An Analysis of Rangeland Preservation in Western States

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Howell, Ian

Rangelands cover a vast portion of the U.S., providing myriad environmental services (e.g. clean water, open space, wildlife habitat). The majority of these working landscapes are privately owned and are situated on the wettest and most productive lands in the West, but ranchers often require access to public grazing lands to feed their cattle. Ranchers face narrow profit margins, and many are rich in land, but lack substantial cash income. As the nation’s population continues to grow, western rangelands become increasingly threatened by development. Subdivision and residential development of a ranch can negatively affect neighboring ranch businesses, displace native wildlife, and upset the local tax base. Each state addresses agricultural land preservation with a unique mix of tools, funding sources, and local expertise. Furthermore, federal land preservation funding is unevenly distributed across states, and public attitudes towards agriculture and Howell: An Analysis of Rangeland Preservation in Western States iii land conservation vary. Land trust organizations facilitate preservation using conservation easements, which keep working lands working and in private ownership, while restricting most development. I explore the literature on rangelands, agricultural data, ballot measure trends, and case studies to present circumstances that facilitate and impede private rangeland preservation. In California, well-designed land planning tools support farms and ranches, but the state has relied on unsustainable debt financing to purchase agricultural conservation easements. Colorado has established a successful funding mechanism and an innovative tax credit program for conservation easements, but allows land-consumptive subdivision. Both states benefit from an agricultural land trust founded by their professional cattlemen’s associations. The California Rangeland Trust and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust have earned the trust of livestock growers and use available state, local, and private funds to protect working ranches.

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