Working To Save the West

10/18/2004 00:00


From his ranch outside Helena, Jim McMaster has a sobering view of Montana's future: mile after mile of huge new trophy homes that stop only where his fence begins. For years real-estate developers tried to lure McMaster into selling the property his grandfather homesteaded in 1875, some 5,600 acres of rolling grassland, teeming with elk and antelope, that overlooks a stretch of the Missouri River Valley once traveled by Lewis and Clark. "They wait for you on the road, they call, they hand you fliers to give 'em a call and get rich quick," says McMaster, a burly 79-year-old who works the range in well-worn overalls. "But I wasn't interested in seeing this land parceled off." Without heirs, McMaster was running out of time to find a buyer who would respect his wishes. Then he met an unlikely partner in Gates Watson, a 30-year-old environmentalist with the Conservation Fund, a Virginia-based nonprofit group. Last July McMaster sold the ranch to the fund for a fraction of its $6.2 million value. "I wanted to live long enough to get it into good hands," he says.

As subdivisions devour the last open spaces of the American West, cowboys and "tree huggers," once bitter antagonists, are joining forces to save endangered landscapes like McMaster's ranch from development. The improbable allies face formidable market pressures. Population in the seven Rocky Mountain states has surged 47 percent in the past two decades. Over the last five years, more than 15 million acres of rangeland has been converted from grazing to other uses, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. An additional 25 million acres of ranchland in the Rocky Mountain West is at risk of being developed for housing by 2020, according to the American Farmland Trust (AFT), an advocacy group. The three- to five-acre "ranchettes" creeping out from the edges of virtually every Western city may seem like state parks to the average East Coast suburbanite. But development foes say the web of roads, lawns, power lines and shopping centers serving these new settlements has fragment-ed landscapes vital to wildlife and drained fragile waterways. "We're on the verge of losing the very qualities that people move to the West to find," says Ralph Grossi, president of the AFT.

With newcomers stampeding westward, land prices are soaring. "I've seen properties that sold for $65,000 two generations ago now valued at $5 million," says Rock Ringling of the Montana Land Reliance (motto: "Cows, not condos"), which brokers conservation deals. The pressure on aging ranchers to sell is often compounded by family matters--children and grandchildren who don't want to stay on the land, or can no longer do so profitably. Faced with huge estate taxes, many believe they have to sell to the highest bidder.

For some ranchers, however, preservation is more important than profit, and the conservationists are a palatable alternative to the developers. Often, instead of buying land outright, the groups pay ranchers for conservation easements--restrictions on a deed that bar future owners from developing the land. The practice is gaining acceptance in even the most traditional Western communities, where folks look unkindly on any infringement of their property rights. "When I sold my first easement, I lost some close friends who screamed at me, 'You've gone over to the Greens'," says Karl Rappold, a chisel-jawed fourth-generation rancher who four years ago sold development rights to his family's land along the Rocky Mountain front to the Nature Conservancy. "Now some of the same people are coming to me and saying, 'We need a deal to protect our ranch'."

With easements, the Green groups gain valuable wildlife habitat, while the ranchers get much-needed cash (usually a third to a half of their land's market value) and can still work their land with only minimal restrictions. So far, about a million acres in the Rocky Mountain states have been placed under conservation easement, nearly half of that in Montana. "If I didn't think about the easement, I wouldn't know it was there," says Dusty Crary, 43, one of Rappold's neighbors, who sold development rights on his family's ranch near Choteau, Mont., to the Nature Conservancy. Now, in addition to feeding his Angus cattle, his land will remain intact as a crucial migration corridor for grizzly bears. "About the only thing my heirs won't be able to do is put up condos here," he says.

Conservationists have come up with other solutions as well. When Jim McMaster sought a buyer, Gates Watson offered a deal: McMaster and his sister Dolly could remain on the property until the end of their days, after which the Conservation Fund would ensure that the ranch remained forever intact, as a "grass bank" where other ranchers could graze their cattle while restoring their own overused land. 

The new enviro-capitalists are a different breed from the finger-wagging scolds who used to rely on legislation and litigation to battle ranchers, whom they blamed for overgrazing and water pollution. "We don't do this because we're tree huggers," says Ringling. "We are producing a product, and that is open space." Alex Diekmann of the Trust for Public Land, a nationwide conservation group, holds an M.B.A. and worked on Wall Street before moving into commercial real estate. Now he buys conservation easements outside Bozeman. "I'm still in real estate," he says. "But it feels a lot better to buy land for the purpose of not building on it." Such deals may not impress Donald Trump, but to the ranchers determined to save the land they revere, they offer much-needed hope.


© 2004

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