Wyoming: Land of open spaces?

Housing development

This 2010 view of “ranchettes” scattered across the prairie shows the area just beyond Cheyenne’s northern city limits, from near the Cheyenne water tower. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published Oct. 5, 2000, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Land of open spaces? Even Wyoming faces the loss of open space to development, especially in fertile river valleys.”

2014 Update: See http://www.uwyo.edu/toolkit/ltcpinwy/ for the University of Wyoming’s website, “Land Trusts and Conservation Partners in Wyoming.” Now the current issue is the conflict between the owners of sub-surface mineral rights who want to mine or drill for them, and the owners of the land surface above them.

By Barb Gorges

LARAMIE – Open space is on the agenda in communities across the country as urban and suburban sprawl continue to consume agricultural land.

In Wyoming, however, we still have “Wide Open Spaces” which was the title of a day-long forum held at the University of Wyoming last week.

The conference was sponsored by the Stroock Forum on Wyoming Lands and People and by the university’s Institute for Environment and Natural Resources.

The forum presenters and audience members included developers, conservationists, ranchers, farmers and professionals—all interested in land-use planning issues.

What is open space?

Presenter Jay Fetcher, founder of the Colorado Cattleman’s Agricultural Land Trust, said he once heard a woman from New York City say it was an apartment with two bedrooms instead of one.

To folks in Wyoming, Governor Jim Geringer said in his opening remarks, “it might be standing on a hill and not seeing any sign of man.”

In the forum, discussion was limited to “conserving working landscapes and wildlife habitat in Wyoming and the West,” specifically farmland and ranchland.

Agricultural producers in the Rocky Mountain region have not been able to keep up with the economy. They subdivide a bit of their ranch or farm to raise money for their operation, said Ben Alexander of the Sonoran Institute.

And the buyers are affluent people searching for better living conditions in a natural environment with recreational amenities.

Nationwide, said Alexander, 16 million acres were converted from agricultural to residential use between 1992 and 1997.

“We are educated to value open space,” said Frieda Knobloch, assistant professor of American Studies at UW. Ever since our country’s birth, she said, citizens aspired to live in open spaces and flocked to the frontier.

Converting ag land to rural residential use, said Alexander, is a drain on county finances. Studies show the cost of providing services such as water, sewage, roads and fire protection exceeds revenue generated by development.

In addition, the land that gets converted tends to be along the valleys–Wyoming’s most productive agricultural land.

While the rural human community undergoes a cultural shift away from farming and ranching with the influx of new homeowners, the wildlife community also changes.

Stan Anderson, UW professor of zoology, said fragmentation of landscapes into smaller, fenced parcels can interfere with big-game migration routes.

Changes in land use adversely affect the habitat requirements and the habitat requirements of native wildlife such as sage grouse and songbirds, resulting in the invasion of less desirable species.

Rancher Jim Cole, owner of the Deerwood Ranch outside Centennial, became a developer by default when he decided to sell a few 40 acre lots to subsidize his ranching operation.

But he wrote the subdivision covenants so that he could continue to graze all but the actual 2-acre homesites. In return, homeowners may wander the rest of the ranch.

Jack Turnell, vice president of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, said the association is looking at establishing a land trust similar to the Colorado Cattleman’s trust.

A rancher could sell his development rights to the nonprofit trust for cash, or he could donate the value of the rights for a tax write-off.

In return, the present owner holds himself and all future owners to particular development and management restrictions he and the trust agree upon.

Conservation easements are a similar tool. Local governments can also administer trusts and easements.

Ranchers and farmers would benefit from changes in government policies, said another forum presenter,Saratoga rancher Jim Berger.

He urged repeal of the estate or “death” tax, which frequently forces family members to liquidate all or part of a a farm or ranch operation in order to pay the tax. That land is often converted to other uses.

“Ranching is the most irrational act,” said Bob Budd, manager of the Nature Conservancy’s Red Canyon Ranch near Lander. “People who do it, do it because they love the land.”

But, he added, “Where is the market for flycatchers? Where is the market for sage grouse? Where is the market for wild things?”

Budd is a proponent of holistic resource management, an integrated way of making decisions. He proposes that ranchers look at innovative opportunities like grass banking, not only to keep their operations viable but to keep improving them.

Some of the solutions to open space concerns can come from the state Legislature, such as tightening lax subdivision laws, said Jean Hocker, founder of the Jackson Hole Land Trust. But saving open spaces “is going to be done with incentives,” that are attractive financially and emotionally, she said.

Wyomingite John Turner, president and CEO of the Conservation Fund and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the Bush administration, said that although funding land trusts can be difficult, voters around the country have passed hundreds of initiatives supporting open space.

As UW’s Institute of Environment and Natural Resources turns its attention to open space issues, Turner said he is certain it will find collaborative, Wyoming-style ways to uphold the Cowboy State’s identity as the nation’s “open space.”

Alan Simpson, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming and a veteran of land-use planning battles, was the forum’s luncheon speaker.

He said any effort to shape Wyoming’s future will succeed only with “good faith, good science, good sense and good will.”