|The Sand Creek Ranch. Courtesy photo.|
The Sand Creek Ranch sits on about 850 acres of Wyoming prairie near the Big Horn Mountains and the small town of Buffalo. It’s the kind of place a real estate developer might dream of slicing into pieces of Western paradise. The ranch, like hundreds of others across the Mountain West, is worth far more with cul-de-sacs than cattle.
John Jenkins, who 40 years ago helped his newly widowed mother downsize from a large spread on the Powder River to this smaller ranch, has a powerful reason to protect the property and to preserve a portion of its, and his, agricultural heritage.
“I want to keep it open. I cast my mother’s ashes to the wind out there on the big meadow,” says Jenkins, who recently retired after a career as an oilman and political consultant. “But, realistically,” he adds, “because I’m a businessman, I know that its highest and best use is really as real estate.”
Those competing impulses explain why he plans to split the difference by placing 500 acres into an easement for continued use as ranchland and divvying the remaining acreage into 99 home sites.
As a development model, the combination of open space and clustered home sites dates to the 1960s with the work of landscape architect Ian McHarg, who laid out a method for analyzing the components of a piece of land in his influential book Design With Nature.
Raised in an industrialized suburb of Glasgow in Scotland, McHarg designed housing developments in America with some principles of English design used for garden estates. McHarg’s designs incorporated the natural world into the developed landscape. He pioneered the now-standard use of map overlays as a way to display spatial data. Each map would include a different field of data — wildlife habitat, riparian areas, residential and others. McHarg’s system became the basis for the science known as GIS — geographic information systems.
In the Mountain West, as the human footprint has grown more pronounced, an increasing number of developers have begun to place conservation easements and other permanent restrictions on land within their development packages. The practice moved from rare to common in Colorado when state law there allowed landowners to turn an easement’s tax benefits into cash by selling them as tax credits, says Catherine Keske, an economist at Colorado State University who studies conservation and development.
Bob Cardwell, who spent 30 years in Colorado and elsewhere developing and financing real estate, first considered conservation developments about 10 years ago. One impetus was to avoid drawing the wrath of the local community with just another cookie-cutter development. Another was a budding urge to figure out how to preserve the openness and views of the high plains and mountains he loved.
“I thought, ‘How do I get out of the box?’ and along comes the idea of the conservation easement,” Cardwell says.
One conservation development, notable for its size and beauty, is the Storm Mountain Ranch near Steamboat Springs, Colo. Another is the Sun Ranch near Bozeman, Mont. The Sun Ranch Institute has been perfecting a nonprofit model to use the market to sell some homes, maintain agriculture and conserve key pieces of land, and news of its efforts have prompted calls from developers and landowners from Texas to California and even Costa Rica.
“We are developing at about three times the rate that we’re conserving things, so we’ve got to start looking at these techniques,” says Martin Zeller, president of Denver-based Conservation Partners, a firm that works with land trusts and private developers.
For Jenkins in Wyoming, the decision to both develop home sites and place land under conservation easements came about gradually over a period of about eight or nine years. The process began in 1997, after Jenkins’ mother died, as he and his siblings felt financial pressure to cut the land up and sell it as part of the liquidation of his mother’s estate. Agricultural acreage was cheap enough at the time that he was able to buy the ranch himself.
Jenkins wanted to protect the ranch land, but the cost of the conservation seemed daunting. He researched options and liked the idea of a thorough analysis of the qualities of the land, which would then drive the placement of home sites and the protective easements. He added another dimension when he established the agricultural operation as a nonprofit, giving each homeowner a share of the business.
The idea, Jenkins says, is to give buyers the feeling that they’re getting an 850-acre ranch without the price tag, or the upkeep.
“People want to live out there,” he says. “If you want to serve both masters, you’ve got to find a way to give people a wonderful real estate value without destroying the natural resource and wildlife values.”
–David Frey writes from Carbondale, Colo. and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more from the Spring 2008 issue of The New West magazine, and for information on how to subscribe for free visit www.newwest.net/magazine.