In this remarkably unspoiled dell, set at the foot of the Sangre de Christos and home to several century-old cattle ranches, folks trying to save their cowboy culture have a name for their valley: "Custer County's Last Stand."
And for rancher Randy Rusk, the Old West, and the "New West," which in Colorado increasingly has been emblematized by sprawl, is now demarcated by a clear line. Actually, not a line as much as a green belt that soon will encompass 11,000 acres an area equal to half of Manhattan Island in the heart of the Wet Mountain Valley.
In a bold experiment, three conservation groups have persuaded Mr. Rusk and five other ranchers to sign a unique covenant limiting the kinds of development that they or any future buyers can do with the land. The conservation easements forbid the ranchers from converting their 1,500 acres into trophy homes, golf courses, and condominiums.
For the landowners, the agreement provides a modicum of assurance that their vocation will be protected from the infusion of newcomers pouring into the West, threatening the vast expanse of land they need for their cattle to roam.
The covenant marks a growing alliance between ranchers and environmentalists seeking to fight encroaching urbanization. Although a landowners and land preservationists have signed similar agreements elsewhere across the country, few other projects compare with the vast scale of the Wet Mountain Valley Ranch Preservation Program.
"Do you see right there?" Rusk asks, as he drives across the valley in a pickup truck with his wife, Claricy, pointing toward a sea of pastoral hay meadows and grazing Herefords. "The subdivisions stop when they reach our property, and then there's this big swath of open space," he says. "If ranching is going to survive, this is what it's going to take."
By the year 2025, conservative estimates indicate that Custer County will more than double in population. According to a study completed by the University of Colorado at Denver, 4,100 more homes will be scattered across the landscape, unless restrictions are applied.
In many isolated locales, ranchers are choosing to craft limitations on what can happen with their private property to stave off similar challenges of urbanization. In Jefferson County, Mont., for example, ranchers formed their own zoning district that only allows one home on every 640 acres. And in Routt County, Colo., near the resort community of Steamboat Springs, ranchers and conservationists have safeguarded 16,000 acres of ranchland. But Custer County's covenant is on a different scale altogether.
"This is as big and ambitious a program to protect ranching and the environment in a single effort as I know of," says Woody Beardsley of the Trust for Public Land, which has shepherded through the deal, along with the Colorado Cattleman's Agricultural Land Trust and Colorado Conservation Trust.
But the environmental groups' contract with six large landowners isn't without controversy. A few of the ranchers are being compensated for the easements funded, in part by state lottery ticket sales. To some, the covenants introduce too many restrictions on the area's land use by outside groups.
"So many people from outside the community have come here and said we have a problem," says land surveyor Kit Shy. "There's a consensus here that we need to determine our fate. My only question is who is 'we?' "
But some aver that, without intervention, the cowboy way of life will be endangered. With the average age of cattle ranchers approaching 70, and few younger cowboys able to afford to pay rising operational costs and taxes on escalating real-estate values, the ranching community here finds itself at a crucial crossroads, says 34-year-old rancher Sara Kettle. Across the West, estimates are that, over the next generation, between 50 percent and 75 percent of all ranches will change ownership, many to nontraditional ranch uses. In Colorado every year, the state loses to development the same amount of land that Custer County has remaining in agriculture.
"What's happening in Custer County could be a bellwether of hope for many rural counties scattered across the West that are in imminent danger of losing their ranching heritage, which is the soul of their identity," says Ben Alexander with the Sonoran Institute, a conservation group trying to protect working ranchscapes. "It's remarkable in this day and age to have the opportunity to work with landowners on a future vision that actually saves agriculture, wildlife habitat, and scenic open space."
The covenant agreement is also rewarding for a few of the landowners. Two ranchers have been compensated for their easements. Mr. Rusk's family, including his father and son, will receive about $1 million in much-needed cash to apply to operating expenses, a huge break on taxes, and estate benefits that enable them to pass down the land from one son to the next.
But the biggest dividends are not financial after all, he could have gained more money by selling their land to developers. For Rusk, the easement ensures that he'll remain a rancher.
"At least I know the land will always be protected. That's a family legacy that will remain long after I'm gone," he says.