Saving the 'south 40' from the bulldozer -- a new approach

Picture a strip of land 1 1/2 miles wide stretching from San Francisco to New York City. That's the amount of agricultural land that will fall victim to urban sprawl this year, say experts.

Widen this strip to 60 miles. Now it's equivalent to all the farmland converted to urban use in the last decade. Lay another 40 mile wide strip next to it -- an area equal to estimates of the result of a ''moderate'' rate of conversion from farm use to urban use for the future. The resulting 100 by 2,930 mile chunk of real estate represents the amount of US agricultural land that may be turned into parking lots, subdivisions, and otherwise lost to food production between 1970 and 2030.

''This is a matter that should concern every one who enjoys eating,'' Betty Feazel proclaims drily. Mrs. Feazel owns an 860-acre cattle ranch here in southwest Colorado. She is playing an active role in an innovative attempt to help farming and ranching families who wish to resist the tremendous development pressures.

A big part of the problem is that the pressure to develop drives land prices far beyond the agricultural value of a ranch or farm. The valuation on even a relatively small, single-family farm can zoom over the $1 million mark. Even with a recent relaxing of federal estate taxes, this climb in the market value of land can spell five- and six-figure inheritance tax assessments. Faced with this tax bill, many heirs are forced to sell off their holdings.

As concern over farmland preservation has grown, methods ranging from zoning to outright purchase and lease-back schemes are being tried in various parts of the country. Zoning is inexpensive but temporary. Purchase of land, or even development rights, is permanent but expensive.

The approach Mrs. Faezel is involved with takes a different tack. She and a handful of others are attempting to apply methods to farmland preservation developed in the land conservancy movement. According to its advocates, this method holds the promise of being more permanent than zoning and much less expensive than purchase of development rights.

Under a federal law passed in 1980, farmers and ranchers who qualify can realize substantial income and estate tax savings by signing over development rights on their land to a nonprofit, charitable organization. Mrs. Feazel was instrumental in the establishment of one of the first such trusts. Most farmers are not making enough money these days to benefit by the income tax advantages. But estate tax savings are great enough in many cases to allow farm families to pass on their land to future generations rather than being forced to sell all or part of their holdings to pay the taxes.

Currently, agricultural use is not sufficient to qualify land for this program. The land must have scenic, wildlife, conservation, or historic value as well. The exact details of what land will qualify are still uncertain because the IRS has yet to issue its regulations. They are expected sometime this summer. Advocates are working toward additional legislation that will allow agricultural use alone to qualify.

''Confiscatory inheritance tax laws have done more than any other thing to destroy the family farm,'' Mrs. Feazel asserts. She almost lost her husband's farm in Missouri for this reason, she explains.

Unlike many other methods, the approach being taken here is private and voluntary. This makes it more acceptable in many parts of the West where farmers and ranchers resent any government intrusion in their private affairs.

The Pagosa Springs group has modeled itself along the lines developed by the Trust for Public Land (TPL) in San Francisco. TPL was formed eight years ago to train community groups in the techniques of proper land stewardship. Although its early focus was the inner city, in recent years the group has expanded its efforts to the urban fringe. The basic concept applied to farmland preservation was worked out by Jennie Gerard at TPL.

She was approached by dairy farmers from Marin County north of San Francisco who were searching for a way to protect themselves from tremendous development pressures. Close on their heels came a group of orchardists in western Colorado who were the first local trust to incorporate for this purpose. And the trust in Pagosa Springs was the first to actually accept the development rights on some land. Meanwhile, a third land trust has been established in Colorado. Another has been formed in the Jackson Hole, Wyo., area. And TPL is working with other interested groups in California, Arizona, and Illinois.

Currently, TPL is trying to interest one of the nation's 3,000 soil and water conservation districts in the methods of land conservancy. Should these districts widely adopt land conservancy practices, Miss Gerard anticipates a system similar to the one currently practiced in France -- one which experts say has proved quite effective at farmland preservation -- might evolve in the US.

''What is so different about (the conservancy concept of) farmland preservation . . . is that a single mechanism can deal with and integrate the primary issues of farmland ownership and use: the family farm issue, the resource stewardship issue, and the farmland conversion issue,'' Charles E. Little of the American Land Forum summarizes in the Journal of Soil and Water Conservation.

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