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236 acres preserved at ranch

Landowners create first conservation easement in North Routt's Little Snake River Valley

Candidates' monetary contributions through Oct. 11 for the Nov. 6 election; Source: Steamboat Springs City Clerk's Office

— Pat and Sharon O’Toole have become the first landowners in North Routt’s Little Snake River Valley to place land in a conservation easement.

The easement will be held by the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust and was aided by $381,000 from Routt County’s Purchase of Development Rights Program.

“There aren’t many places like the Little Snake River anywhere in Colorado,” Chris West, executive director of the land trust, said in a news release. “It is an untouched valley and we applaud efforts of the local ranchers to protect this special landscape.”

The river parallels Routt County Road 129 on the Colorado-Wyoming border.

“We’re pretty excited about this project,” said Carl Vail, a member of the PDR Advisory Board. “It gets things going up in North Routt. : We think it’s a very appropriate place for our PDR funds.”

The Routt County Board of Commissioners unanimously approved the county’s contribution to the project Tuesday. The O’Tooles brought their grandson, Seamus Lally, who represents the family’s sixth generation in the valley, to Tuesday’s meeting. The family has been ranching the Little Snake River Valley since 1881.

“It’s been really a pleasure for us to go through the process,” Pat O’Toole said. “It’s a good example that the process works.”

The O’Tooles said the residents of the Little Snake River Valley are committed to preserving its agricultural heritage.

“We have high hopes and expectations that some of our neighbors will be coming before you,” Sharon O’Toole said to commissioners.

The land the O’Tooles are placing under conservation is a 236-acre bull pasture. According to the Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust, “the undeveloped ranchland provides valuable habitat to a wide array of wildlife species including elk, pronghorn, sage grouse, bald eagles, cutthroat trout and mule deer. Sandhill cranes nest nearby and the Little Snake River Valley hosts one of the largest populations of this species in Colorado.”

When a landowner donates a conservation easement, they are permanently protecting the land from development. This reduces the value of the restricted land, but landowners’ compensation isn’t just the knowledge that the land will never be turned into a subdivision or shopping mall. There are significant tax breaks associated with the move, sometimes worth millions depending on the details of the easement.

Also, some entities – such as the PDR program – will compensate landowners for the land-value loss to encourage more people to enter into conservation easements.

“The purpose is to compensate the landowner with cash to preclude development,” Ron Roundtree, chairman of the PDR Advisory Board, said last year.

The O’Tooles themselves are contributing about 50 percent of the easement’s value, which means they are not being reimbursed for about 50 percent of the property value lost by placing it in a conservation easement.

At a cost of about $5 million, the PDR program has completed 20 conservation easements totaling 11,760 acres. An additional 4,512 acres currently are under review. The program is funded by a 1.5 mill property tax approved in 2006, nine years after the program was first approved for a 10-year period. The 2006 renewal is good for 20 years. Voters exempted the program from the state’s revenue growth limitations. Its tax revenues increased 34 percent last year, from $1.2 million in 2007 to $1.6 million in 2008.

The Colorado Cattlemen’s Agricultural Land Trust holds seven easements totaling 3,500 acres on working ranches in Routt County. An additional 8,000 acres are under review.