Energy & Environment

Putting Land in Trust

Nonprofit land trusts are working closely with city and county agencies to protect lands that communities want preserved.
by | November 2000

On the road from Albuquerque to Olympia, Washington, there's a stretch where you can still travel 500 miles without passing through a town with more than 10,000 residents. Yet even the West's wide-open spaces no longer look so limitless. Salt Lake City, Boise and Portland long ago began to overflow onto the vivid landscapes that surround them. Now, as travelers come upon small places such as Price, Utah; Weiser, Idaho; and Baker City, Oregon, they are likely to see opulent homes and run-down trailer parks well before they reach the rodeo grounds, grain elevators and county-equipment yards that once demarcated small- town boundaries.

Sprawl has spread to the old Western frontier, and local officials are struggling with the consequences. Although "Smart Growth" policies may help manage Maryland's and Georgia's suburban-style growth, most remote mountain and basin towns aren't ready for governments to get that ambitious. Around Livingston, Montana, a railroad and agricultural town just north of Yellowstone National Park, the issue, according to Jim Barrett, who chairs the local environmental council, "is how fast growth can occur." Montana city and county officials are, Barrett adds, "intimidated by the power of developers and the threat of lawsuits" that would follow if they turned a private property owner down on new subdivision development.

To save Rocky Mountain farming and ranching communities, local officials are going to need lots of encouragement, along with financial help. For now, they're most likely to find that help close by, from local citizens who've stepped in to form private land trusts that work to preserve special places that are threatened with destruction.

Land trusts originated in New England a century ago and were set up to preserve wooded hillsides and farmlands. There are now more than 1,200 trusts operating around the country, most of them focused on protecting landmark mountains and hills, favorite ponds and streams, and other natural features of the earth that local residents have grown to value. Like their big brethren, the Nature Conservancy and the Trust for Public Land, local land trusts use private land-market transactions to keep countrysides open and wild.

As nonprofits, the trusts cannot get directly involved in government land-use regulation debates. Instead, they've worked closely in some communities with city and county agencies to identify and figure out how to protect lands that communities want preserved. For instance, the Trust for Public Land helped Gastonia, North Carolina, buy 400 acres for $9.4 million to protect the city's recently developed pure water supply from Mountain Island Lake. The deal headed off a 400-home lakeshore development near the municipal water intake. "It's really excellent water, but we could never have done this on our own," says Danny Crews, the city manager.

Although land trusts have worked for years in several seaboard states, they have begun blossoming in the Southwest and Rocky Mountains as residents become alarmed by unplanned pell-mell development. They are needed there because the prevailing political winds still make cities and counties wary about aggressively imposing land-use and zoning restrictions. "In Montana 10 years ago, you couldn't use the Z-word; they'd kick you out of the bar," says John Wilson, the former managing director of the Montana Land Reliance.

In 20 years of work, the Montana group has established conservation easements on more than 300,000 acres within the state. These agreements allow farmers and ranchers to preserve open space while giving them tax breaks that help keep their lands intact. The trust's land stewards stay in touch with landowners and sometimes consult county officials about what areas people want to see kept undeveloped. With the Reliance's help, private landowners in some of Montana's sweeping valleys have perpetuated what trust officials describe as "meaningful and widespread conservation neighborhoods."

By keeping those working landscapes intact, land trusts in effect are performing one of government's noblest purposes. Montana and other Western states have begun gearing up state and local land-use planning programs, but they'll be too late to salvage some imminently threatened vistas. In a sagging rural economy, longtime farming and ranching families are sorely tempted to get what money they can by breaking up sizable holdings in order to sell them as profitable five- to 25-acre home sites. If that trend goes unchecked, the most damaging kind of growth will interrupt wildlife migration routes, disrupt compelling mountain views, deflate the tourism business and sap the agriculture that remains the region's economic backbone. Unless governments, working with land trust partners, start doing everything within their power to resist, too many towns and valleys all over the West won't be the places they used to be.

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