, and the Maine State Conservation Center ( Our sites have received over 20 million hits in the last several years and are currently averaging over 100,000 visitors per month, so obviously our focus is attracting a significant response from viewers interested in this arena.

Sometimes as I try to articulate our vision and my personal frustration , particularly with most environmental funders who continue investments in the public lands and Twentieth century infrastructure sector in the West, I stumble upon new sources of information that serve to validate our prospectus for private land investment. Last week we found a small treasure trove of well reasoned arguments in a paper that not only substantiates our basic vision and perspective, but catalogues a number of compelling factual arguments in our favor. The article was published in the Journal of Rangeland Ecology and Management 61(2) March 2008 by two academics, Mark Brunson of Utah State University and Lynn Huntsinger of University California-Berkeley. Their synthesis paper is entitled: Ranching as a Conservation Strategy: Can Old Ranchers Save the New West? This paper is well researched and contains relevant empirical data to substantiate the points of view presented.

Today private lands in the west and particularly ranch lands are disproportionately important given the current demographics of landowners, the global climate and fire conditions impacting western landscapes, and the predominant position of private lands in riparian areas and in control of western water rights. Private lands in the west are like blood veins in the corporeal landscape of the West. They also retain the highest biodiversity index because of their low elevation and water access, and they provide critical buffers around and adjacent to federal public lands. I have quoted the salient points contained in Brunson and Huntsinger’s paper extensively to highlight these points and have added my own comments for emphasis and perspective. Much of what Brunson and Huntsinger have written about is contained in RFF literature and proposals, but their extensive documentation, which we have included, and conclusions serve as a veritable trampoline for our cause and recommended conservation investment strategy. With the caveat that what follows is obviously self serving to RFF’s perspective, I think it is important to review this paper and emphasize the research and its conclusions, because they provide the “particular connection” that is either overlooked or not understood by most conservation funders allocating investments to the West, particularly those investing in public landscape protection. We are convinced that from the standpoint of strategic investments for conservation in the West, a targeted focus on private land offers a compelling return on investment.

The authors point out in the paper’s introduction “The western United States … is undergoing rapid population growth fueled largely by in-migration from other regions…Saving ranches has become a focus of not only rural traditionalists and livestock producers, but also of conservationists, who prefer ranching as a land use over exurban subdivisions, and who see private lands conservation as a needed alternative to underfunded and controversial public acquisition.” The authors go to explain the vision of their paper addressing the ranchers/ranch’s role in western land conservation. “Conservation through private ownership is a complex process. To succeed practitioners must understand the synergies of people, environment, and institutions that are needed to accomplish conservation, recognizing that some forces such as global climate and economic change occur at scales…”

These are critical points and RFF’s websites, particularly PLN, CTC, and Save a Ranch are designed to addresses the full spectrum of complex needs of private land owners in the west, and they provide the opportunity to operate at full scale, locally, regionally, nationally, and on a global basis of readily accessible information and connectivity.

The driving force of development in the west stems from where people live in the region. As the authors put forward “The west is the most urban US region, with more than three-fourths of Westerners living in metropolitan areas”. They cite research reporting that the rural west is at a great risk of land use conversion. “The extent of population-driven land-use change is greater in the rural West than in urban areas because of the dispersed nature of exurban development” (Theobald 2000). They cite examples of actual acres converted. “In Colorado an average 110,000 ha (271,815 acres) of agricultural land was converted to commercial and residential development every year between 1992 and 1997(Maestras et al. 2001.)” Cromartie and Wardwell found that “between 1990-1997, Nonmetropolitan population growth in western states was three times that of the rest of the country”. During the 1990s the amount of land in mid-size Texas farms and ranches (500 to 2,000 acres) declined at a rate of about 250,000 acres per year (Wilkins et al. 2003). Other research in the Yellowstone region from 1990-2001 found that nearly one quarter of the large agricultural lands (ranches of 400 acres or more) changed hands and “only a quarter of these ranches were sold to “traditional” full-time ranchers. Nearly half (46%) went to amenity buyers or part-time ranchers.”

Sales in some areas are making it hard for prospective new ranchers to get into the game. Some ranches are selling for large sums; “In January 2007 the largest noncommercial real estate transaction in California history took place when a Los Angeles investment group purchased the 10,000 ha(24,710 ac) Cojo and Jalama ranches for $155 million, about $15,000/ha ($6,300/ac)” (Casselman 2007). “This price is well within the range for ranchland in that area”, reported Michael Fritz, editor of the Farmland Investor Letter, a monthly trade publication. Also reported; “a smaller ranch next door, suitable for vineyard production, sold for $19,000/ac in 2005”.

The authors concur that land prices such as these “restrict the entry of new ranchers into the business, and estate taxes squeeze heirs even if they want to continue ranching.” The record and empirical data are clear that private lands are the most subject to development, again because of their lower elevation, access to water and level valley floor landscaping. For all the same reasons these lands are the premier fish and wildlife habitat in the west and provide the connecting corridors to, from, and between publically protected lands.

As previously stated private lands of the west are the habitat hot beds, along the valley floors and streambeds. I learned this lesson in 1987 when we gave the first NFWF grant to develop GIS-GAP analysis to Michael Scott in Idaho where 68% of the state is in public ownership, yet all this public land is over 6,000 feet, devoid of much of Idaho’s biodiversity habitat. All the state’s biodiversity resides in riparian areas, like Snake River valley, which is largely controlled by private landowners. The authors found research that reported “habitat for 95% of all federally threatened and endangered flora and fauna is on private land in the U.S. and 262 of those species (19%) survive only on private parcels” (Wilcove et al. 1996).

The authors cite their own work to make the case for ranching as a way to manage fuel loads, “In addition to the ranch itself acting as a refuge from development, grazing is a useful tool for managing vegetation and habitat… California land management agencies with Mediterranean grasslands and woodlands are using livestock grazing as the least costly, lowest risk,… and most environmentally benign option for reducing buildup of high fuel loads generated by nonnative grasses and for suppressing shrub invasion” (Huntsinger et al.2007a).

“A third, closely related value associated with ranches is open-space protection. Seeing the “countryside” within aesthetically pleasing viewsheds is important to many living in urban and exurban areas.” Importantly and rarely factored into conservation agendas, ranches provide this open space asset at no cost to the community it benefits. They buffer public lands from development and high intensity land uses that would clash more severely with wildlife, scenery, recreation, and management practices such as controlled burning. As the authors found in research; “unfortunately, ranches adjacent to public lands are especially attractive for development” (Riebsame et al. 1996). This issue lies at the root of the public / private lands conservation question, and represents the Achilles heel of public land investment strategies. Take for example West Yellowstone, Cody, and Teton Valley in the Yellowstone ecosystem. Today our National Parks are development magnets that attract and are surrounded by Michelin rings of development sealing off the protected land and end up choking both the aesthetics and the biodiversity of the parks themselves. The NPS has never integrated their core areas with a strategy to protect private peripheral lands in a strategy based on open space protection and sustainability. This is NPS’ greatest failure in the Twentieth century.

Ironically, in recent years (2005 to present) The Army and Department of Defense have developed and funded a comprehensive program to protect natural resources and landscapes surrounding the principal bases and infrastructure sites across the country. The Army’s program is called Army Compatible Use Buffers (ACUB) and funds are allocated for protection of adjacent farm and forest lands through conservation easements with conservation partner entities public and private. This program demonstrates considerable foresight and initiative as well as financial acumen on the part of the Department of Defense. The Department of Interior should be so bold.

The authors research documents that “ranchers and farmers with conservation easements were more likely to diversify their operations to take advantage of emerging markets” (Gale 2003b). Community supported agriculture is starting to take a hold, “A significant source of support for the farmers that participate in the Marin Agricultural Land Trust (MALT) north of San Francisco is value-added markets for local, natural, and organic meat and milk” (MALT 2007). This is one of the reasons RFF added Community Supported Agriculture resources to the Maine State Conservation Center. The Maine State Conservation Center is our first state site and can be viewed as a prototype for future western state sites.

The authors research revealed facts about the threats ranches face; “As many as 45% of US ranches are being sold each decade … ranchers are an aging population who are land rich and cash poor, and that the purchase or maintenance of a ranch as an economic enterprise is becoming less and less possible.” As is highlighted in all of RFF’s literature, the demographics of ranchers tracks the aging population of private landowners nationwide. Huntsinger et al. (2007b) found that the average age of California ranchers is 59. Peterson and Coppock (2001) reported that 37% of respondents in a survey of Utah livestock producers were aged 66 or older, and that 28% of federal grazing permittees and 51% of ranchers operating solely on private land reported they planned to retire in 5 years. The average age of all U.S. principal farm operators has been more than 50 years of age since at least the 1974 Census of Agriculture and has increased in each census since 1978. In addition, the percentage of principal farm operators 65 or older has risen consistently since 1978 (when it was about 1 in 6) and reached 26.2 percent (more than 1 in 4) in 2002 (2002 Census of Agriculture).

And there is a domino effect: “As development proceeds in an area, it also has consequences for the remaining ranches. One California study found that ranchers working in a matrix of subdivided lands and leased pastures were less likely to control yellow starthistle because they assumed weeds on adjacent lands would remain uncontrolled”. Another California study found those ranchers in urbanizing areas were more willing to accept that their ranches would eventually become developed than ranchers in rural areas, recognizing that the pressures and temptations that come with urbanization become irresistible beyond a certain point (Liffman et al. 2000). Fortunately there is an opposite domino effect through critical mass where ranchers team up to protect large contiguous geographic areas. (see the Critical Mass section below).

It is perhaps the most important and understated driving force in private land conservation, particularly in the West, heir to the Sagebrush rebellion, Wise Use Movement etc. The trust factor is why most land trusts (with the particular exception of the agricultural and cattleman’s land trusts) and environmental organizations are viewed with suspicion and as inappropriate messengers by the private land owning communities throughout the West.

The authors present a survey that found a majority of ranchers in two areas of California undergoing rapid exurban development, and reported that “society’s hostility to ranching” was a reason to quit the business (Liffman et al.2000). Public agencies are battling with the trust issue too; “Building trust between ranchers and public agencies, and having a positive outlook about the future of ranching, have been suggested as crucial to reducing tensions between permittees and public agencies” (van Kooten et al. 2006). Some assistance and incentive programs are slow in their adoption by the ranching community because of lack of trust; “A Texas study found landowners to be wary even of market-based conservation incentives if they are novel and there is LESS THAN FULL TRUST of the entity offering the incentive” (Wilmot and Brunson 2005).

However, there is a growing appreciation by society of the values ranchers bring: a 2006 survey of Colorado residents found that three-fourths felt agriculture was very important to the quality of life in the state, and even more (83%) said it is very important to maintain land and water in agricultural production. “More than half (57%) agreed that agriculture in Colorado protects the environment, 72% believe farm and ranch animals are treated humanely, and 78% agreed that ranchers with permits to graze on public lands treat the land appropriately. Open space and wildlife habitat protection were found to be as important as food and fiber production as reasons for protecting agricultural land”. (Hull et al. 2006).

The Trust factor is why all RFF websites are neutral in political orientation, and why there is no environmental proselytizing or advocacy. Our sites are built as business to business information centers and networks, or in our internal vernacular, C to C as in Connecting people to Conservation. We designed our sites in a fashion that builds a business and market connection between land owners and the conservation based professional, financial, and legal service providers in their communities.

When it comes down to money development always wins, but for ranching folks there is more to it than just money. In a study by Torell and Bailey in 2000 the authors found “it has long been a fact that the value of ranch land for development far outstrips the value of land for production. Consumptive and quality-of-life values have been the most important reasons for the purchase and maintenance of ranches for decades”. There are other markets entering into the mix as the authors have come up with some ideas: “The possibility of marketing ‘ecosystem services’ has gained attention as ranchers view activities such as carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat as potential ways to increase income.” Also; “A promising program was initiated in March 2007 by the Chicago Climate Exchange which offers to pay ranchers who store carbon through rangeland rehabilitation or sound range management”.

The most popular tool by far is the conservation easement, and it is in use throughout the ranching community; “Voluntary easements that preclude development in perpetuity are acceptable to many ranchers, especially when the easement programs are managed by ranchers’ organizations” (Pritchett et al.2007). This is the reason behind the construction of our SAVE A RANCH site. The goal of the site is to protect working ranches in select geographic areas by raising money to fund easements on working ranches such as the O’Toole’s Ladder Ranch in Wyoming. There are federal and state programs that kick in funding for ranchers who want to use easements to restrict development and promote habitat preservation; “At the state level California and Texas both offer landowner incentive programs that provide payments to landowners implementing habitat management plans that benefit special status species”. There are numerous state and federal programs already listed in RFF’s PLN database, as is every state wildlife action plan and information about the tax deductions available to landowners for conservation in all participating states.

Taxes are all important to protecting private land. “If ranchers are aging and headed for retirement, the issue of how large properties can be transmitted across generations intact is critical. Johnson (1998) found that INHERITANCE TAXES were considered a PRIMARY BARRIER to ranch transmission in California. The Pinchot Institute and many others have found taxes to be the primary barrier to protecting forestlands across the country as well. The tax provisions enacted in the 2006 Pension act and continued in the 2008 Farm Bill were solely responsible for a ‘gold rush’ on easements in 2007. Conservation organizations were backlogged with easement projects created by interested landowners motivated by these tax provisions. A Texas Attorney reported “Our firm is doing at least three times as many easements this year as in past years. I'm sure that the expanded tax incentives are the main difference.” A report out of a Wyoming land trust; “We have seen close to a tripling of conservation easement numbers completed when compared to previous years. [A] good proportion of this increase has been related to the increase in tax incentives for landowners.”

“One reason why conservation easements have proven so appealing to conservation groups and the public is that they provide some guarantee of a long-term return.”

“Many residents of the western United States, including ranchers, tend to be suspicious of government land acquisitions in a region where more than half of the land in many states is managed by federal and state agencies.”

The importance of a critical mass of neighbors gets you to scale. “It may take a community of ranches working together and with public agencies… to maintain ecosystem processes and to conserve habitat and water at an ecologically effective scale. Socially, a “critical mass” of ranches is needed to support the infrastructure, markets, and human relationships that keep a ranch culture and industry alive.” This is what PLN and RFF’s websites offer: an internet network that provides geographic infrastructure, markets and access to all local service providers and market entries, and a web of human relationships to enable ranchers to perpetuate their lifestyle and businesses, keep their land in the family, and afford to pass it on to future generations. As the Malpai experience proves, there is strength in numbers. The Malpai Borderlands Group is organized and led by ranchers who live and work primarily in Southeast Arizona and Southwest New Mexico. It is a collaborative effort that is built around goals shared by neighbors within their community. It was because of this coherent sense of community, that I funded the Malpai Group for six successive years from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and later walked them into the Packard Foundation which also funded them generously. This group originated as a series of informal discussions among ranching neighbors who recognized that a way of life, and a wild landscape that they all loved, was being threatened by spread of development and subdivision from nearby towns. The Malpai Borderlands Group was formally organized as a non-profit organization in 1994. They have protected 75,000 acres of private land through conservation easements, which is protected as natural wildlife habitat and productive ranch land while preventing development. These ranchers, using conservation easements teamed up with neighboring ranches to protect a greater geographic area totaling over one million acres. As Bill McDonald’s daughter wrote: “I believe that the success of Malpai and the proliferation of similar collaborative efforts will provide inspiration for young people across the country to maintain these traditional livelihoods”.

Brunson and Huntsinger end their paper with the following paragraph: “Communities of sustainability, new kinds of owners, a rising group of natural resource-oriented ranch managers, and complex mosaics of ownership and obligation: this will indeed be a “new West”, but it seems likely that it cannot be saved by “old ranchers” alone. “New ranchers” must find agencies, neighbors, and publics that share their vision”. THIS IS Exactly WHAT RFF offers- an internet highway to all the above through:

BRUNSON, M. AND HUNTSINGER, L. 2008. Ranching as a Conservation Strategy: Can Old Ranchers Save the New West?
Journal of Rangeland Ecology and Management 61(2).

CASSELMAN, B. 2007. Nine beachfront miles of Pacific coastline. Wall Street Journal 12 January 2007. Available at: Accessed 5 October, 2007.

CROMARTIE, J. B., AND J. M. WARDWELL. 1999. Migrants settling far and wide in the rural West. Rural Development Perspectives 14:2–8.

GALE, I. 2003b. West Marin ranchers increasingly diversity. Point Reyes Light 10 April 2003. Available at: Accessed 5 October 2007

HULL, T., A. BRIGHT, AND G. WALLACE. 2006. Public attitudes about agriculture in Colorado. Denver, CO, USA: Colorado Department of Agriculture. Available at: Accessed 5 October 2007.

HUNTSINGER, L., J. W. BARTOLOME, AND C. D’ANTONIO. 2007a. Grazing management on California’s Mediterranean grasslands. In: M. R. Stromberg, J. D. Corbin, and C. D’Antonio [EDS.]. California grasslands: ecology and management. Berkeley, CA, USA: University of California Press. p. 233–253.

LIFFMANN, R. H., L. HUNTSINGER, AND L. C. FORERO. 2000. To ranch or not to ranch: home on the urban range? Journal of Range Management 53:362–370.

MAESTAS, J. D., R. L. KNIGHT, AND W. C. GILGERT. 2001. Biodiversity and land-use
change in the American Mountain West. Geographical Review 91:509–524.

PRITCHETT, L., R. L. KNIGHT, and J. LEE [EDS.]. 2007. Home land: ranching and a West that works. Boulder: CO, USA: Johnson Books. 217p.

THEOBALD, D. M. 2000. Fragmentation by inholdings and exurban development. In: R. L. Knight, E. H. Smith, S. W. Buskirk, W. H. Romme, and W. L. Baker [EDS.]. Forest fragmentation in the southern Rocky Mountains. Boulder, CO, USA:
University Press of Colorado. p. 155–174.

WILCOVE, D., M. BEAN, R. BONNIE, AND M. MCMILLAN. 1996. Rebuilding the ark: toward a more effective endangered species act for private land. Available at: Accessed 5 October 2007.

WILKINS, N., HAYS, A., KUBENKA, D., STEINBACH, D. 2003. Texas Rural Lands; Trends and Conservation Implications for the 21st Century. Available at: Accessed 19 June 2008.

WILMOT, S., AND M. W. BRUNSON. 2005. Conservation attitudes of rural landowners near Fort Hood, Texas: final report to The Nature Conservancy, February. Logan, UT, USA: Utah State University. 56 p.