In US, Land Trusts Grow at Rapid Rate To Curb Development

In the boom-and-bust days of Colorado's silver rush, the back-to-back hamlets of Silvercliff and Westcliffe were two of the most populous towns in the state. As many as 16,000 miners scraped for fortune in the hardscrabble passes and alpine ridges overlooking town.

More than 100 years later, these quiet ranching communities share less than 2,500 full-time residents. But now many locals are bracing for another boom that could once again fill the valley with homesteaders.

This time the rush is for real estate. The valley's stunning views and open spaces are drawing people from as far away as California and Texas.

"There are now 8,000 undeveloped plats in Custer County," notes Pari Morse, a local zoning- board official who's concerned about the influx. "If each of those lots gets a house, that could bring up to 20,000 new residents. How is a little town like Westcliffe going to handle that kind of growth?"

That question is on a lot of minds in Westcliffe these days. While development is bringing needed employment to town, many like Morse worry that uncontrolled growth could drive away the area's abundant wildlife and threaten the valley's quiet, agrarian customs.

Now, along with a handful of other like-minded locals, Morse is working to slow the pace of future subdivision. Rather than trying to pass laws to discourage growth, however, they're turning to what has become a popular land-preservation tool.

The local conservationists have formed a nonprofit land trust, called the San Isabel Foundation, in order to buy large tracts for preservation or protect private land via contracts known as conservation easements.

Under these easements, a landowner signs a contract donating the development rights on a given parcel to the land trust, which in turn makes sure the contract's terms are honored when the property changes hands.

Although restrictions on private land are often viewed with suspicion by many rural dwellers, land trusts are taking hold in many developing areas.

The San Isabel Foundation is just one of 206 land trusts established nationwide in the last four years, according to a study last July by the Land Trust Alliance, a national umbrella group based in Washington, D.C. New trusts pop up at a rate of one per week, according to the study.

"It's the fastest-growing sector of the conservation movement," notes Alliance president Jean Hocker, adding that the nation's 1,100 land trusts have already preserved roughly 4 million acres of open space.

Although land trusts are growing rapidly, they aren't new. At the turn of the century, groups had formed to preserve woodlands in New England and the redwoods of California. In recent years, land trusts have helped create greenways in urban areas, preserve inland waterways, or protect lake fronts. In the Southeast, where land trusts are growing most rapidly, easements are being used to preserve increasingly valuable barrier islands, Appalachian mountainsides, and coastal ecosystems. In Northeastern states, particularly Vermont, land trusts are working with state agencies to save working farms.

Why would landowners give up development rights? For many it's a chance to forever protect land for which they feel a deep attachment. One of the San Isabel Foundation's first clients, Eustice Zaher, hopes to protect a unique wildlife habitat.

"I just want to make sure this land is never subdivided or logged," says Mr. Zaher, a Denver-based obstetrician whose rugged, 800-acre parcel is home to ancient spruce trees, black bears, mountain lions, and bighorn sheep. "Of course, I'm also interested in the tax deductions."

Therein lies another key incentive. When land owners donate development rights, they can deduct the value of that gift from their income taxes - as long as there's a public benefit to preserving the land. This deduction is one reason the first land-trust customers in areas like Custer Country are often "deep pockets" people, local lingo for wealthy neighbors.

Increasingly, however, land trusts are attracting old-time ranching families that have traditionally been skeptical of outside preservation efforts. In many cases, they're drawn by another tax incentive that some say can make the difference between selling out and keeping a ranch in the family.

As development forces the value of large ranches to skyrocket, many families must sell their farm just to pay the estate (or inheritance) taxes when the original owner dies.

Along with dietary trends toward less meat consumption and market prices, farm groups say estate taxes are one reason ranch land in Colorado is being lost to development at a rate of 90,000 acres per year (or roughly two acres an hour nationally).

Because the IRS levies estate taxes based on the value of a parcel's "highest and best use," the agency's calculations assume the property will be subdivided to the maximum extent allowed by law.

But by placing a conservation easement that restricts future subdivision, households can significantly reduces estate taxes. That's one reason the Colorado Cattlemen's Association set up its own land trust this year, says Reeves Brown, director of the Cattlemen's Association.

"The mainstream agricultural community is often at odds with preservationists who say the best way to protect land is to leave it alone," Mr. Brown says. "The problem is, that doesn't leave room for agriculture. So despite the merits of land trusts, most ranchers ignored the message because of the messenger."

But in the ski-resort town of Steamboat Springs, Colo., a few hours' drive from Denver, that message is now touted by ranchers who fear tourist development may end ranching in their valley.

"Under agricultural valuation, my family's land is assessed at roughly $500 an acre," says Jay Fetcher, whose family recently put a conservation easement to retain the agriculture valuation on its 1,300-acre spread outside Steamboat Springs. "Under 'highest and best use,' the value is $7,000 to $10,000 an acre. There's no way my family could afford the estate taxes when my father passes away."

Ironically, it was Fetcher's father who built the first local ski resort. Now, father and son are leading a group of ranchers promoting conservation easements as a way to maintain what the younger Fetcher calls "a critical mass of agriculture."

Despite the romantic stereotype of the solitary cowboy, ranch communities are interdependent, Fetcher says. Farm families rely on each other to buy supplies, herd cattle, and bring products to market. When even a few families sell out, life becomes more costly for those remaining, he adds.

Still, land trusts have their critics. One of the largest land trust groups, The Nature Conservancy, has recently come under fire from conservative groups for buying land and then handing it over to federal agencies. That process, critics note, removes the land from local tax rolls.

Trust proponents agree that developed land provides additional tax revenue. But they point to studies showing that for every dollar development brings in, local towns pay out roughly $1.35 in services to the new residents.

Nevertheless, conservation trusts are trying to forge ties with conservative ranchers. In Steamboat Springs, for example, The Nature Conservancy purchased a 950-acre ranch. But instead of managing the land as a refuge, the Conservancy hired a ranch manager to keep the ranch working while ecologists research environmentally friendly grazing methods.

Reviews of land trusts among real-estate developers are mixed. While there's concern that environmentally oriented deed restrictions might limit business, others predict a healthy market for large land parcels, which are increasingly rare.

Environmentalists say private conservation cannot replace government protection of habitat. But now that federal and state budgets for land acquisition are dwindling, many expect this voluntary approach will continue to grow.

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