#Colorado Open Lands and Morgan County rancher ink conservation easement deal for 1,218 acres

A view of Washington Avenue in Orchard, Colorado. Orchard is in Morgan County. Photo credit: Jeffrey Beall, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

From The Fort Morgan Times (Kara Morgan):

Morgan County resident John Yocam and Colorado Open Lands ended 2018 with a deal.

Yocam decided about a year ago that he wanted to conserve his family’s ranchland to make sure it stayed the thriving ranch land and habitat site that they had worked for many years to maintain. He approached Colorado Open Lands, a nonprofit land trust, to figure out how best to ensure the land would continue on as it has…

Yocam said in the past his land has been a site of interest by outside parties, and he wanted to ensure that it stayed the ranchland it has been. As both Yocam and Farmer explain, the land is both ranchland and an important habitat site for local and migrating wildlife…

Yocam explained some of the history of his land and why a conservation easement made sense for him.

“It’s been a long time coming actually. It started back in the ’70s when they were going to put in Centennial Wildlife Refuge here,” he said.

Yocam said the land has been in his family for about 70 years or so, since the mid-1950s, and he himself has lived there since 1976.

“Pressure has just got to so much here from different water projects, recharge projects. I’ve been in court about three times and so I just got tired of fighting off everybody,” he explained. “So I donated it into a land trust.”

[…]

‘Rare and Unusual’

Describing the recently conserved land, Yocam said with some pride, “It was deemed rare and unusual and must be protected, was the rating they gave it.”

Farmer explained how this land is valuable in many ways, more than ranchland.

“In addition to being highly productive, the ranch also provides excellent waterfowl habitat with its wetland and upland features,” she said.

The land is located outside of the town of Orchard, Farmer said, and it plays an important role for the wildlife living in the area, especially birds.

“Occurring within the ‘Golden Triangle,’ an area in Morgan and Weld counties defined by Empire Reservoir, Jackson Reservoir and Riverside Reservoir, the ranch and surrounding agricultural lands provide populations of ducks and geese with important upland/agricultural foraging grounds during their migration and over-wintering in the South Platte Basin,” Farmer explained.

For bird migration in the area, this location is critical, she said.

“This region is one of the most important wetland complexes in the South Platte Basin along the Central Flyway Migration Corridor,” Farmer said.

Yocam painted a picture of the land diversity across his property: “It’s river bottom, into a riparian habitat. I’ve got a large sub-irrigated meadow. It’s got a big chunk of wetlands on it and then it goes into the uplands.”

Credit Wikimedia.com.

A look at conservation easements

Flat Tops Wilderness

From the Glenwood Springs Post Independent (Matt Annabel and Sara M. Dunn):

Sustainable agricultural production requires responsible stewardship and financial stability. Since 1976, Colorado has provided a mechanism for landowners to perpetually protect their lands and associated water rights, while enjoying financial benefits through the grant of a conservation easement. The landowner retains ownership of the property after a conservation easement is conveyed.

Conservation easements can be created only by a voluntary agreement between the landowner and a government entity or a charitable land trust created for that purpose. The landowner selects the governmental entity, such as Colorado Parks and Wildlife, or a land trust that best suits their goals, objectives and interests to hold the conservation easement. The Aspen Valley Land Trust and the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust hold many conservation easements in our area.

Aspen Valley Land Trust was organized in 1967 and is the oldest land trust in Colorado. To date, AVLT has conserved over 41,000 acres that protect local agriculture, rivers, wildlife habitat, recreational access, and outdoor educational opportunities in the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys. Roughly half of AVLT conserved lands lie within the greater Roaring Fork Valley, and half between Glenwood Springs and the Flat Tops north of De Beque.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust was formed in 1995 to help Colorado’s ranchers and farmers protect their agricultural lands and encourage the intergenerational transfer of ranches and farms. CCALT focuses on agricultural easements and encourages traditional activities such as farming, grazing, hunting, fishing and recreation on the land.

The first step in conserving a property is identification of the property values that the landowner wants to preserve and the rights they are willing to relinquish in order to conserve the property. Landowners have flexibility in selecting which property rights they are willing to give up in exchange for a conservation easement.

In instances where farming and ranching are identified as the conservation values of a property, easements can be used as a tool to compensate landowners for tying their water resources to the land, defining stewardship obligations and permanently restricting development. This preserves the land for agricultural production while maintaining the scenic landscapes and wildlife habitat that draw recreation and tourism dollars to our communities.

When an easement is granted, the current use and management of the land is usually maintained resulting in very little impact on daily activities. Public access is not a requirement for conveying a conservation easement, although the property owner is required to grant the land trust access for monitoring visits.

Conservation easements are typically monitored on an annual basis and visits are coordinated with the landowner. The annual visit to the property is to ensure that the terms of the easement are being met, to continue to build relationships with the landowners, and to resolve stewardship issues that may arise.

Conservation easements can generate financial benefits for the landowners. Conservation easements are valued through an appraisal process which considers the value of the property without the conservation easement vs. the value of the property in its restricted state subject to the conservation easement. The difference between the two appraisal values is the conservation easement value which is used to calculate how much the landowner will be compensated for conserving their land.

Most conservation easements are donated, in which case the landowner is compensated through federal and state tax incentives. In some rare situations, grants may be available to compensate the landowner for a portion of the conservation value

A typical conservation easement takes approximately one year to complete. There are associated fees which vary greatly depending upon the circumstances. The fees cover a baseline inventory report, appraisals, title work, environmental assessments, mineral reports and the drafting of the legal documents necessary to create the conservation easement.

Landowners interested in more information on conservation easements can contact AVLT at http://www.avlt.org or 970-963-8440. The local Conservation Districts will be holding an Ag Expo on Feb. 2, 2019 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Garfield County Fair Grounds in Rifle where additional information regarding conservation easements can be obtained. Registration is required to attend the Expo. More details can be found at: http://www.bookcliffcd.org/.

Water Law Basics appears monthly in the Post Independent in cooperation with the area conservation districts. Matt Annabel is communications and outreach director for the Aspen Valley Land Trust, and Sara M. Dunn is district supervisor for the Bookcliff Conservation District.

Western Rivers Conservancy Land Donation Establishes San Luis Valley Conservation Area in #Colorado — USFWS

The landscape photo is of the New 13 acre easement, photo by Simi Batra/USFWS.

Here’s the release USFWS:

[Friday, September 14, 2018], the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service accepted a 12.82-acre conservation easement donation in Colorado’s San Luis Valley from Western Rivers Conservancy. With the donation, the San Luis Valley Conservation Area becomes the 567th unit of the National Wildlife Refuge System, an unparalleled network of public lands and waters dedicated to the conservation of native wildlife and their habitats.

Western Rivers Conservancy has worked in partnership with the Service, state and local governments, as well as other conservation organizations to connect people and communities to this diverse ecosystem. Their donation of a conservation easement is yet another step in local efforts to conserve important fish and wildlife habitat and increase opportunities for public access. It will ultimately support increased biodiversity and recreational opportunities such as birding and hunting on nearby public and private lands.

“We are very pleased to partner with the Service to help create the San Luis Valley Conservation Area,” said Dieter Erdmann, Western River Conservancy Interior West Program Director. “The Rio Grande and its tributaries are the lifeblood of the San Luis Valley and we are committed to supporting voluntary conservation efforts that will benefit fish, wildlife and people alike.”

“By working collaboratively with our conservation partners and local communities to establish the San Luis Valley Conservation Area, we are helping ensure that the San Luis Valley continues to support some of the state’s most important fish and wildlife resources, as well as the people who live here, for generations to come,” said the Service’s Mountain-Prairie Regional Director Noreen Walsh.

In 2015, the Service approved the San Luis Valley Conservation Area Land Protection Plan, which clarified and guided the Service’s intent to continue working with partners and private landowners to establish voluntary conservation easements in this priority landscape. Easements allow landowners to retain their property rights and continue traditional activities such as livestock grazing and haying within the easement, while prohibiting commercial development. Under the plan, the Service could protect up to 530,000 acres with conservation easements donated or purchased from willing sellers.

The Conservation Area plan is designed to protect wildlife and wetland habitat in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico. Its limit is defined by the headwaters of the legendary Rio Grande, which begins its nearly 1,900-mile journey to the Gulf of Mexico in the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo Mountains that surround the San Luis Valley. Runoff from mountain snowpack creates wetlands and riparian areas in the midst of what otherwise is a high-mountain desert, providing important habitat for plants and migratory birds such as greater sandhill cranes, waterfowl and other sensitive or imperiled species. As the Conservation Area expands over time, the Service intends to protect wildlife habitat and maintain wildlife corridors between protected blocks of habitat on public and private conservation lands.

The new Conservation Area is the fifth unit of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex and the ninth national wildlife refuge in the state of Colorado.

The Service’s Refuge System now encompasses 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetlands management districts across 150 million acres. Refuges are critical to the local communities that surround them, serving as centers for recreation, economic growth, and landscape health and resiliency. Each state and U.S. territory has at least one national wildlife refuge, and there is a refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

Learn more about the National Wildlife Refuge System or the San Luis Valley Conservation Area.

For more information on our work and the people who make it happen, visit http://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/. Connect with our Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/USFWSMountainPrairie, follow our tweets at http://twitter.com/USFWSMtnPrairie, watch our YouTube Channel at http://www.youtube.com/usfws and download photos from our Flickr page at http://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwsmtnprairie/.

The Colorado West Land Trust June News is hot off the presses

Click here to read the newsletter. Here’s an excerpt:

Kids learn about conservation and birding on conserved land

Last month East Middle School 6th graders enjoyed a morning bird-watching hike at Avant Vineyards conserved property on East Orchard Mesa. Thanks so much to Nic Korte from the Grand Valley Audubon Society for leading the hike and Neil Guard at Avant Vineyards for hosting!

Photo credit: Colorado West Land Trust

2018 #COleg: Conservation easements on Sonnenberg’s radar during the session

Pond on the Garcia Ranch via Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust

From The Fort Morgan Times:

The perpetual concerns over the way the state has handled conservation easements also was on Sonnenberg’s radar. There were five bills this year on that issue, including a sunset review of the conservation easement oversight board. The bill, which is awaiting a signature from the governor, made changes to the board, including requiring a conflict of interest policy that would disqualify from serving any member who has a financial interest tied to conservation easements. Sonnenberg initially won support for an amendment that would address one of the program’s most controversial problems: landowners who received conservation easements tax credits from the state and the IRS, only to have those state tax credits yanked away. Hundreds of Coloradans have complained that the appraisal process has been rife with problems.

Sonnenberg’s amendment would have allowed the landowner to take back clear title to the land placed under easement, with the understanding that they would have to pay back the federal tax credits. That amendment didn’t succeed but the bill does include a requirement that the board come up with a process for making that happen.

The oversight board was extended for a year, and Sonnenberg said that meant “we kicked the can down the road a year.” But he was pleased that lawmakers got a commitment from the Attorney General’s office that they would figure out a way to “extinguish” conservation easements that have been devalued. Sonnenberg said he will carry that bill next year.

San Luis Valley wetlands are critical to wildlife

From The Valley Courier (Helen Smith):

Wetlands are a critical part of the San Luis Valley. Not only are they a key water resource, but they also provide habitat for numerous bird species and bring tourism dollars to the local economy. They are truly part of what makes the Rio Grande Basin distinct.

The San Luis Valley has three refuges that are overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service under the direction of the United States Department of the Interior. They are the Monte Vista, Alamosa and Baca National Wildlife Refuges. The first refuge to be established was Monte Vista in 1952, followed by Alamosa in 1962, and finally the Baca in 2000. These areas make up the San Luis Valley Refuge Complex and are three in a system that consists of over 560 refuges nationwide. The Monte Vista Refuge is 14,804 acres and Alamosa comprises 12,026 acres and the Baca is 92,500 acres. The primary purpose of setting these lands aside is to protect vital wildlife corridors as well as water assets that are key to the well- being of the aquifer system that is crucial to the sustainability of the valley.

These refuges also serve as prime habitat and nesting grounds for over 200 species of birds as well as other species of native wildlife such as deer, elk, beaver, and coyotes. The Alamosa Refuge is also home to the historic Mum Well which serves as a key data collection point for Colorado and San Luis Valley Water users. The primary purpose, is to protect lands that are important and that make the San Luis Valley a beautiful place. The landscapes seen in the refuges also highlight the distinct regions of the Valley as well.

The Monte Vista Refuge was established for the purpose of protecting migratory bird species, especially the Sandhill Crane. The San Luis Valley U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office estimates that between 23 and 27,000 Sandhill Cranes make the San Luis Valley a rest stop during their annual migration to and from breeding grounds in the northern US.

The success of the migration north in the spring from winter habitat in New Mexico and Texas to summer habitat in Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and Canada and south in the fall is based largely on the birds eating enough food in the SLV to complete the trek, survive winter, and arrive healthy enough to nest and raise the next generation. Grain left after harvest on privately owned fields in the SLV is a major food source necessary to complete a successful migration. Nearly the entirety of the Rocky Mountain Population of Greater Sandhill Cranes passes through Colorado during their migration. The feed from the abundant barley and rest in wetlands that the cranes get in the SLV is critical to the success of the migration and upcoming breeding, and the most important part of the migration in Colorado is the availability of grain and roost sites in the SLV.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife also protect wetland areas across the San Luis Valley. According to a 2012 report by CPW, “The value of wetlands can’t be overstated. About 125 species that are found here in Colorado are dependent on wetlands for their survival, including 98 species of migratory birds.” The species that benefit include waterfowl and 20 priority non-game species.

The agency mitigates wetlands based on a set of criteria that include hydrology, vegetation, land use and conservation. To manage the hydrology the goal is to maintain adequate width and depth (4–8 inches deep) for roosting, maintain flowing water to prevent spread of disease. Vegetation goals include monitoring for the availability of vegetation that produces food, controlling woody vegetation where needed, control encroaching coarse emergent vegetation and the use of livestock and controlled burns to maintain grass overstory.

Land use surveys look at the roosting and feeding sites, provide grit (e.g., pebbles and small gravel) at roost sites if needed, and remove unused fences. Conservation goals include monitoring harvest rates to maintain desirable population numbers and forming and maintaining partnerships between agencies agricultural producers, landowners and the public.

Like the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), National Park Service (NPS), US Forest Service (USFS) and the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) also work to protect wetland habitats. The Blanca Wildlife Habitat Area, managed by the BLM, serves as a refuge for birds, fish and other wildlife. The wetlands are a key area for birds since they provide habitat for migrating water and shorebirds. The bald eagle and the peregrine falcon also use the wetlands. Other Species of Management Priority that have been documented are American bittern, avocet, common yellowthroat, eared grebe, Forster’s tern, greater Sandhill crane, hen harrier, Savannah sparrow, snowy egret, sora rail, western grebe and yellow-headed blackbird. Shorebirds such as gulls, sandpipers and pelicans are at home in the salty environment, as well as 158 other species including a colony of breeding Snowy Plover. The Blanca Wildlife Habitat is a duck breeding concentration area, with mallards by far the most common, but good numbers of pintail and green-winged teal are also utilizing the area.

The Valleys farms and ranches also support the areas wetlands and see them as important part of the hydrologic cycle. Wetlands work as a sponge that helps to ensure that working ag lands maintain a water source in lean years and symbiotically rotationally grazed wetland remain healthier due do reduced grass overstory and less noxious weeds. San Luis Valley agriculture producers and water managers are partnering to do timed releases of water from area reservoirs to only supply irrigation water, but to insure river and wetland habitats benefit.

In the long run, wetlands provide wildlife habitat, grazing opportunities, groundwater recharge and sustainability of water resources.

Helen Smith is the Outreach Specialist for the Rio Grande Basin Roundtable.

The Economics of Conservation – Land Trusts Are Economic Drivers — @TaosLandTrust

Photo credit: Jim O’Donnell via the Taos Land Trust

From the Taos Land Trust (Jim O’Donnell):

In some ways, the impact of our work as a land trust is obvious. There is the stunning view of our valley from the overlook south of town. That is something every Taoseño treasures when coming home from a trip to Santa Fe, Albuquerque or further afield. There are the wide vistas to Taos Mountain across the fields north of Overland Sheepskin Company or the rolling forested mesas of Wolf Springs Ranch on the drive to Tres Piedras. Visually, our work protecting Taos’ landscape is kind of hard to miss.

Perhaps not quite as visible are the economic benefits that come with preserving these lands and building a connection between land and community. As Taos grows and changes Taos Land Trust aims to be a partner in bringing the positive economics of conservation to Taos.

Even though most conservation easements are placed on private land, there are huge benefits to the community as a whole. These include water supply protection, flood control, fish and wildlife habitat, hunting, fishing, hiking, bird watching and other outdoor activities, carbon sequestration, erosion control, agricultural crop production – AND economic growth. HOW?

Tax Benefits

For those who have placed land under a conservation easement with a land trust there is an upfront tax benefit. By removing the land’s development potential, the easement typically lowers the property’s market value, which in turn lowers potential estate tax. In New Mexico landowners at any income level can qualify for a tax credit worth 50% of the appraised value of the conservation easement up to a maximum of $250,000. That means money in people’s pockets that can be spent in the community or saved to enhance economic security.

Property is More Valuable

When a community protects open space, that community becomes a more desirable place to be. People enjoy vistas, parks, recreational opportunities and accessible natural areas. A trip to Kit Carson Park or Fred Baca Park on any given day will prove this point. These amenities in turn make land surrounding these protected areas more attractive.

Travel and Tourism

Tourism is a key component of the Taos County economy. In fact, we are the most tourism-dependent county in the state. There is no mystery as to why people come to Taos. From the wilderness areas in our surrounding mountains to the National Monument in our backyard, the Taos economy is built on open space recreation. All those people coming for our amazing open lands spend money on recreational equipment sales and rentals, special events, food, lodging and so on. Our open spaces and parks attract visitors and locals alike, creating revenue for local businesses.

Attracting New Businesses

Increasingly, the American economy is dominated by tech and knowledge companies. These type of businesses are not tied to a specific location as manufacturers are. These businesses have more freedom in choosing where to locate.

We all know that Taos needs more jobs. A wide range of studies show that when many businesses consider relocating they increasingly take into account the quality of life in the places where they might want to relocate. A number of studies note that these types of businesses (that typically pay well above minimum wage) seek to locate in places with open space, parks and protected lands. It is the same with retirees. Retired people bring money into communities and, again, surveys indicate that they typically to live in a place where recreation opportunities are plentiful. Communities that fail to provide recreation opportunities for retirees tend to see their tax base erode when retirees leave the community.

Beyond just open spaces and parks both tech business and retirees look for towns that are walk-able or bike-able and while Taos is not quite there yet, we are working with our partners to make bike paths, sidewalks and trails more available to Taoseños.

Reduced Costs to Town and County

The fact is that sprawl development is expensive. It costs more to hook people up to vital infrastructure like water, sewer and electricity that more they are spread out. Not to mention the road building and other transportation issues. Compact or focused development reduces state and municipal costs on road maintenance and delivery of services from water to solid waste to transit, to fire and police protection and school buses. Taos needs to protect its most valuable landscapes while increasing its densification.

Support Farming and Ranching

Land conservation supports working landscapes on which many in our county depend.

Farms and ranches are sometimes referred to as “working lands,” because they produce products and value for communities. The category also includes forests that produce timber and other wood products in a sustainable manner. The Trust for Public Land points out that:

“Lori Lynch, an economist at the University of Maryland, studied what farmers do with the money they earn from selling development rights as part of farmland preservation. Farmers in Maryland who had participated in conservation programs were more likely than other farmers to have invested in their farm over the past five years and to have attended workshops to learn new technologies and enhance their farming skills. According to the research, money paid to the farmers for the easement purchases circulated back into the local economy via debt reduction, savings or farm investment, farm operation financing , or retirement investment. Some bought more land or equipment.”

Clean Water, Clean Air

Parks and conserved lands reduce storm water by capturing precipitation, slowing its runoff, and reducing the volume of water that enters the storm water system. Think of our Rio Fernando property and how our work to restore that wetland will increase clean water in our community and better manage the flow of that water.

Many communities have to build expensive infrastructure like drainage channels and storm sewers to deal with flooding from storms or big winter runoff. There is also the question of how to pay for and deal with nonpoint-source pollution caused when water picks up chemicals and contaminants from parking lots and other impermeable surfaces. As the impacts of climate change become more severe (think of Hurricane Harvey) a resilient community will need to rely on ecosystem services to deal with increased rainfall and other severe weather events.

Trees and shrubs in parks and open spaces remove air pollutants that endanger human health and damage structures. Trees and other vegetation promote air quality by taking up pollutants through their leaves and diffusing them into their cells.

Health

We all know that one key way to incorporate exercise into daily activity is to walk or bike for errands near home. However, many towns such as ours unfortunately do not facilitate easy exercise. As mentioned before, we are working with local governments and citizens to develop land use regulations, mapping and paths to shape our community into one where Taoseños can easily integrate exercise into daily activity. And our conservation work has a role too. Some of the land we have protected can eventually be used for greenways that support hiking, biking, and other human-powered transportation.

We’re all in this together. Taos Land Trust is a partner and resource in building a resilient and thriving future – and economy! – for our northern New Mexico community.