Hayden As the population of Routt County grows over the next century and rows of houses spread across the landscape like spilled water, a few patches of land will stay open thanks to conservation easements.
One hundred years from now, when Rich and Judy Tremaine's four-year-old grandson is laughing with his own grandchildren, the family acreage will still be farmland.
The couple has protected 240 acres of rolling fields for all of perpetuity from development.
The reason is simple.
Judy Tremaine can remember when the land from the Holiday Inn in Steamboat Springs to Rabbit Ears Pass was agricultural open space, and it wasn't that long ago. Judy and her husband, Rich Tremaine, moved to Steamboat in 1988.
"Now, when I drive down the pass at night, all that land is covered in halogen lights," she said.
The Tremaines want to make sure that the same thing never happens to their land. The 240 acres are on the path of a large elk migration and serve as a nesting place in early spring for Sandhill cranes.
Colby Townsend, the Tremaines' son, lives on a 40-acre adjacent lot. He has a videotape of several hundred elk lining the horizon of the property.
"I can't begin to describe how awestruck I am by this land," Judy Tremaine said, "or how beautiful it is in the spring. The fields are a lush velvet green."
Within earshot of the Yampa Valley Regional Airport and three miles from Hayden, the Tremaine property is also in a prime location for future development. For a large profit, the Tremaines could subdivide the property and sell it in small parcels.
Instead, the new conservation easement will require that the land be preserved the way it is with no more than two home sites. Future owners would be allowed to build corral areas or agricultural buildings.
The drainages are also off limits to anything other than water development, Rich Tremaine said.
The easement limits the resale value of the property, but in the mind of the Tremaines, what is gained is far larger than the dollars that may be lost.
"This could have been split into several lots, but the likelihood of it staying in the agricultural realm is slim," Rich Tremaine said.
"You have to be committed to preservation (to arrange an easement)," Judy Tremaine said. "It would definitely be more profitable to sell it into small lots."
The financial struggle to hold onto ranches and farms when it is more profitable to sell is a big problem for the survival of Routt County agricultural land. Most farm families must hold jobs off the farm, said Rich Tremaine. The average off-farm income is $60,000 while money made from the farm is closer to $2,600, he said.
The Tremaines bought the land in 1996. Though Judy Tremaine grew up in rural Texas, neither Rich nor Judy Tremaine was an experienced farmer or rancher. For the first five years, their land was leased to a farmer who grew grains. "We made a few hundred dollars a year, which was enough to pay taxes and insurance on the land," said Rich Tremaine.
When the reality of the situation sank in, the Tremaines contacted Routt County agricultural extension agent C.J. Mucklow about the possibility of an easement.
Through an easement, landowners retain their property, but donate their development rights to a conservation group through a program called the Routt County Purchase of Development Rights Program, much as one can sell mineral rights.
To date, the Routt County PDR has helped protect 2,700 acres, according to their press release.
Money from a one-mill levy on property tax funds the PDR purchases. The policy of the program is to purchase up to 50 percent of the appraised easement value, Rich Tremaine said.
The county was able to pay for 25 percent of the Tremaines' easement. The Nature Conservancy raised additional money through Great Outdoors Colorado and the rest was a donation from the Tremaines.
Setting up a conservation easement is not for everyone, said Rich Tremaine, an attorney well versed in the legality of real estate transactions. He is a founder of the Yampa Valley Land Trust and a former board member of the Community Agriculture Alliance, yet it still took a year and a half to arrange the easement.
Rich Tremaine suggests getting in touch with the right advisor such as Susan Otis at the Yampa Valley Land Trust or Ann Oliver at the Nature Conservancy.
But the work is worth it, the Tremaines said.
"The main reason we did this was for our grandchildren," said Rich Tremaine. "We were thinking about them."